Technology enhances but never substitutes

Visions of a bright new future have long been linked to the increased use of technology. From HG Wells to The Jetsons, Futurama to Star Trek, the buzz of technological innovation has been part of better things to come.

In some cases, reality has been even more impressive than the vision. That includes education, where technology has been a great companion to the learning process. It provides instant access to information and a means of disseminating knowledge. It has transformed the organisation of courses. It provides speed and efficiency in connecting course providers to course members. It helps course participants keep in touch with each other through e-mail, course webpages, portals, webinars, podcasts, blogs, Google documents . . . the list expands all the time. And, never mind all that efficiency, the social networks also make it more fun.

So why not just order that takeaway pizza and do an MBA at home on the net? Isn’t travelling to the classroom yesterday’s news, about as relevant to 21st century learning as the 19th century’s chalk on slate? Indeed, why hasn’t all learning become distance learning?

The answer lies in those infinitely fascinating, infinitely diverse, infinitely infuriating people: our fellow human beings. The technology is there, but look at revealed preferences for gathering together to share the experience’s pains – “What a tough exam” – and its pleasures – “What an exciting lecture”.

The number of business schools, far from diminishing, has increased dramatically in parallel with the possibilities of online delivery.

This isn’t surprising. Techniques are an essential starting point to management, but the difference between good and bad management is about how action is taken through people. Complex interactions need us to consider personal motivations, consequences and trade-offs. You can certainly learn online about the mechanics of putting together a budget. But you can best learn from others about how to judge whether someone is padding it.

At an individual level there is also the importance of putting our efforts and achievements in context, sharing them with others – having witnesses to what has happened. Adding a glass of wine to tonight’s takeaway pizza just doesn’t do it. We could all be watching DVDs at home by now, but cinema audiences reflect not only the need for a night out, but a deeper desire to share.

Learning in a group enables participants to pick up the subtleties of the interactions that are essential to management. The ability to understand not only what is said, but what is not, to negotiate and ultimately persuade is as important as having the right facts. Debating with faculty and fellow students builds the confidence to put forward ideas. This confidence can be supplemented with individual softer skills such as interview techniques, personal development plans and public speaking.

Many business schools have the additional bonus of having participants from around the world. This mix provides an awareness in discussion about the different ways issues are expressed and approached – understanding the spaces between the words. With business increasingly dominated by international exchanges, a sophisticated understanding of what customers, suppliers and competitors are really saying is no longer optional.

And finally, there’s networking. Being part of a group with a common experience is the starting point for many lifelong friendships. This extends to the potential for help and advice from a network that can be thousands strong.

None of this is to diminish the role of technology in learning. Many established business schools have embraced it wholeheartedly and look at each new possibility.

Online is better than nothing for those too constrained by cost or time to come together to learn. But that is a different kind of management degree. For others, using technology to the full is an integral part of the learning experience. It cannot be a substitute for it.

Sir Andrew Likierman is dean of London Business School.

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