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Choosing an MBA programme: here’s what to look for

15 November 2016

The article at a glance

Tomorrow’s MBA students won’t stand for today’s learning experience. So when it comes to choosing a programme, what are the must-haves? Technology …

Tomorrow’s MBA students won’t stand for today’s learning experience. So when it comes to choosing a programme, what are the must-haves?

Research using a laptopTechnology is revolutionising business education. Gone are the days when virtual learning meant simply accessing a document on the internet and discussing it in an online chat room. Now it’s a multi-layered, multi-media experience with interactivity at its heart.

But as virtual learning environments develop, so too do students’ expectations. So what do the learners of tomorrow want from their educational experience? We posed the following scenario to two Cambridge Judge MBA graduates: You have finished your undergrad or graduate studies, and are now looking at upskilling. What should you be looking for in an institution when you are choosing to undergo further business education? Here’s what they told us.

Priyanka Agarwal (Cambridge MBA 2014), founder of Connect2Teach, an online network that connects experts from industry and academia to opportunities at educational institutions, corporates, MOOCs and events around the world

Priyanka Agarwal, MBA 2014
Priyanka Agarwal

To understand what learners should look for in an institution when upskilling, it is important to understand the need for upskilling in the first place. It could be to acquire management skills, to switch industries or geographies, to get vacant time to start a business, to access better opportunities and pay, to develop a network or – increasingly common – to stay relevant.

This last point has taken on more importance in the digital landscape, where jobs are changing rapidly. Artificial intelligence won’t ultimately take away jobs but it does create new ones instantly, so we will need to keep upskilling.

All of the above needs understanding, exposure to different sectors, training in new skills to support the future of the industry and a keen understanding of managing people and expectations. To achieve this, I think there are three key things that a business student should focus on in an institution – faculty, peers and student services.

Firstly, the programme content must be strong and relevant. To do this it is important that the faculty has a connection to industry. They should be aware of what’s trending: they could have industry experience themselves, be engaged in researching with or teaching at corporates, or bring in guest speakers who have real-life experience of the market.

The delivery of classes should also facilitate discussion. This is not only important to develop peer networks but is the cornerstone of sparking innovative thinking. The experiences and expertise of fellow students from my undergraduate and graduate school have offered me a personal board of advisers.

Mentoring students, and helping them understand themselves and their own motivations, is also key. The programme content I experienced at Cambridge was outstanding but it was the mentoring both during and afterwards which kept challenging my thoughts and preconceptions. This mentoring came from my professors, members of the administration and also the coaches that had been assigned to us. That took my learning experience to the next level.

Another important factor is student support services – a good business school keeps its alumni involved, engaged, informed, is interested in their research and uses their contributions to help the next cohorts, thus establishing another link between the classroom and the outside business world.

This is why as digitisation develops, the business school must also encourage and embrace new ways of thinking on how to expand the offline into the online – not just the teaching, but in terms of accessibility, student support and all the other ancillary aspects of a programme.

This digitisation is not limited to just creating online content but instead extends to the back-end as well, which may eventually help the students get the best education at lower costs. Business schools should think about how to use technology to recruit faculty better, to maximise learning from fellow students and develop practical links with the business world. In fact, just as the best students will constantly be reinventing themselves, the best schools will be continuously looking at how they can do all this even better.

Vaithegi Vasanthakumar (Cambridge MBA 2011), product manager at the Financial Times

Vaithegi Vasanthakumar, MBA 2011
Vaithegi Vasanthakumar

Conversations on education have been shifting away from a focus on inputs to outputs, where achieving the learner outcome – whether it be a change in skill or knowledge or behaviour – is at the core of an education experience. As such, a person looking to undergo further business education should look at how both the in-person and digital experience supports their learning, inside and outside of the classroom.

Digital tools can enhance the learning experience by providing better engagement with content. One such tool is the online learning platform. It allows professors to cater to various learning styles by sharing and curating different types of content (text, video, audio). It allows students who are upskilling to work around busy full-time commitments by giving them the ability to complete certain activities online – to master technical competencies – and then use the in-person experience to discuss and consolidate learning.

Good learning platforms are designed with the needs of the learner in mind, using principles of good design and how the user interface supports the experience. Platforms should also have ways to collect individual student data that is summarised in such a way that professors can understand where the majority of the class might be strong or weak. That understanding can then be used to determine the focus for the next lesson.

In parallel, the in-person experience should support learning. Using digital tools is not as effective unless you have faculty with the mindset to think about their roles differently. For example, if a professor is giving a lecture, are they standing up in front of the classroom speaking to a set of slides? Or, are they serving as facilitators – asking questions to move the discussion forward, inviting students to share their perspectives and using appropriate digital tools (such as online polling) to ensure engagement?

Finally, as a prospective student, I’d look to see how the school is leveraging its unique strengths of what it’s known for. CJBS was excellent at doing that through practical projects with companies based in Cambridge. I’d also look to see if the faculty is known to provide mentoring or facilitating connections. Both these factors enable students to acquire a richer set of skills and knowledge beyond what’s taught in the classroom, and ultimately supports them in getting to the end destination they want.

Professor Jaideep Prabhu
Professor Jaideep Prabhu

According to Jaideep Prabhu, Professor of Marketing and Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business & Enterprise at Cambridge Judge: “Business schools have to stay ahead of the curve in offering relevant and innovative learning experiences both in the classroom and online. The learning institutions, and those who teach in them, must continue to embrace and develop digital tools not only to attract students, but to keep them ahead of the competition.”

All of which means that business schools have to stay innovative while maintaining their traditional teaching values. “At Cambridge Judge, learning is a collaborative experience,” says Prabhu. “We work in teams, we embrace diversity and offer interaction with people, enabling our cohorts to learn not just from tutors but the experience of fellow students. Replicating all of this in a virtual learning experience is the key – it is using the technology to explore a new pedagogy to continue engaging students.”