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26 March 2021. Link: https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/education/like-spotify-unis-must-let-students-curate-courses-20210324-p57dle

‘Like Spotify, unis must let students curate courses’

Pivot in pedagogy

Julie Hare

Top: For students in Melbourne, the pandemic hastened shifts in education. Above: Girish Gupta.

PHOTO: EAMON GALLAGHER

When Girish Gupta moved to Melbourne in mid-2019 to take up his place in a masters of business administration degree, he didn’t expect to spend an entire year doing tutorials on Zoom.

Industry engagement was flipped into online business networking and an international immersive component became an online summer school with Tsinghua University in China.

‘‘It was really daunting to see everything set up online and not having that physical experience; that time just hanging out, stopping by to chat with the professors, being in class with other students.’’

Indeed, as universities and students across the world pivoted to address the issue of social distancing and closed borders, executive education courses were particularly vulnerable. The deans of Australia’s 39 business schools quickly realised the prevailing business model would not cope.

After all, half of all postgraduate enrolments in business and management courses are from international students.

As it turned out, the predicted mayhem from absent international students across the Australian higher education sector did not play out quite as predicted. International students proved to be ‘‘sticky’’, opting to commence or continue their studies online from their home countries in far higher numbers than forecast.

‘‘International students come to Australia for the face-to-face experience, but most of them stuck with it being delivered online for two reasons,’’ says Professor David Grant, president of the Australian Business Deans Council (ABDC).

‘‘One, they were already invested in the course and they wanted to get their qualification. Two, commencing students probably took a punt that borders would open at some point and they would get here. The challenge for us now is that the opening of borders is a bit like the horizon: the closer you get the further away it becomes.’’

Certainly, the pandemic accelerated an inevitable set of changes in business education that was already under way.

Andrew Crisp, founder of the UK consultancy Carrington Crisp, says research for his upcoming study with LinkedIn called The Future of Lifelong and Executive Education shows that certain trends that have been in motion since the financial crisis came to a head around the world last year.

These include a massive acceleration in demand and interest in online learning, a shift away from executive education or what Crisp calls ‘‘luxury learning’’ to lifelong learning, making international experiences shorter and sharper, a shifting focus away from leadership to management and including stackable, sector-specific units of education that are curated according to individual need.

Crisp points to Oxford University’s Said Business School, which has introduced a series of short online courses that run for six to eight weeks for 10-12 hours a week.

‘‘The first one they ran was in fintech and now they have about 20 of these programs across various subjects each charging around £2350 ($4230). If you did a lot of them – or the equivalent number of units to an MBA – the price would be exorbitant.’’

But the value in these short courses is that they are highly targeted and industry focused and offer a good value in terms of return on investment, Crisp says.

Indeed, the Oxford offering points to a real move away from the traditional approach to higher education, which is linear study leading to a degree.

‘‘Students might have a break between an undergraduate and a masters degree or MBA, but it is essentially the same approach.

‘‘But lifelong learning is the complete opposite. The only thing that is linear about it is the lifelong part. It’s do a bit here, do a bit there, move forward, make a move sideways, find something else,’’ Crisp says.

Indeed, the adoption of microcredentials – or tiny packages of specific learning – and stackable qualification is one of six key findings in a recent report by the ABDC.

‘‘Many schools are looking at ways to tailor their course offerings to meet the needs of potential students whose study requirements are not necessarily met by the standard degree,’’ the report says.

‘‘Along with increased offerings of fully online courses, schools are expanding their offerings of short courses and designing innovative ‘stackable’ and ‘build-your-own’ degree programs that offer greater choice and flexibility to a more diverse pool of potential students.’’

Gupta, who will complete his degree in June, has included microcredentials in his program. One was a Salesforce Trailhead module, which covered things such as customer relationship management.

‘‘The experience was really good and it allowed me to keep my mind sharp by building valuable work and life skills,’’ Gupta said.

Crisp put it like this: ‘‘For years, universities have been way too product-centred and they need to be more like Spotify so that students can curate their own playlist of skills and career opportunities, rather than having to follow a rigid pattern that is prescribed by an organisation.’’

As business schools continue to grapple with the challenges of COVID-19, it is clear that the pandemic has opened new ways of thinking and hastened evolving trends and approaches.

‘‘The expectations and needs of both employers and students have changed,’’ says Grant. AFR

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