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Returning to Business School in the New Normal

return to campus new normal imperial emlyon nyenrode

Higher education has changed substantially over the past six months. A matter of months ago, students across the globe were uncertain as to whether or not they’d be able to return to business school campuses this year, or whether the online method of learning would continue.

We caught up with students and faculty from a few business schools to find out what returning to business school amid the new normal is really like.

Imperial College Business School

Bala Kadirvel is an innovative digital technology leader and current EMBA candidate at Imperial College Business School returned to campus on the 21st and 22nd of August for his cohort’s first set of face-to-face classes for Block 2.

He began his EMBA studies in February 2020, however, his cohort only had two face-to-face sessions (one in February, the next in March) before classes moved online.

Bala said: “At the start it was a struggle to cope with the live Zoom sessions and class participation wasn’t the same.

“It got better as Block 1 classes progressed, but I’m glad to be back on campus. I missed seeing my cohort; bonding, networking, and exchanging ideas.

“I’m glad we were the first batch back on campus, and as the smallest cohort, it was much easier to test the new normal of synchronous live classes.”

Although Imperial students knew they’d return to campus for Block 2, Bala admits they weren’t sure how it would work for international students. He said: “The new synchronous live classes are a game changer and I’m glad that Imperial is the trailblazer in the UK.”

Social distancing measures have been implemented across institutions and workplaces across the globe to keep people safe, and Imperial is no exception.

Bala said: “Social distancing seating plans and health and safety measures were as expected. The briefing from Imperial was very comprehensive and we all received a care pack with necessary PPE to make us feel safe.”

Bala says it’s hard to describe how happy his classmates were to return to campus. He said: “It was great to see people having healthy debates on various topics at Imperial”

Although students were happy to return, Bala admits it was a shame to lose five months of face-to-face interaction. However, he says the crisis has helped students to adopt a new strategy. He said: “It taught us how to be good leaders in a crisis. This is the silver lining to the chaos COVID-19 brought our learning experience.”

But when social distancing measures are lifted, what approach would Bala prefer for his EMBA education? He said: “Currently, our overseas classmates dial in via video conferencing. It will be great to have them with us in class. I hope that day isn’t too far away. Fingers crossed. I’d choose the in-person approach any day.”

Emlyon Business School

Thierry Picq is the director of early makers development and Professor and Director of Innovation at Emlyon Business School.

When it comes to his role, he said: “My mission is to help to develop a culture of innovation and experimentation in schools, with a particular focus on transforming our pedagogical model.

“Of course, the Covid crisis has accelerated this transformation, particularly due to the fact that all of our courses moved online.”  

In April 2020, Thierry became the Head of the Covid Crisis Unit when the school realized activities would be affected for quite some time.

Thierry says Emlyon kept its planned September return dates for its programs – while ensuring students and professors could return to campus safely.

He said: “There are many aspects to be taken into account in terms of organization. The quality of the courses, health management, life on campus, communication with students and staff, risk management at all levels, relationship with international students who aren’t able or willing to come to France now.”

However, Emlyon’s new pedagogical model is aimed at flexibility and agility, allowing students to switch between face-to-face, remote or hybrid models quickly, making this new normal of education easier to navigate.

He said: “The main reason for this is to adapt to uncertain conditions which can change rapidly. Long term, we want to keep this flexibility to offer students a multi-channel pedagogy. Students could choose to follow all or part of the program in different formats.”

But looking back over the past six months, when courses needed to be moved online quickly, Thierry says the switch to online teaching was very well received by students.

Thierry said: “Our faculty have made a lot of effort to adapt. Of course, this generated more work and stress for professors and external speakers. We are setting up a support and training system to help teachers to continue to develop their teaching practices.”

Now, more than ever, flexible learning is important, to ensure teaching continuity. Thierry said: “Beyond adapting to change, we believe the behavior of our learners is evolving towards a need for increasing modularity, to better adapt to their needs of running different types of parallel activities.

“We internally call this emerging model: “Netflix”, where students can learn when they want, where they want, through their chosen format.”

Nyenrode Business University

Dr Sam Solaimani has held the position of Director of Full-time MBA programs and Assoc. Professor of Digital Transformation and Emerging Technologies at Nyenrode Business University since 2018.

Nyenrode’s MBA class of 2020/21 will return to campus on September 9, following the program’s official academic start of September 1. Sam said: “We are doing our best to do as much face to face on-campus as possible, but the percentage depends on the purpose/importance of the session, intended venue and number of students, and state of the pandemic in our country.

“In addition, we have an open-door policy: our students can reach out to professors for additional sessions, questions and meetings. All our program-teams monitor the possibilities of face-to-face activities every week.”

Over the past few months, because of global restrictions, Sam says the b-school had to revisit some program components and introduce new ones, meaning his team’s agility, creativity, and resilience was put to the ultimate test.

He said: “We had to collaborate more than ever with stakeholders, especially students, to find a novel workaround, but also new things that we had never tried before, such as moving education entirely online in just a few days.”

But Sam admits they made some ‘brilliant’ mistakes in the process which helped to optimize non-face-to-face processes. He said: “The post-covid-19 life will, therefore, never be the same because we are a better educator with a more balanced online-offline education.”

As Nyenrode returns to campus, Sam acknowledges that the b-school needed to pull out all the stops to facilitate social distancing, maintain hygiene measures for the workforce as well as visitors and students.

He said: “Fortunately, Nyenrode has been able to rely on corporate partner loyalty. A lot of effort was needed from program management to organize company visitations; however, combined with some new virtual components, we were able to facilitate face-to-face contact with the business market.

“Was it difficult? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. We believe effective business education is limited, if not less effective, without face-to-face components.”

Sam says Covid-19 and its business, social, and financial consequences will play an essential role in education. He said: “Our career services will focus on changes in the labor market. We will continue ‘blendifying’ our program, a strategy we established at our university a few years ago and has been accelerated since the crisis.

“We hope to optimize our blended program further and apply what we have learned in the past few years, especially in the past few months to the program.”

Niamh Ollerton, Deputy Head of Content at QS
Written by Niamh Ollerton

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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