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Driven By Technology, Online MBAs Will Create A 'Big Boom' At B-Schools

As the business school world moves towards Moocs and online delivery, INSEAD's Dean sees a potential boom in the market. And the school has an eye on the digital front.

Last Friday afternoon, Ilian Mihov, the recently-appointed Dean of INSEAD, was holding court with technology geeks.

It had been a reflective few months for the bosses behind the most successful business schools, peppered with reports of the changing face of MBA education, among the backdrop of new online MBA programs announced almost weekly.

As leader of Europe’s most prestige business school, Dean Ilian had come together with INSEAD alumni and education techies to discuss the digital revolution that is gathering pace.

Two weeks ago, Harvard Business School announced its move towards Moocs – massive online open courses – after much speculation following an informal announcement on an executive’s social media profile.

Although the subsequent reports saw some business school figures issue caution, it was not until the details of Harvard’s new online format came to the fore that any deans batted an eyelid.

Program directors suggested schools will have to adapt. It is widely believed that online MBA education delivery is high of the list of many agendas today.

With the wave of hand, Dean Ilian admitted that INSEAD had appointed one of his colleagues to focus “exclusively” on using more digital technology in the school’s business teaching – a “Dean of Strategic Initiatives”.

He had been facing questions from Mika Salmi, the CEO of CreativeLive, an online education provider. The smooth-talking INSEAD board member founded AtomFilms, which later merged with game company shockwave.com, eventually selling to Viacom for $200 million in 2006.

The agenda was all about INSEAD. Yet the business school world feels the pressure to adapt as much as Ilian. “I fully agree,” says the Dean, who took up his post in October last year. “At INSEAD, to convince the professors to do something is a nightmare. When I say: ‘we have to do this’, they say: why?

“So this time we decided we want to have not a top-down approach, but a more coordinated approach towards learning, using digital technologies.”

Ilian has been good at grabbing headlines for diversity, and his eye on a digital future for the 57-year-old business school. He has admitted digitalization is a priority for INSEAD, which already delivers some content online.

A bevy of other top-ranking business schools deliver some portion of their MBA degrees online. Many U.S schools upload it for free. Given the extent of the changing face of business education, it would be easy to assume that Europe’s premier business school will be driven to the same conclusion.

“I can guarantee people who were thinking, with the advancement of books, then why would you go to university? Now people say: why do you go to university when you can just watch the Mooc?” says Ilian.

But INSEAD hasn’t gone mad for Moocs, although they may be on the menu. “They have the funds to just go out and do several big Moocs or HBX (Harvard’s online method). Things like this will create a big boom out there in the market. They will attract attention,” he says.

“We’re not doing these things – yet. [But] we will do them in the next two years.”

The problem, particularly in INSEAD’s case, is finding the right balance. The school is executive-education heavy and so much content is aimed at furthering current careers.

Yet there needs to be wider scope. Geoff Ralston, a founder at Imagine K12, the start-up accelerator, asks whether MBAs flock to INSEAD for the long-haul, or for the three-letter job credential.

The INSEAD MBA alumnus has invested in a raft of start-up companies in Silicon Valley and was the CEO of Lala Media, Inc., a cloud music start-up which was acquired by Apple in 2009.

It is a question Dean Ilian is well prepared for. At a board meeting in January, he told INSEAD’s leaders that thinking of ways to prepare MBAs for the next 30 years keeps him awake at night.

Learning is not a linear process. For INSEAD, digital technology is useful for deepening the learning experience, he says.

Some argue that schools are too conservative in adopting to new teaching methods. Yet it is important not to rush into the online world too quickly.  

“That’s why the blended form of learning is really important. When I teach, I think most learning happens when somebody asks a question and then you have a discussion,” says Ilian.

“In the long run this is the useful part of being in the classroom, which still is very difficult to replicate online… you deepen that experience and you provide a much better quality of education.

“What we’re trying to do in this changing world is figure out what parts you can take out (of the MBA classroom) and what parts you should still do in the classroom. Of course you can always wish that you go faster, but at the same time we’re careful to make sure [we] don’t make the mistake of going in one direction.”

The real threat to schools like INSEAD is that knowledge taught today is out of date swiftly. Tech is not just changing the method of delivery, but the teaching substance. “If I were the Dean of INSEAD, I would be saying: oh my gosh,” says Geoff, who served as Yahoo!'s chief product officer.

Meanwhile, most schools remain sceptical about a completely-online mode of delivery. Even self-styled “online-based” programs see cohorts come together on occasion.

“Most of the time, creativity is better served if you have a group of people working together [in person]. That’s what we try to teach,” says Dean Ilian.

He points toward INSEAD’s alumni network, which manages to interact mostly virtually, to great effect.

“The INSEAD alumni network is the most spread out in the world, and it would have been impossible to do a physical connection. But if you try to do a digital connection and you do it right, the sky’s the limit.” 

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