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It used to be just parents that worried about the damaging effects of computer games. However an experiment conducted by John Beck at Hult International Business School suggests his teaching colleagues might have to be equally concerned.

During an MBA-level course in business strategy with 41 students, half the group was taught by a professor while the other half played a video game called One Day, designed and developed with Professor Beck’s consultancy North Star Leadership.

The outcome, assessed by an exam on class material, yielded identical scores. However, the gamers performed slightly better than the traditional learners on the exam’s multiple choice section.

“I don’t think this is about replacing professors,” Prof Beck says, presumably keen not to upset his colleagues. “What this does show is that there is a way of getting rid of 90 per cent of the stuff a professor currently does.”

Yet this experiment does play into a question being asked at business schools worldwide: who will be teaching our students in the future? Competition for academic jobs is coming from those people who can offer some real-world perspective in executive education, as well as from the machines.

Randall Zindler, for example, was chief executive of Medair, the international humanitarian aid agency, for eight years until joining Lancaster University Management School in 2011. Since then he has had a portfolio career, working as a consultant to industry and non-governmental organisations for half his time and then teaching as the head of Lancaster’s leadership centre.

“Staying connected is key,” he says. “I am not just reading about what is happening in leadership, I am in meetings with chief executives.”

Mr Zindler’s connection with Lancaster began when he completed his MBA at the UK school in 1999. He now spends a few days a month on the campus but is able to conduct the rest of his teaching online either on the road or from his home in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“The way I teach would probably have not been possible 10 years ago, but it enables me to remain connected with the latest business trends, which has proven very helpful in my teaching.”

Although he lectures in a traditional classroom setting on the campus at Lancaster, Mr Zindler claims he can be just as effective getting students to submit work online that they can then discuss in a video conference.

It also helps him to avoid the distractions of office politics, which is a danger of being full-time on a campus, he notes.

Lancaster employs just 35 people on teaching fellow posts similar to Mr Zindler’s role, out of a full-time staff of 221. However, Angus Laing, the school’s dean, admits there is increasing pressure to appoint teaching staff with real-life experience like this because that is what students and the companies backing them expect.

“They want both the cutting edge theory and to be challenged academically,” Professor Laing says. “They want to hear from people who have been senior executives at the coal face.”

The ideal is to “blend” academic and practitioner rigour and predicts an increase in the appointment of “professors of practice”, who have both experience of industry and teaching ability, says Prof Laing.

“We are helped by seeing a rise in what you might refer to as academic practitioners,” he says.

Pressure for such teachers is also being driven by demands of academic research, Prof Laing adds, with papers needing not just to be published in the right journals but to be seen to have an impact on the business world.

“Practitioners can help in this process by translating research into a more accessible format,” he says.

The use of academic practitioners is driven by financial necessity as much as the increased capacity to digitise teaching, according to Bob Reid, chief accreditation officer for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the industry body.

“There is pressure for greater access to education, not matched by increases in tuition fees, and that creates cost pressures,” he says.

In 2013 the AACSB suggested schools consider employing up to 40 per cent of its teaching staff from industry rather than people who have come through a purely academic track.

What is also happening is the greater use of non-teaching staff to support those at the front of the lecture hall make more compelling presentations, according to Mr Reid.

“There has been a blurring of the lines between what staff do and what faculty do,” he says. “Ten years ago it was clear. Now it is less clear as staff are helping faculty deliver education.”

Professors need to become performers to gain the attention of students who have grown up in the digital age, notes Wally Hopp, senior associate dean for faculty and research at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Traditional classroom teaching competes with online and other dynamic forces, and is being phased out, so the residential education industry needs to evolve to keep up with the times, he says. “Today education is professor- centric with the learning experience centred on the person delivering knowledge and orchestrating the experience for the student.

“In the future the focus will be on the learning experiences themselves, which will mean they will be much more diversified both in terms of where and when the student accesses them, flipping the focus on to what the student needs.”

The model will be more like apprenticeships, where business school faculty will help students use the knowledge they have acquired by greater use of technology, Professor Hopp adds.

The style of teaching may well change faster than the people being employed, however, not least because of the tenure system, which gives academic staff security to remain in post once they pass an initial probationary period.

At Michigan Ross, most of the academic staff are tenured and the rest are trying to get tenure, Prof Hopp says. He does not see that situation changing in the next decade.

“As a dean you have your players and it is not just that you can fire them,” he notes.

“Everybody in business education knows that change is coming. What people are trying to do is to give the existing faculty support, but it is a challenge.”

Other features in this series:

A variety of students is the spice of classroom life

Industry savvy teaching keeps courses in the game

Poor finances threaten business schools

Short tenures signal leadership void

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