COVER STORY

Virtual reality

The switch to online education has started. B-schools will have to evolve to survive

96-Jain-Institute Class in progress: S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai | Amey Mansabdar

The meaning of being tech-savvy has changed significantly in the past few years—from knowing how to use social media to knowing how to protect your personal data. So, the tech-savviness required for virtual learning is now commonplace. And, the argument that e-learning is impersonal and non-collaborative no longer carries any merit as virtual courses have become quite interactive.

Still, as a matter of perception, online learning is not considered on a par with on-site learning. It is this perception that India’s best b-schools are challenging, and they are delving into the world of virtual learning like never before. “E-learning has become a significant trend in today’s fast-changing business world, facilitating students with relevant education in a flexible and convenient platform,” says the Reverend E. Abraham, director, Xavier Labour Relations Institute, Jamshedpur.

XLRI was among the pioneering institutions for online learning in India. It started the Virtual Interactive Learning (VIL) programme, offering management education to working executives, in 2002. Abraham says that initiation of good courses by credible institutes has helped online learning become a popular higher education alternative, overcoming the initial scepticism. “Today, this format provides a variety of programmes at costs much lower than traditional courses,” he says. More than 7,000 students have graduated from various XLRI-VIL programmes. Currently, the institute has 170 online study centres across the country, offering postgraduate courses in areas such as business management, human resource management, business analytics for management decisions and senior leadership.

Market watch: The finance lab at T.A. Pai Management Institute, Manipal | Courtesy: TAPMI Market watch: The finance lab at T.A. Pai Management Institute, Manipal | Courtesy: TAPMI

Such initiatives have made XLRI one of the best b-schools in India. It is, again, India’s best private b-school in the annual THE WEEK-Hansa Research Best B-Schools Survey. It, however, dropped a place, to fourth, in the overall ranking, as IIM Lucknow went ahead by two. The rest of the top ten is unchanged from the last year. Faculty of Management Studies (FMS), University of Delhi, managed to stay ahead of IIM Kozhikode, albeit with a reduced lead of seven as opposed to 16 last time. IIM Indore, which is in the seventh position, has also lost ground to S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), Mumbai, seeing its lead halved from 22 to 11.

Innovative courses seem to be a factor that helped SPJIMR improve its score. The institute has been early to spot trends. It is one of the very few institutes globally that has a course in design thinking, which was launched three years ago. Last year, the institute launched a programme in management and liberal arts. “We spoke to alumni, recruiters and current students about the qualities tomorrow’s MBAs need to have,” says Professor Ranjan Banerjee, dean, SPJIMR. “The elements of mindfulness, balance, and the ability to connect the dots and solve unstructured problems came across strongly. That is where courses like liberal arts are coming in.”

SPJIMR has a vision to become the most innovative and socially sensitive school of management. The institute has a 11-month programme for women returning from a sabbatical. “We want to give women an opportunity to be current with the business world, to know the dynamics, gain more knowledge of various functional areas and, more importantly, to get their self confidence back,” says Professor Ashita Aggarwal, chairperson of the programme. SPJIMR has another year-long programme, where students mentor underprivileged children from nearby schools.

Learn, live, laugh: Students at Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi | Aayush Goel Learn, live, laugh: Students at Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi | Aayush Goel

Social sensitivity seems to be a key factor that b-schools are trying to inculcate in their students. While the practice of taking students for camps in rural areas have been around, it has now become more structured and prevalent. “With a view to sensitise the students to the challenges of rural India, a three-day village exposure visit at the beginning of all flagship programmes is compulsory,” says Abraham. This helps students get a first-hand experience of the challenges that less privileged citizens face.

