eNEWSLINE - Business Education News from AACSB International

Dean's Corner: Pressing Vinyl in a Playlist World

September 2013

By Sarah Fisher Gardial, Dean
Henry B. Tippie College of Business
The University of Iowa

Last year, on my way overseas to mark the 10th anniversary of our college's Hong Kong MBA program, for 14 hours I found myself seated next to a young man who shook up my thinking about business education. In his early 20's, he was traveling to India because of an internet-based business he had started. In the course of our conversation, I learned that he had previously enrolled in an undergraduate business program at a major state university (not mine),although he had never completed the degree (a piece of information he apparently had yet to share with his parents!). He was quite capable of finishing the degree, and he was adamant that he valued his b-school education. Instead, it was his relationship to (or end-run around) the business education model that caused him to drop out that fascinated me.

For starters, he quickly began front loading all of the business courses he could and back loading much of the Gen Ed classes he did not perceive as relevant or useful (more on that topic later). Second, he took the courses as he needed them, or "just-in-time" to fuel the work he was doing outside of class. Finally, he occasionally repeated courses that he found to be particularly valuable.

Over time, I thought a great deal about his creative journey through (or around) the business degree, and a metaphor began to emerge in my mind. We were still pressing vinyl in a playlist world.

With few exceptions, the degree structure for business majors has not evolved significantly since the 1960's. Most universities still require a semi-lock-step experience with limited customization. You check in for a four-year ride and the courses begin, often with little explanation regarding why you are taking them, how they hang together, or when they might be useful. Much like old vinyl recordings, you purchase pre-set content; A and B-sides, hits and forgettable fillers, and transitions that don't always make sense. "Trust us."

All the while, we know that we are teaching a "playlist" generation. Like my travel companion, they have grown up in a world where they are able to pick and choose, customize, sample, and create playlists (for music, television, video games, social media content) that are unique, highly personal, and infinitely constructed. They carry mobile devices that give them access to all the content they might want—anywhere, anytime. Their world is increasingly unbundled, accessible, and customizable.

You and I know that this deconstructed world can yield both great benefits and great disadvantages. I do not want to debate the relative benefits of "LP's" versus "playlists," but to stretch our thinking about what might happen if we evolved our degree programs more toward a "playlist world." Here are some possibilities.

The digital world allows students to sample new artists, albums, and genres at little or no cost. In contrast, how many students make costly educational decisions because of their inability to "sample" a course, major or career path? With little exception, the only real way to understand if you want to be an accountant is to take a few accounting classes—a pretty high-cost proposition. However, we are increasingly developing technology-based instruction that could allow students to sample our coursework and the domains they are curious about. Lectures that are captured for our enrolled students to download at their convenience, modules that were developed to support larger classes, and even MOOCs provide opportunities for students to download "bites" of our classes and majors without a significant commitment of time or money. We could easily make a library of downloadable "samples" of our classes and majors accessible to every student on campus (and beyond).

Customizing Gen Ed
I imagine some folks will quickly point to Gen Ed as the ultimately "customizable" piece of our curricula. Unfortunately, much of the time I believe students are overwhelmed, under informed, and ill-advised about these choices. ("Which classes start after 9:00 a.m.?") They "wander in the Gen Ed wilderness" for a couple of years without any real understanding of what it all means, all the while frustrated by not being allowed to take more courses in their chosen degree. A more meaningful customization might be to develop a variety of paths through Gen Ed that allow students to choose according to their interests and passions in a way that compliments the business curriculum, provides integration and coherence, and still provides foundational skills sets (analytics, communication, problem-framing, research). Consider the following potential "customized" Gen Ed tracks for business students. Sustainability. Leadership. Globalization. Technology and Innovation. Healthcare. Digital Media. Politics and Policy. Energy. Emerging Economies. The Virtual World. The Changing American Experience. Some universities have already moved their Gen Ed requirements in this direction. What we need is a more thoughtful consideration of how such tracks would articulate with business degrees while engaging our students' unique interests.

Just as musical playlists can effortlessly blend soul, R&B, jazz, rock, and hip-hop, so might we begin to consider creating more majors that cross disciplinary boundaries. It increasingly seems to me that the most important questions in the world are multi-disciplinary. Indeed, many campuses are building expertise in areas that cross-collegiate boundaries (cluster hires). Consider how these business majors might cut across both our collegiate disciplinary boundaries, as well as the campus. New Product Development. Business Analytics. Supply Chain Management. Entrepreneurship. Technology Commercialization. Healthcare Management. In our quest for relevance, my guess is that our degrees will evolve and benefit greatly from multi-disciplinary content.

I am the first person to defend the need for some structure in our degree requirements. There are two ways this occurs. The first is the timing of the courses. Sometimes you simply must take "A" before you take "B." The second is the selection of courses. Presumably, we have a better understanding than students of the foundational skills and tools that are required for them to be successful. However, if we really put all of our "requirements" to the test, we might find there is more room for flexibility than we imagine—both in terms of topics and timing. I fear that much of our rigidity is based on tradition, turf, or even—sadly—ease of advising rather than true necessity. These structural tradeoffs will become even more significant as we expand learning pedagogies and contemplate competency-based versus credit-hour accountability measures.

I could go on with the possibilities. My assumption is that, over time, even the playlist metaphor will become inadequate in the evolution of higher education and business preparation. I offer it not as "the" answer or even "an" answer to the challenges that beset us. But, I do believe now is the time to challenge assumptions and to be more creative in trying on different models and metaphors that might provide improved relevance, and even better learning, in a changing world. I do know this; our students are already charting their own learning experiences even as industry is asking us for new solutions. We can choose whether we want to change with them or not.

Sarah Fisher Gardial, Dean
Henry B. Tippie College of Business, The University of Iowa