International business school leaders weigh in on online learning: how universities can maximize human interaction and student connection

Talia Kolodny
By Talia Kolodny on June 20, 2022

According to an OECD report on the world after COVID, business school leaders stated that COVID had a profound impact on education. These outcomes will leave their mark and continue to evolve. Five experts from the world’s top business schools gathered recently for a panel at the Engage 2022 global summit. They shared their strategies for designing flexible learning experiences that promote mobility, equity, and innovation. They also discussed key strategies related to digital learning environments and how they can promote authentic human connections.
The discussion, How Connections and Community Can Enhance Business Education Globally, was hosted by Engageli. This purpose-built learning environment was designed by educators to foster active and collaborative learning. Participants included Nick Barniville, the former Director of the EdTech Lab at The European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) of Berlin; Sarah Grant, Ph.D., Associate Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College Business School; Don Huesman, Ed.D., Managing Director of Online Learning at Wharton Online; Tawnya Means, Ph.D., Assistant Dean for Educational Innovation and Chief Learning Officer at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; and Caroline Prevost, Online International Programmes Director at EDHEC Business School.
There were three prevailing takeaways from the panel.

A Truly Diverse, Inclusive, and Global Classroom Can Only Exist Online

“When we unpack the concept of human connection, we must recognize online learning is a mediated experience. But it offers certain unique benefits, allowing us to have a diverse group of participants in a human interaction that reaches into all corners of the globe. It can accommodate a variety of time zones and contexts,” said Don Huesman from Wharton Online, which offers about 100 online courses. Huseman emphasized the powerful aspects of online learning as an enabler for global communities to connect and share ideas. “Working together in the same environment brings new perspectives, and these diverse peer interactions are among the greatest benefits realized from this medium,” he said.

Wharton’s data shows a clear correlation between peer interaction and successful learning outcomes. The Wharton team encourages students to immediately connect in a variety of communication channels. This allows groups and communities of practice to form naturally. “We will typically begin a course with a group project that will break the ice for people to share and work hard through to the end of the program to keep the conversation going,” Huesman shared.

Nick Barniville, CEO of Gomera Tech and formerly Director of the EdTech Lab at ESMT Berlin mentioned, "The big problem is the shift in learner expectations. When students signed up for an in-person experience, it's going to be hard to address those expectations online. But in purposefully designing for online content, it is definitely possible to create programs that promote connections and a sense of belonging."

Building Community by Blurring the Boundaries Between Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

Tawnya Means shared how they encourage human connection online at Gies College of Business. Their high engagement/high enrollment courses in partnership with Coursera are a key driver of community. “We certainly hear from our students that they like the diversity of the courses, of the students in the courses, and the ability to interact with people from all over the world and gather a variety of perspectives,” she said.

Gies programs encourage engagement by holding frequent, open, synchronous online sessions throughout the week to fit learners’ busy schedules. In these sessions, instructors lead peer-group discussions and promote interaction. The sessions are recorded for those who need to access them asynchronously. This allows continued interaction after the official session time has ended. Means shared that “offering learners the ability to do group projects online and holding hybrid or remote class events keeps the connection strong between the students. This builds across the whole student body. It’s been a great way to maintain human connection.”

Another example of this theme came from Caroline Prevost, of EDHEC Business School. Caroline oversees the development of a wide range of online programs from Coursera to MSc programs. Her team creates innovative solutions to bring together groups around projects. Caroline shared that EDHEC’s “online impact learning expeditions" allow them to create strong links between students. “In the beginning, no one wanted to spend more time in front of a screen. But the expedition was prepared with a journalistic approach. It allowed participants to dive into a learning laboratory and work on prototypes addressing challenges of people with disabilities,” Prevost described this working group, focused on inclusion. "By sharing common objectives and working on projects together", she said, "we can maintain online classroom engagement.”

When Humans Engage and Connect, They Learn Better, both Online and In-Person

Sarah Grant of Imperial College Business School in London oversees the college’s portfolio of online degree programs. These include their flagship MBA, executive MBA, MSc in business analytics, and a newly launched MSc in strategic marketing. Altogether the school delivers around 200 courses fully online. Imperial had online education programs before the pandemic. Yet, strategies and assumptions changed over the past two years. Grant described how they learned the different behaviors of the online students as compared to the in-person cohort.

“Human interaction is always one of the first things people ask about concerning our online programs. As long as humans are driving the programs and involved in the delivery, interaction and connection will be central online in the same way as it is in the physical classroom. But the design needed to be slightly different for the online programs,” said Grant. “Behaviors online and in-person are different. In a physical classroom, it's easy to turn to a classmate, ask a question, and have informal conversations that help shape that experience. We have to work a bit harder when developing our online courses for that same effect,” she added. “We have to scaffold in opportunities to interact and go beyond just the synchronous live sessions. We have workshops that happen every week when students can drop in, do some problem solving, and then there's group work as well. Our students have many opportunities to form bonds.”

The panelists agreed that choosing intentional technology to support learning and connection is one of their core challenges. This new reality demands creative, outside-the-box thinking to drive innovation. Our future learning environments depend on it.

Published by
Talia Kolodny
Talia Kolodny
June 20, 2022