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New York University’s Stern School of Business announced a radical new departure in its postgraduate teaching this year: its masters in management (MiM) degree was its first to be totally online.

“We are targeting a whole new market,” says Kim Corfman, Stern’s vice dean for MBA programmes and online learning. The aim, she adds, is to attract new student groups from outside the US, where MiM degrees are often more popular than the business school’s core MBA programme.

Stern is entering an increasingly crowded market, however: the online masters degree is coming of age.

While NYU Stern was unveiling its first purely digital degree, across the Atlantic in France, the first cohort of students were graduating from an online-only masters in innovation and entrepreneurship at HEC Paris.

Among the graduates was Efthymia Lioliou, a 44-year-old Greek-born, Paris-based biochemist. For Ms Lioliou, the 100 per cent online course was a way of fitting learning around raising two young children.

“If I was younger I might have done this by studying on campus,” she admits. “As it was, I could log on when my eldest daughter was at school and then work late at night when the children had gone to bed.”

The course shows that students are not necessarily coming from further afield, but rather they appreciate the flexibility of online study, says Marc Vanhuele, professor of marketing, who teaches on the course at HEC.

“We are targeting active professionals,” he says, noting that the innovation and entrepreneurship course has regular deadlines to keep students on track, but enough slack to allow them to learn at a pace that suits them.

At €20,000, the tuition fees for the online masters degree are considerably less than the €69,500 HEC charges for its full-time MBA programme. The school makes up for this, however, by running much larger classes than the 65 people in the annual intake for the campus-based MBA.

“The idea was to create something that is scalable,” says Mr Vanhuele. His hope is to increase the online masters intake to a couple of hundred students a year, split between two cohorts.

Despite the decision by top tier business schools like HEC and NYU Stern to offer full degree programmes online this year, the evolution of digital education is still in its infancy.

Valérie Claude-Gaudillat, a professor of strategy and director of the Institute for Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship at Audencia, a business school in France, has experienced the limitations of technology first-hand.

She had a robot in her management class for a joint masters degree course with engineering and architecture. The experiment was “disappointing”, Ms Claude-Gaudillat admits.

The example shows that classroom communication using technology is not yet as seamless as human interaction. “It was meant to interact with students, but its responses had to be pre-recorded, so it had lots of limitations in what it could do.”

When the course finished, the android educator was ditched. “When I asked students afterwards what they most liked about the course, they said the group experience,” Ms Claude-Gaudillat explains.

She suggests that online education is passing through the kind of “hype cycle” that technology consultancy Gartner created to explain the evolutions of digital breakthroughs.

The cycle starts with an “innovation trigger” and rises quickly to a peak of “inflated expectations”. It then drops into the “trough of disillusionment”, before recovering through a “slope of enlightenment” to the final phase — the “plateau of productivity”.

Online education is just beginning to travel up the slope of enlightenment, according to Ms Claude-Gaudillat.

30%

Students at ESCP Europe who will learn at least partially online by 2022

Frank Bournois is dean of ESCP Europe business school, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of its founding in Paris this year. Despite claiming to be the world’s oldest business school, ESCP wants to remain a modern education institution. For some courses it blends classroom teaching with online learning using the Coursera platform, Mr Bournois notes.

He advises business schools to focus on making the teaching content as good as possible, rather than trying to become a technology supplier in their own right. “The risk for schools is that they become production studios for online courses,” he says. Costs can escalate if schools take this route because they need to maintain their kit.

“Of course, our professors need to think a lot about what their students should see [in online courses],” he adds. “But that does not mean that the school needs to employ people to make the videos.”

He predicts that about 30 per cent of ESCP’s students will learn at least partly online by 2022. At the moment, 27 per cent of students are taught either wholly or partially online. Over the same timeframe, he expects class sizes on campus to increase so that in-person teaching becomes more efficient. He predicts numbers will rise from the 25 to 40 people at present to about 100.

Even as online learning evolves, he says, classroom teaching will always have a place in business education.

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