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Teamwork is a core element of learning on MBA courses. Now, a group of business schools is practising what they preach by collaborating to develop new ways to teach their flagship postgraduate degrees digitally.

The Future of Management Education (Fome) alliance is a group of business schools that is working together to develop online teaching tools for their most-prized online courses. The founding members include Imperial College Business School, ESMT Berlin, BI Norwegian Business School, the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, EDHEC Business School and Ivey Business School.

A central aim of the collaboration, launched in 2018, is to challenge the perception of digital education as a lesser alternative to classroom programmes, says Nick Barniville, an associate dean at ESMT Berlin.

The move could also be seen as a defensive step, however. Education has yet to be “disrupted” by big tech — the collective term for Google, Amazon, Netflix, Apple and Facebook. These organisations have quickly dominated the advertising, retail, entertainment and media industries.

The online education market has its big tech equivalents — Coursera, 2U and FutureLearn, for example. But these organisations have, so far, failed to create too much upheaval among the high-value online courses run by established institutions.

The schools in the alliance have used platform providers for their massive open online courses, or Moocs, according to David Lefevre, director of the Edtech Lab at Imperial College Business School. But the point of the alliance is to build online courses that are much higher quality and value without relying on a third party, he says.

This comes at a time when providers are starting to deliver high-end courses with well-established schools. In 2017, for example, HEC Paris used the Coursera platform to deliver its first international online degree in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Far from challenging business schools’ flagship programmes, Dil Sidhu, chief content officer at Coursera, says his organisation helps them scale up. “Our global platform allows our partners to reach more learners than would ever be possible in a traditional bricks-and-mortar setting,” he says.

This may not reassure some business schools, which also worry about branding. When schools use a third-party learning platform, they usually include branding from both organisations on the course. The fear is that the dominant tech platforms could become as well-known, or even more so, than the schools, among students in the market for top courses. Fome helps to guard against this: all the schools part-own the platform so they need to use only their own branding on courses.

This desire for control is evident in other areas. When business schools use a digital learning platform, their provider’s technology determines how the learning material is presented. With Fome, the schools develop their own platform and have much more ownership of the learning experience.

Cost is another consideration. As the business schools jointly own the platform, they do not have to share revenue with another provider. These savings could be eaten up by the investment it takes to develop online learning environments, but Fome’s institutions can offset some of these.

Western University’s Ivey Business School in Canada was an early exponent of online education. But cost can be a problem, says acting dean Mark Vandenbosch.

“We are a public university in Canada and we don’t have the same finances to do this stuff as Harvard or Stanford,” he adds. As a Fome partner, he explains, the school can save money on system development costs because it uses technology already developed by others in the alliance.

This also helps to give Ivey a competitive edge when it comes to attracting students. The school could have used an online degree platform for its courses, says Mr Vandenbosch, but it would have been difficult to set itself apart.

“The differentiation you can provide from other schools on these platforms is going to be moderate because all the functionality is the same,” he says.

Anne Swanberg, dean of teaching and learning at BI Norwegian Business School, agrees. “All these learning platforms are doing is taking the old paradigm of a classroom with a traditional teacher and trying to make it better by adding this new electricity, called online communication,” she says.

She adds that the business schools in Fome are taking a much broader approach to technology and learning. “We are concerned [with] developing the pedagogy, finding new methods of teaching first, then finding the technology,” she says.

Dan LeClair, chief executive of the Global Business School Network, believes business schools will co-operate more, but not just because of the challenge from third-party platforms. “Technology is enabling them to create more value [for students],” he says. The beauty of the Fome alliance is that the member schools can protect their high-value online products while making the most of what technology has to offer.

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