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Chairman’s Corner: Digital Innovation in Learning Should Become a Priority


I recall the first wave of eLearning in the 1990s. I was a professor at INSEAD then and was instrumental in creating a unit called INSEAD Online to focus on creating e-learning courses. That effort at INSEAD and similar efforts in other business schools did not take off. The reasons for the failure were many but the experience was quite typical in terms of new technology adoption challenges in many sectors.

Business schools lacked the technical expertise to create e-learning courses and business school faculty were skeptical of the effectiveness of e-learning courses, something quite new then for most of them. Out of necessity, business schools had to partner with external partners who usually had high costs of developing courses and hence the revenue sharing arrangements were biased in favor of the external partners. The high development costs also implied that customers were charged significant amounts for the e-learning modules and customer demand was weak. Technological infrastructure also had limitations and bandwidth was usually not sufficient in most locations for high quality video content. Taken together, the first wave of e-learning in business schools in the early 90s had all the excitement that comes with any new technology introduction and all the disappointment when reality does not meet expectations.

Fast forward two decades. The landscape has changed significantly. For one technology has improved exponentially and what was technically challenging in the early 90’s has become commonplace and easy. Large parts of the world are now connected to the Internet and high bandwidth connectivity has reached even mobile devices in most countries. New private sector MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) players such as Coursera and Audacity have emerged with the goal to make learning from top notch faculty available for free (or for a small fee) to learners around the world. The technology to produce courses has also changed and costs of production have come down significantly. It is possible now for a faculty member to set up a camera (even a smartphone in some cases) in his/her office and create online content with a tablet (costing a few hundred Dollars) and simple editing software. Most business school programs now have a significant e-learning components and a range of fully online MBA programs are now available on the market. The age of digital innovation in business school education has now started in earnest.

It is time now for business school leaders to start investing significantly in digital innovations. Like any organization, going through the journey of digital transformation requires a focus on integrating digital DNA into the organization. Based on my own research and personal experience, here are some suggestions for business school leaders:

  1. Leadership from the top: Any significant change in the business model of the school such as the introduction of new online programs will have to start with leadership from the top. Leadership from the Dean of the school becomes even more vital as the school contemplates more radical questions from digital disruption. Is the school willing to address a market of millions instead of thousands? And if yes, is the school willing to reduce tuition fees to zero or a very small amount? Is the school willing to create a Uber like model which opens up the universe of instructors to anyone willing to teach? And so onÉ.
  2. Leveraging off the few: Most faculty in business schools are not eager to make radical changes in the way they teach and in the conduct of the classroom. However, in every school there are always a few pioneering faculty who are open to innovate and try out new experiments. These pioneers should be identified and encouraged. Their successes should be celebrated publicly and lessons should be learnt from some of their (inevitable) failures. The pioneers can be used strategically to lead the school into the era of digital learning. It is always interesting to see how others follow once the positive successes of the pioneers have been recognized.
  3. Set up formal structures and processes: While everyone today is digitally capable in one way or the other (after all, they all own mobile phones and PCs), it is necessary to structure and support digital learning efforts within the school. Bottom-up efforts are good only to a certain level. It is fine to get faculty to experiment with e-learning in a bottom-up manner, but a formal structure is needed if a school wants to launch an e-learning program. If virtual classrooms are to be launched, then faculty have to be educated in the process of teaching and managing the new learning process. Introducing a degree of formality also allows for the digital learning effort to be recognized within the institution and appropriate metrics to be put in place. Hence it is not surprising to see many Universities set up their own e-learning units, such as e-Cornell at Cornell University and EdX at Harvard and MIT. These units typically have to work in close collaboration with the rest of the school.
  4. Create a digital mindset of rapid experimentation and learning: Agility is a unique feature of digital startups that could bear positive results for business schools. Agility in the digital world is based on the ability to partner with a broad ecosystem of players and to experiment with ideas from which to learn rapidly. As is often said, fail fast to succeed sooner! This is a desirable cultural change for all business schools. Business schools are often criticized for being too slow and cumbersome to change. Changing the curriculum can take a couple of years and launching a new program can take even longer! This is no longer good enough in the world of digital agility. Practices can be adopted from the digital world Ð such as the practice of scrums. Thus, faculty and students at Cornell Tech get together every two months to have an open non-hierarchical discussion together of what is right and what needs to be done to improve in the program.

It is time to start investing seriously into the digital transformation of learning and the Global Business School Network can provide an effective platform to share lessons and create new partnerships across the member school network.



Soumitra Dutta is a Professor of Management at Cornell University and the Chair of the Board of Directors for GBSN. Previously he was the Founding Dean of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell and Chair of AACSB Intl. He also co-chairs the Global Future Council on innovation ecosystems for the World Economic Forum. Email: sd599@cornell.edu; Twitter: @soumitradutta; LinkedIn: soumitra-dutta; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soumitra_Dutta