The EFMD business magazine

With the Corona crisis hitting higher education institutions, there is a good deal of buzz and discussion about how this will “dramatically and inevitably” change the way universities work and teach. However… this may not be true for everyone, observes Bernhard Bachmann

Let’s look at some of the hype. The supposed “disruption” caused by COVID-19 with a shift to long-distance learning is not exactly new for business schools. Really this discussion has been prevalent for over twenty years, and is totally non-Corona related. Some institutions have offered distance learning programmes for a long time. And then there are the bulk who – with good reason – never did so previously, but during the crisis, shifted to long-distance nonetheless. There is a feeling of “obviously, we can if we want to, which is nice and reassuring; we just never had the desire.” And this attitude may not change when things are back to normal – whatever that normal may encompass.

EBS Business School, during the half term of spring semester 2020, successfully switched 100% of its course delivery online. The campus was in lockdown and almost everyone was working from home. During the first weeks, the faculty exchanged their experiences via Zoom every evening and learned from each other. Training sessions were offered for those not familiar with online platforms. All examinations, of course, also had to be changed to an online mode. So far, so good. EBS Business School enjoyed a speedy, smooth and effective transition, and we surprised ourselves, but deemed this EBSpirit in action. But why should we want to keep doing this forever?

Reflections on the online hype and the ‘new normal’

Ever since universities responded to Corona lockdowns by turning to distance learning, a flood of articles and op-eds have been published suggesting that it is ‘high time’ for universities to get better at digital learning, that we should get rid of handwritten exams (despite research claiming that writing by hand enhances learning), that the end of universities as we know them is near, and that the ‘new normal’ will be something totally different.

There is also the claim that universities could and should now offer much cheaper programs. Newspapers, magazines and even research journals forgot what they had published 15 years earlier and are now rediscovering online learning as if it was invented just yesterday.

There is currently an abundance of people who use the term ‘online learning’ who, however, do not differentiate between e-learning, blended-learning, long-distance learning, whether live or recorded, or use the term ‘virtual classroom’ to mean Zoom. In the year 2002, I was part of a research team at the University of Cologne looking at acceptance of e-learning. Even then, more than 200 PhD theses had already addressed almost every angle of digital and e-learning, learning management systems (LMS) and distance learning that one could think of. In particular, there was research on how universities could, or were already, deploying such technology. And these were only the dissertations in Germany.

As so often, there were not research or knowledge gaps, but rather budget restrictions and implementation gaps. In the training industry and corporate learning, long-distance lectures via WebEx or other platforms have been a common standard for over 20 years. In the mid-90s, large corporations were using satellite distributed business television for long-distance training needs. The so-called “virtual classroom” is now 25 years old and was also broadcast via satellite and later became web-based. Even the flight simulator is nearing its one-hundredth anniversary, while the use of gaming or experiential learning is similarly decades old.

Computerised simulations have been a part of different curricula for many decades. In a way it is nice to see this new excitement about digital learning, but the most important do’s and don’ts and good practices as well as research about the reasons for the lack of acceptance of digital education have been available for decades. Even with Corona there is no need to reinvent the wheel – despite all the buzz. Most universities had an issue of budget, not a lack of understanding, and this difference may constitute the most notable change.

What I am trying to say here, is that while there is a lot of talk about the ‘new normal’, for many experts in the fields of digital learning and for all those managers who have been working from home for 25 years, the Corona crisis has not changed anything aside from the sudden need to deploy the technology across the entire organisation. Taking a step back, we can see that the current arguments are old news, but the levels of acceptance and learning success statistics have not exactly improved. Social media is full of excited managers writing about the pros and cons of working from home and the impact on teams and leadership issues.

These people have now discovered the need for virtual leadership. Well, training on that topic has existed since at least 2003, already then with an added component in leading intercultural teams as well. Many of the topics raised by journalists, politicians and university managers rather show they have been out of sync with corporate learning for a very long time. After all, the first large German congress and trade fair on computer-aided learning – the ‘Learntec’ – already took place in 1992. And from 1995 onwards, the internet was a fixed component of the learning world at such conferences all over the globe.

All those predications – are they new?

There has never been a knowledge gap in digital learning. The very fact that so many institutions of higher education were able to switch to long distance streaming over just a few weeks shows that this is not exactly rocket science. Yet a constant flow of Corona-inspired magazine articles seems to suggest that classroom lecturing is more than just outdated but even rightfully considered dead, and we ‘cannot go back’. We desperately ‘need new digital learning formats’, and should ideally replace presence-based forms of learning. We need to be engaged in ‘hybrid’ learning.

