By Elliot Davis, Research Associate, AACSB International
As its name suggests, the recent AACSB Annual Accreditation Conference hosted in St. Louis, Missouri, USA focused on global accreditation, the 2013 Accreditation Standards, and, more broadly, the latest trends within management education. One prominent and recurring topic throughout the conference: technological developments and modernization of education, and how business schools are responding.
The tone for the conference was set by the first plenary speaker, Cameron Evans, chief technology officer of Microsoft Education, who challenged the nearly 670 conference attendees with a thought provoking presentation on modernized learning for the new generation. Evans engaged attendees with a variety of questions for consideration regarding the future of management education, the relevancy of the business school, the limitations of risk aversion among institutions, and evolving approaches to cultivating leadership, management, and innovation as graduate competencies. He discussed the emerging economic paradigm, facilitated in part through MOOCs, wherein schools can become exporters of knowledge through technology.
When Evans asked the audience members to raise their hands if they felt that schools were keeping pace with technology, less than ten hands were raised, out of the hundreds in attendance. Of the questions Evans offered, the one perhaps on the minds of most in attendance was regarding this notion of the diminishing relevancy of the business school with the advent of potential substitutes, such as the MOOC. One audience member responded to Evans' suggestion, sharing that MOOCs and other similar online platforms will not be able to replace the business school. The audience member stated that MOOCs do not offer the necessary social capital to students, built through peer-to-peer interactions.
This idea of modernization and online learning was present in some of the other concurrent sessions. Notably, Dominic Elliott, a professor at the University of Liverpool's Management School, and Stanley Eakins, Dean of East Carolina University's College of Business, presented on both the establishment and maintenance of their respective institution's online programs. Distance learning has the potential to expand a university's global reach and accessibility, but does come with its own challenges in terms of cost, assurance of effective delivery, and numerous other factors.
Elliott argued against the opinion, suggested by an attendee at the first plenary, that students learning online are devoid of the important social capital gained from face-to-face interactions with faculty members and professors in the traditional campus experience. Elliott explained that social capital and online learning are not mutually exclusive. He noted that Liverpool students engaged in the online program feel a strong connection with both Liverpool and their peers, and have reported a high degree of satisfaction. The technology, systems, and procedures used by Liverpool enable healthy cooperation and interaction between students and their professor. Elliott concluded his portion of the session by stating that "not only is social capital in [Liverpool's] online program, it is a fundamental ingredient in it."
Stanley Eakins of East Carolina University shared that a key to making the online experience both effective in topical learning outcomes and in the development of social capital is the effectiveness of the professor. As such, the importance of faculty training was emphasized as a critical component. According to Eakins, a professor's role is perhaps even more critical in an online atmosphere, as they must bridge geographic gaps and must work among students with a wide variety of schedules.
New modes of learning have changed the way some view education. The debate between the virtues of face-to-face interactions versus the capability of online programs to adequately deliver that experience is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. But, as Evans pointed out in his plenary discussion, technology will not wait for a resolution to be reached, and will continue to march forward.