Full-body shot of Raija Kuokkanen, seated in what looks like a hallway and wearing a black floral top and black pants
Space to think: Raija Kuokkanen at Aalto in Finland © Peter Holliday

Students visiting Aalto University Executive Education for short courses in the wake of the pandemic are the first to inhabit a restoration of one of Helsinki’s most iconic buildings.

Before Covid-19 forced lessons online, Aalto was already renovating the Töölö campus, a striking 1950s building with more than 300 artworks adorning its wood veneer walls. The Finnish business school was fortunate that the project’s timing enabled it to add technology to suit post-pandemic teaching theories that knit online learning into the functionality of Töölö’s classrooms.

“We were lucky that we were still at the stage of upgrading when Covid arrived,” says Raija Kuokkanen, head of thought leadership and design at Aalto University Executive Education. “We built this hybrid capability in all our classrooms, introducing cameras and adjusting the audio systems, to allow students to join online.”

The restoration and construction of often opulent campus buildings was a trend among business schools worldwide long before the pandemic struck, fuelled by competition for executives who can often pick and choose in which city and continent they study.

While many schools were forced to close their buildings to students during Covid lockdowns, the experience also served to emphasise the value of meeting together to learn. As a result, campus building projects are again pushing ahead as restrictions are eased. But the remits have shifted as schools have also seen the value in offering online teaching to complement in-class lessons.

The University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School is spending £60mn, and has employed John McAslan & Partners, the award-winning architects behind the King’s Cross Station restoration in London, to convert the city’s Victorian power station into a new executive education campus. The building will open in 2025 with technology allowing lessons to be taught to students on campus and those connecting online.

“We re-evaluated the whole space after the pandemic struck, trying to make [it] as flexible as possible and tech-enabled as possible,” says Eleanor Murray, associate dean for executive education. The challenge is to balance the demands of those wanting to study online while offering high-quality facilities for in-person teaching.

“Increasingly, there is this sustainability argument with clients,” Murray says. “If they can avoid travelling for a module on a course, it enables them to cut their carbon footprint.

“However, we are also seeing a really healthy uplift in clients wanting to come back to our existing campus. People still value the networking, the conversations and debate that they only get when they are face to face.”

Even students who prefer learning on a campus are willing to admit that an online connection can be helpful.

Phillip Orlik is vice-president for sales and regional head for western Europe at Germany-headquartered medical devices business B. Braun. He signed up for the Executive Health Innovation Management course jointly run by Imperial College Business School and Copenhagen Business School because he wanted the campus experience, split between the UK and Danish capitals. “If it had been a purely online course, I would not have done it,” he says.

The six-day course was in the autumn of 2021, when travel restrictions remained in place in many parts of Europe, meaning that between a fifth and a third of the class was unable to study in person in London or the sessions in Copenhagen.

“For me, it was a lot about the networking opportunities, so it was important to be at the campuses,” Orlik says. However, he was grateful for the flexibility to study online when on the last day his son had a hospital appointment and he could travel home and connect to the course remotely.

“The online interaction worked,” he says. “It seemed that some of the others online were more willing to ask questions than those studying face to face.”

Demand has grown for hybrid learning, where students participate both in person and online. In 2020, 8 per cent of Aalto’s executive education students chose to study this way; last year the figure was 21 per cent.

Only 12 per cent of Aalto’s executive education students completed their courses entirely on campus last year, but the numbers are now increasing, according to Kuokkanen.

The physical backdrop is important for those logging on to learn as well as those coming to campus, she argues. “You have to have attractive settings, even when you are delivering courses online.”

But Kuokkanen adds that an element of gathering together is important for most courses. “When we are physically present with one another, we are able to build trust a lot quicker and, in that sense, it is a more positive learning environment,” she says.

One of the main reasons for schools to blend inspiring campus facilities with online teaching technology is an increasing demand for lifelong learning. This is driven by an acknowledgment — heightened by job shifts caused by the pandemic — that we will all have to retrain and acquire new skills more often.

The annual Alumni Matters report by education research company CarringtonCrisp, produced in association with management education accreditation body EFMD, found that 51 per cent of the 1,726 business school alumni interviewed in 76 countries would like some form of life-long learning and 77 per cent said they would like online access to lectures.

“Executive education is going to be a lot more about life-long learning through microcredentials,” says Caryn Beck-Dudley, chief executive of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, another accreditation body. “Much of it can be delivered virtually, then you save that face-to-face piece for networking, for people really working as a team and for team-building exercises.”

The challenge for schools is not to identify uses for campus facilities previously used by executive education programmes, but to find the additional staff needed to run more short courses, Beck-Dudley adds. “You don’t really need to have the building at all but you have to have the capacity in terms of headcount to teach.”

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