Many authors posit that we need to ‘expand’ and ‘perpetuate’ the many ‘positive experiences’ we are now encountering. We must record lectures and become independent of time and space and so on and so on. Yet are we really having such positive experiences? Do lecturers and student learners embrace hybrid teaching as something desirable for the future? Does Zoom beat all other lecture formats? Will decision making at the level of university management still be quicker once the crisis is over, because the councils are currently using Zoom? All of this is highly debatable. What is branded now as ‘new work’ is ‘every day life’ for others, and has been so for decades.

Few people seem to realise that many of us have heard all this before, and the promises of digital learning have been put to the test many times. There is a reason why 80% of e-learning programmes have quite low rates of satisfaction amongst users. And also why traditional e-learning in the workplace does not work, especially with mandatory courses. It is not the case that lecturing via Zoom or Adobe Connect has suddenly been widely accepted or that satisfaction rates are now considerably higher than they were before Corona. Now that entire faculties have proven they can do it, this does not automatically mean they are turning to digital learning just because they can. And on the grounds of what business model would such an endeavour be based?

On the contrary, students and lecturers alike now experience the many downsides to this kind of lecturing. And yet there is an explosion of executive education online courses as business schools are closed for presence-based offerings. Networking and belonging are much less powerful in these formats, and potential delegates know this. And our degree students also give us constant feedback that they are missing the “classic” approach.

A joke is circulating in our university that in the future, we will have to brand ourselves as an old-fashioned, heritage kind of business school because we are still offering lectures in the classroom.

Interestingly, no one ever challenged the implication of this joke. Corona showed in a very transparent way why we so have been so hesitant to deploy digital learning. In the case of EBS Business School, the thing called EBSpirit is valued highly. Faculty and students alike form close bonds. Unusually for Germany, EBS has a huge alumni network which is having its fiftieth anniversary this year. Our international students come to study at EBS in order to gain exposure to the German and European job markets and together with our German students, they tap into our network of 200+ international partner universities. We are not just a building on a campus or a cluster of servers; this is a people thing.

Online learning is just the same?

When videotape hit the market, journalists wrote that music and arts teachers now would be obsolete. Yet if online learning is so great, why are most of our students – who could potentially complete their exchange semester or dual degree in another country – instead postponing now? There will always be students who prefer the real intercultural experience and physical presence, wanting to dive deeply into another culture and requiring access and exposure to the local industry and internship or job market as a fundamental prerequisite. It has always been designed to be this way. Business schools are offering so much more than a degree here.

There is one notable positive difference: before Corona, it was easy to criticise schools like ours for not seeming to be overly engaged in digital learning. Not that any of our students ever did criticise this; they chose us for the above-mentioned qualities. However, we now can say, yes, we have demonstrated that we could do things differently, if we wanted to. We are using the technology for those who wish to be here and cannot come. It is a tool, not a philosophy. Interestingly, we now get quite a few applications from students who ask us if we will keep on lecturing online in parallel. These students have a long-distance profile. If we were targeting these students, we could have offered such formats for a long time, or increased our long-distance formats.

But this is not really what we do, and Corona has made this quite clear. In doing so, we would potentially sacrifice the more powerful parts of our programmes. We feel that business schools need to decide on their profile, and the sharper the profile is, the lesser the need to put everything into the test lab when facing Corona.

With career services, our unique individual coaching offerings and EBSpirit, there is a strong belief that there are many things that a business school just cannot deliver online. Most of our executive education course delegates jumped at the very first chance to come back to campus, clearly preferring even uncomfortable distancing and hygiene rules over staying online. The advocates of the new normal are currently also promoting virtual internships now – yet checking in with our students, we found that they are by no means interested, thank you very much.

Another factor that many promoters of the online hype also ignore: producing high quality long-distance learning is actually more complex and expensive compared with classical delivery in the lecture theatre. Done well, online materials take more staff and resources and actually come at a higher cost.

Currently, the entire faculty is engaged in ‘hybrid’ teaching; using the new interactive terminals, microphones, web and video conferencing cameras which all lecture rooms had been equipped with. Digital pens allow them to use an online whiteboard. Lecturing takes place in the classroom while being streamed in parallel via Zoom. Loudspeakers in the classroom transmit what the online participants have to say. All lecturers have wireless headsets so they can move around to a certain extent.

