March 11, 2013 12:01 am

Point of view: Confidence builds in unique setting

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Garth Saloner, dean and Philip H Knight professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business©Winni Wintermeyer

Garth Saloner: 'A life-changing process for those who embrace it'

Higher education is entering a new era in which educational technology will bring – as the president of Stanford University John Hennessy put it recently – a tsunami of change. The MBA will be no exception. But how should it change?

Rooted in Silicon Valley among some of the most innovative organisations in the world, people ask me: “Why not make the MBA an online degree?” My answer? While technology can greatly enhance the learning experience, it simply cannot replace the faculty-student interaction, experiential learning and self-discovery that occur in the MBA classroom.

The issue is an incremental experience versus a transformational one. The two-year, residential MBA is an immersive experience that delivers a life-changing process for those who embrace it.

In Stanford’s two-year programme, students learn about themselves and how they want to lead others through highly interactive eight-person leadership labs in which coaches and fellow students provide real-time, personal feedback. They engage in hands-on, multidisciplinary classes where new products or processes go through brainstorming exercises and rapid prototyping sessions with scores of ideas flying across work tables as one student builds on another’s idea. MBAs serendipitously bump into potential business partners in the dining pavilion, which draws engineering, law and other students.

Pre-eminent economists challenge students to analyse problems that involve anything from big data to tax policy and employment practices. Real-world business protagonists, such as Google’s Eric Schmidt or former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, appear in classes where they dissect operational problems and adjourn for coffee to mentor students. Venture capitalists review business plans and failed entrepreneurs explain why things did not work – and why it is important to try again. Students develop confidence in their ideas.

Much of this intense experience is about human relationships, experimentation and mutual support, and a mid-programme summer job where a student can find out whether an industry or function is right for him or her. Little of this can be replicated online.

That is not to say that educational technology should not be exploited. It can and will reinvent the on-campus experience as business schools apply technology in service to the learning process.

Recently faculty members Dan Iancu and Kostas Bimpikis implemented a “flipped classroom” model of instruction by developing online software tutorials for their core course on optimisation and simulation modelling. In the flipped classroom, students view online instructional videos in their own time and at their own pace, dedicating in-class time for active discussion and challenging exchanges. Screencasting maximises faculty-student time in the classroom and presents valuable opportunities to monitor and capture information about how students learn so we can analyse that data to support changes in the way we teach.

There are many ways for people to access the knowledge of management education, some of which is more suited to different stages of a career than the MBA. Like other schools, we are exploring how to use better distance education (based on high-definition video conferencing) to disseminate rich faculty expertise to broader audiences beyond the university campus, without having to always jet the faculty around the world.

To that end, we are extending Stanford Ignite, a nine-week programme for non-business graduate students and practising entrepreneurs to locations such as Bangalore and Paris. Distance technology will enable more faculty to participate and engage with these students. We launched a purely online certificate programme in innovation and entrepreneurship with Stanford’s engineering school late last year. It is a programme that any working professional anywhere in the world can use to learn new techniques that bolster innovation and problem-solving in their organisations. Finally, we see across the business school landscape the development of asynchronous massive open online courses, or Moocs, on specific topics that can be shared with even broader audiences.

In the past six years, we have focused on an all-new MBA curriculum. To meet the changes, we have redesigned our work space to include garage-like classrooms for prototyping and small rooms for team meeting practice.

Educational technology will refine and extend but not override, the value of the full-time, on-campus MBA experience.

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The author is dean and Philip H Knight professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business

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