An urgent call for innovation in Business Education

Whether students are making art for a famous museum or learning how to be a clown: there is no end to the possibilities for innovation in business education! But how can business professors become motors of this innovation, ask Kivanc Cubukcu and Svenia Busson.

In today’s business schools, professors are under pressure to “publish or perish”, leading most professors naturally to prioritise research and publishing over teaching. This imbalance between the importance of research and teaching is causing the pace of change in the world of education to be slow, with many classes being taught in a traditional, top-down way through lectures.

However, it’s clear that it’s crucial for business education to be innovating much faster in order to equip the business leaders of tomorrow with the tools and inner resources to thrive in a business world that is changing at a mind-boggling pace. The business leaders of tomorrow need to be able to lead their organisations through increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty, drive continuous innovation and change, and manage for positive social and environmental impact while driving profitability. Preparing future business leaders for this challenge requires business schools to provide transformative and innovative learning experiences that can impart key twenty-first-century skills.

At LearnSpace, we work closely with higher education institutions from around the world and know that despite the challenges of “publish or perish”, there are many professors who are putting enormous efforts to create innovative and transformative learning experiences for their students. However, these teachers often lack time and resources to share their methods with the world, and so can go unnoticed outside of their own establishments. In order to shine a spotlight on some of these professors and their work and to inspire and support other business professors who wish to innovate, LearnSpace put out a worldwide call to nominate business education innovations across the globe. We received over 150 applications, of which we selected ten innovative pedagogies with the help of our distinguished jury, and published a report highlighting them. (You can find the full report via this link).

Takeaways for business professors looking to innovate

Having reviewed and evaluated the teaching practices of hundreds of business professors, here are our takeaways that we believe can support business educators looking to innovate in their classes.

1) Professors are using a range of different active learning pedagogies that put students at the centre

Engaging and active student-centred learning experiences support the development of twenty-first-century skills, such as autonomy, creativity, and collaboration, which are key skills for future business leaders. Innovative educators use a multitude of different pedagogies, with game-based learning, experiential learning, and art-based learning among the pedagogies that we have seen being used by many innovative professors. Some examples of these pedagogies are the following:

In game-based learning, students learn through not only playing games but by creating their own games. In experiential learning, students might, for example, manage the social media ad accounts of actual local companies, learning post-MBA job-ready skills. In art-based learning, business students might co-create works of art that are exhibited in a well-known museum. (For more details about these pedagogies, please refer to the Business Education Innovations report).

2) Personalisation of the learning journeys for students is allowing each to maximise their learning

More professors are making efforts to personalise at least some part of the learning experience, which in turn leads to higher engagement and higher levels of learning for each student. Examples of personalisation include a game-based learning course where the exercises are designed for each student according to a specific pain point that they experience or a crisis simulation course with 1000+ students where students in small groups receive regular feedback according to the different decisions they make throughout the course.

3) Great content is readily available, transformative learning experiences are not

With MOOCs and other online sources, students can access almost limitless great content at no or little cost. So what will justify the high price tag of business schools going forward? One of the key potential elements of differentiation is developing unique and transformative learning experiences that can be found only in the classroom of a particular professor. We have seen that such learning experiences can help transform students both professionally and personally.

Some examples of the learning experiences we have seen were business students creating a piece of art to be exhibited in well-known museums in an art-based, intensive course; students being moved to tears upon visiting slow fashion establishments in their country in
a hands-on discovery practice; a board game-based course that encouraged students to test different leadership styles, try new approaches, and make mistakes in a safe environment.

When questioned about the “why” behind all the hours of effort put into these innovative learning experiences, many educators have spoken of ‘the light in the eyes of their students at the end of their courses. The lasting effect of these teaching methods is gratifying to these professors as they know their work has brought about a shift within their students and has led to deep learning.

4) Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) topics are being embedded into the course design.

Having a multi-stakeholder approach to business management – as opposed to a pure profit maximising approach that only takes shareholders’ interests into account – has been underway for a long time. The environmental and social impact of businesses is huge and can no longer be ignored by any business leader. Innovative business educators are finding creative ways to integrate these dimensions into their courses – such as using an art creation process to help students question topics around sustainability or an experiential learning course that partners students with local companies and communities.

5) While students are the centre of the learning experience, innovation starts from the professor.

For professors to begin innovating, they first need to reach within themselves to discover their starting point and identify and address potential blocks.

What we saw from many innovative educators is that they start from their own passions when developing an innovative approach in their teaching. Areas seemingly little related to business, such as improvisation theatre, sports or board games, can be wonderful bases to build a course on. For example, a business professor uses improvisation theatre and clown techniques to teach ‘embodied leadership’, which can be applied when handling difficult conversations under uncertainty and disruption, such as performance appraisal talks or bringing bad news like firing people or making decisions under conditions of discontinuity and surprise. (More details on this, p. 29 of the report).

One potential block for innovation in the classroom is the professors’ fear of failure. Just like students, professors can be worried about trying new approaches in the classroom that may not work as intended. However, just like students, professors learn by doing and occasionally fail. We heard from the professors we interviewed that it took courage to try new approaches and there were invariably some mistakes made along the way but it was from their mistakes they learnt the most, and they recommend fellow professors to muster the courage to try new things out.

Another potential block can be financial resources. Not all innovations we have discovered are simple to replicate. Some do involve a fair bit of time and resources. That said, there are a great number that rely on tools and products which are widely available and cost very little, such as popular Learning Management Systems or well-known board games. Finances are therefore not an insurmountable block for the implementation of innovative strategies, one must be prepared to try something different and to be creative in coming up with new approaches.

6) Professors don’t do it alone – it may take a village to bring an innovative idea to life.

It might be the professor who comes up with an idea but it is rarely the professor alone who makes their idea become reality. We have seen that innovative professors engage a range of partners, both internal and external to their schools, to make their innovation possible and successful. These partners might include a group of teaching assistants who help manage real-time crisis management responses, internationally renowned museums that agree to display business students’ artwork, the Olympics committee for supporting innovation projects or local companies and organisations opening up their social media and ad accounts for students to manage.

It’s important to highlight that fellow business professors are critical partners and great resources for educators aspiring to develop their own innovative courses. The professors we have interviewed were happy to share their innovative practices and learnings, and help out fellow professors in their own journeys if approached.

From “publish or perish” to “innovate and cherish”

Business schools and educators have a big task at hand – preparing a new generation of business leaders who are ready and equipped to tackle increasingly complex and challenging business, social and environmental problems. Old ways of business education will not achieve this. Business schools and educators need to start creating transformative learning experiences that will prepare future business leaders both personally and professionally for these challenges. Business education can and must rise to the occasion. We strongly hope and believe that these innovations and learnings can serve as an inspiration for this change.

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