Schedules have been adjusted to cater for time zones of those international students who did not get a visa. We all became experts at displaying the chat window while showing slides, and making sure we check what learners are writing there. Teaching now needs to be aimed at both the audience in the lecture room and those following online, often somewhat compromising one of the two groups. Yes, this enhances flexibility, but it does not top the dynamics and discussions we can have in the lecture theatres in presence-based mode.

Many students develop a quite passive online mode and practice their language skills far less. Many students tend to switch off their camera altogether, while many do not engage in discussion or even use the chat window. It is much easier to hide, or even to leave a lesson this way. Sometimes students do not react when lecturers form break-out groups online. These students seem to be participating, but are not present when needed. We try to close the session to such students, however, with more than 40 students in a group, it can be difficult to check on individual students.

Another factor that many promoters of the online hype also ignore: producing high-quality long-distance learning is actually more complex and expensive compared with classical delivery in the lecture theatre. Done well, online materials take more staff and resources and actually come at a higher cost. All those who claim that universities just need to go online and will hence be cheaper, obviously have some sort of pre-fabricated and re-used content in mind. Even if this were not the path to making 50% of all universities redundant,it also ignores the demands of students who want up-to-date, high-quality content inside the classroom, and who also have needs outside of the classroom.


So, what will change then? The second half of our spring term was fully online, the fall term in hybrid mode, and we are facing the next spring term in January again in hybrid mode. We have a rolling scheme; all departments and workgroups are split, working one week from home, and one week on campus. All team meetings happen online. Obviously, as in many other institutions, post-Covid there will be a push towards staff working more from home. Student-facing staff may not find this very useful. For us, the personal professor-student learner relationship was and is central, and this includes all student services and programme management.

The new online teaching capabilities may result in more possibilities for digital learning. For years now there has been the idea to digitise some formats of the smaller programmes, and certain difficult courses, so learners could repeat them. While we developed some digital content, the need was simply not strong enough for us to make a stronger commitment here. Luckily, we now have the technology and the staff who are trained to use it. But this is by no means an automatic or natural consequence. On the contrary. Some professors who were already against this form of lecturing and who have now experienced how long-distance lecturing changes their lectures, are doubly sure this is not what they or the students want to embrace as a standard.

The existing digital learning strategy at EBS Business School may well change in future. We may continue to enhance the flexibility to use our new technology, and guest lecturers, for example, no longer need to travel to the campus – although interestingly, many still prefer to do so. Still, inviting practitioners into class has now become far easier. We also found that external lecturers who normally could only stay for block lectures, now can deliver regular online lectures. In some cases, this is a compromise which has more positives than negatives.

However, while staffing becomes easier, we still prefer direct contact, because our students prefer it. Most lecturers want to deploy our newly fitted technology on special occasions, not as a standard. With all lecture rooms now equipped, EBS can go into another lockdown within seconds, if need be. The experiences of all faculty members due to Corona, namely being forced to lecture online, will inform our strategy to make more use of digital formats. Yet the faculty has also learned where our strengths reside. And this clearly is the personal student-professor relationship, the bonds between the students on-site and their collective learning in class, as well as the personal exposure of our network to companies and the alumni organisation. Our field studies, for example, normally happen on the client site, and student teams struggle to solve business problems on-site. The online versions of these projects are just not the same, and are much less powerful for networking.

Corona took all this away, and EBS University has always been a place of people doing things together. The EBS Real Estate Congress, the EBS Symposium and the EBSpreneurship Symposium, all run by students and lecturers, are the proof of this. EBS students for example get a huge six-digit budget and organise their own famous annual EBS Symposium. It is the biggest student-run event in Europe. This year the event happened digitally and online, but many perceived it as not being the same, and having limited networking potential. So, the pretension to become a better provider of digital learning is not the logical outcome for a new normal. Yet there is potential in that the existing plans for part-time and long-distance programme delivery are easier to realise and implement because each and every lecturer now has experience of working online and lecturing long-distance.

As with many organisations, Corona gave the enabling push. While this is a change we no longer have to achieve, as described before, it does not automatically follow that the faculty is pushing these plans. Many international masters students who could follow our courses online, have postponed their studies because they want to be here, on-site, with us. Despite the digital learning hype, student learners and the faculty are clearly aspiring, if not craving, for things to return to normal. And at EBS, ‘normal’ to a very large degree means personal, not digital.

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