With growing digital classes, what is the future of traditional MBAs?

As developers and academicians work towards innovating the online classroom experience, there's hope that the learning components of the MBA will better serve their goals

Published: Jan 13, 2021 04:28:59 PM IST
Updated: Jan 13, 2021 04:37:14 PM IST

iimaImage: Alok Brahmbhatt

Due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, institutes worldwide moved their classes to the online mode. While the administrators of the courses that required fieldwork or laboratory experience agreed on the adverse effects of continuing working online, the B-School fraternity's views on online teaching have been primarily divided.

This divide in the opinions existed way before the pandemic, from when online MBAs were introduced. A fraction of people who feel that the online MBAs can do justice to an MBA's objectives are also the ones who claim that a shift to the online mode did not disrupt the learnings. However, the other faction feels that an MBA involves something beyond online teaching that only a physical engagement can provide.

To find out which line of thought holds more merits, the authors of this article tried to understand the issue from the MBA students' perspectives. A three-month-long qualitative study was conducted at a B-school with a two-year residential programme. The students who were interviewed in-depth as part of the study had experienced both physical and virtual learning.

Background of a typical MBA programme
The conventional idea of pursuing an MBA is to get an opportunity to work in a particular industry sector or get access to higher roles in the corporate organizational hierarchy. The fulfillment of these aspirations is pillared on the trinity of Academics, Projects, and Placements.

Usually, the first year of an MBA involves exposure to various managerial disciplines that bring students from diverse backgrounds on the same pedestal. In the second year, the curriculum becomes flexible, allowing students to choose from a plethora of electives, which will enable them to develop a deeper understanding of one's interests or explore a variety of options. Beyond the courses, students engage with professors on research problems through independent projects. The diverse set of courses helps students build the basic set of competencies they will need to pursue in their future corporate roles. On the other hand, the project opportunities help the students present themselves as capable of applying what they have learned to solve real-world management problems.

Beyond the seemingly objective professional goals of an MBA student, many subjective aspirations are critical to its design. A significant part of the academic activities and evaluation in B-schools are group-based. Students are grouped with their batchmates to form what are called study groups. This attempts to make problem-solving more real-life since the students will be working in teams in their corporate roles to solve business issues.

One exciting aspect of the group study is that the students belonging to diverse sets of educational and professional backgrounds spend a lot of time together beyond the classes. Naturally, the connections formed here help a great deal in professional life. But beyond that, merely brainstorming with the groups day in and day out, hearing each other's experiences, and understanding each other's perspectives on diverse domains ranging from football to national politics helps them become balanced individuals.

A lot of critical interpersonal interactions exist outside the curricular domain as well. Several student-led clubs exist on campuses. These clubs handle issues related to career progressions, emotional guidance, sports, and performing arts, amongst others. The associations formed with batchmates, seniors, and juniors in these clubs include an essential seat of culture at the campus. The other prominent one being student dorms.

In a residential program, students are housed in dormitories. The shared living spaces and the shared misery help students build attachments and form support groups. One of our respondents mentioned, "Since I was staying away from home for the first time, my neighbors at the dorm helped me with the very basics like the upkeep of my room and my belongings. Later on, we became the go-to people for each other's academic doubts, placement preparation, and even those last moment tips for quizzes."

In all, the MBA helps students become empowered psychologically in multiple ways. The knowledge from the courses helps develop personal empowerment by increasing the individual’s competence. Through interactions and building relationships, students develop interactional empowerment. We wanted to understand how both individual and interactional empowerment (the two components of psychological empowerment) was affected by COVID-19. We did that by talking to the two-year MBA students about their physical and virtual MBA experiences.

The virtual mode, and its ramifications
In the last few months, the curricular and non-curricular components, crucial to an MBA program, have been replicated virtually. Prima-facie, an alternate online system, has been created, which provides efficiencies through economies of scale. Although these efficiencies have helped the newly created system serve the goals of an MBA program, their effectiveness is still being considered.

As developers and academicians work towards innovating the online classroom experience, there's hope that the learning components of the MBA will better serve their goals. While the classes happened seamlessly, there were the usual complaints about easy distractions in the online mode. Nevertheless, some people felt that online platforms enabled them to participate more in classroom discussions; others felt more conscious in the virtual environment. It appears that intrapersonal empowerment, which deals with perceived competence, self-efficacy, and control, was more or less achieved as classes and projects were adapted and completed.

However, the online system seemed to adversely affect interactional empowerment, which deals with interpersonal relationships and community building. The second-year students exclaimed that "the virtual second year does not even give the taste of their first year." On probing further, we find that they were complaining about the missing synergy from informal interaction that is extremely difficult to replicate in the virtual model. We explain this is in detail below. 

The interactional component has suffered due to reduced human interaction. Though students meet virtually on various video platforms such as Zoom and Google meets, they are only in steady touch with whom they are already good friends or those with whom they had previously done regular academic work. While friends tag along with whom one can forge strong bonds, acquaintances have been lost on the way. Reducing interaction opportunities is particularly a deterrent to an MBA college experience where networking is crucial for future career progression.

One of the interviewees mentioned that "virtual interactions miss the serendipity in meeting people on campus." When students are on campus, they can run into acquaintances at places of dinner or casual hangouts at innumerable instances. Serendipity significantly helps in building connections beyond friends. The offline campus setup conspires to help students expand their network effortlessly, as long as they are open to it.

Another peculiar aspect of the interactional component in virtual MBA is the agenda-driven nature of video platforms' discussions. Interviewees shared, "In zoom calls, we have to fix up a time and fix the topic of discussion, while on campus I can just walk into a friend's room," "On campus, we used to study together and at the same time chill, order food, go for walks, etc.." There is little scope for tangential discussions on zoom calls, which can be a source of unplanned learning. The lack of haste and physical proximity creates a conducive environment fostering tangential talks – which the participants highly appreciated. These discussions are vital contributors to peer learning, often compromised in virtual setups. Peer learning is often not transactional wherein a planned exchange of knowledge occurs; however, in these relaxed unplanned discussions is where the core of peer learning and relationship building lies.

The final aspect of psychological empowerment is the behavioral component, pertinent to a collectivistic society like ours. There is a natural comfort in association with a tribe, here the MBA community. One of the respondents mentioned "staying away from home, staying with a group of people, having close friends and club activities" as their expectations from the two years of MBA life. While being at a residential campus helps students positively associate with a social identity, for many, the very idea of association with a group is satisfying. However, this aspect is often not stressed enough by MBA pundits. One of the respondents talked about college fests. They mentioned, "The college rivalry was at another level and was so much fun. Events like these create memories which stay for a lifetime." Another respondent mentioned intra-institute events, which helped in building deep relationships. These memorable events act as rituals that bring together a tribe. This tribe culture creates a feeling of belongingness and thrives through community events that cannot be easily replicated in the virtual setting.  

Conclusion
Both online and offline MBA programs have existed for a long time now, each with its own merits. While online MBAs provide flexibility and opportunity to those who otherwise might not have the chance to pursue the degree, offline MBA offers multiple avenues for informal meetings, relaxed tangential discussions, serendipitous network expansion, and community belongingness, which are challenging to replicate in an online setup. After all, this is an essential component of holistic empowerment and seems to be falling through the cracks in a virtual setting.

As Aristotle said, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts''. The physical experience provides a wholesome experience which students yearn for and benefit from. Given that, we don't expect a physical MBA to die an easy death soon.


Mayank Chauhan and Shubham Singhal are 2nd year MBA students at IIM Ahmedabad. Akshaya Vijayalakshmi is an Assistant Professor in Marketing at IIM Ahmedabad.


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