This, according to Abraham, gives the students a better insight into rural markets and enables them to empathise with the unmet needs of villages. Introducing such elements into the curriculum meets the need to provide education that is more integrated and provides students with the opportunity to learn and to come up with new ideas. While training freshers it is important to expose them to problems they are likely to face in the real world. “We build this experience by ensuring that the students are constantly engaged in live projects with industry, simulations, case studies, industry visits and sessions by industry stalwarts,” says Pratima Sheorey, director of Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development, Pune. It is also important while training freshers to bring in the real world to the classroom in as many dimensions as possible, says Professor G. Raghuram, director, IIMB. “Case studies are an important input,” he says. “A diverse class in which students with experience share their perspectives is essential. Internships provide a real-life context, and simulations and projects provide experiential learning.”

In fact, experiential learning methods have become a necessity thanks to the demand from the job market. “Industry wants people who are out-of-the-box thinkers, who can come back with solutions for problems, who can do application much better than before,” says Professor Madhu Veeraraghavan, director, T.A. Pai Management Institute, Manipal. TAPMI has a Student Managed Investment Course (SMIC), where the institute gives 010 lakh to be invested in the stock market. For SMIC, Veeraraghavan handpicks 30 second year students based on their grade points, a written application on why they should be part of the course and an interview. They are divided into six teams and the corpus is divided equally among the teams. The assessment is based on how their portfolio performs and weekly presentations. Last year, when the students liquidated their stocks before convocation, they made a profit of Rs1.75 lakh.

Another major shift happening in b-schools is the focus on technology-enriched content. “You could not have thought about analytics five years ago as a major in a PGDM programme,” says Veeraraghavan. “Today, b-schools talk about Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and analytics in all areas such as marketing, human resources and finance.”

One way for institutes to stay relevant is offering specialised education, such as in the case of Symbiosis Institute of Telecom Management, Pune, which is a pioneering institute in telecom management. Institute of Public Enterprise, Hyderabad, has carved out a niche for itself in the study of issues relevant to policies and programmes related to public enterprises. GITAM Institute of Management offers a Business English Certificate from Cambridge University, UK, as part of its course.

While b-schools refine their curriculum based on industry needs and include technology like AI and blockchain, they would also have to pay attention to the ethics behind innovation. “With the development of technology, it is very important that ethical practices and policies are in place,” says Sunita Singh, dean, FMS. “Otherwise, it will lead to scandals and scams.” The advancement of technology has caused a massive disruption in the job market. Devinder Narain, director (corporate relations), Shobhit University, Meerut, says that students should utilise the opportunities that arise from the change in technology to land better jobs. “AI is capable of doing a lot of things,” he says “But it cannot think like humans and does not have emotions. So, in order to survive in this market, students have to develop their thinking process and emotional response.”

One thing that all top b-schools in the world seem to be agreeing upon is that education will become virtual, sooner rather than later. A good example of how virtual simulation can help students practise skills is public speaking. Simulators are available in plenty in the market. Even the most basic versions, available for free on Google Play Store for Android phones, allow students to choose the settings, such as number of people in the audience and their reaction to the speech.

B-schools will have to continue to evolve if they hope to survive. The number of applicants to management programmes worldwide has been declining. B-schools are closing down or merging with other institutes or universities. A striking example being the Thunderbird School of Global Management, a reputed American institution founded in 1946, which merged with the Arizona State University in 2014. “Management education is facing a slight decline now,” says M.P. Hrishikesh, director, CMR Centre for Business Studies, Bengaluru. “B-schools need to tighten the operations quality.” According to Nitin Garg, director, International School of Management Excellence, Bengaluru, “Management schools need to look at return on investment and value addition offered to students. Increase in fees have far outstripped increase in salary.” He adds that since the costs are lower for online programmes, it is a good option for working executives.

In India, the switch to online programmes has been rather slow. Even IIMA introduced its ePost Graduate Programme only a year ago. Ashok Mittal, chancellor, Lovely Professional University, Phagwara, Punjab, says that online learning can be used to make the existing model more interesting. But, virtual learning is expected to pick up in the years to come. Says Raghuram: “Democratisation of management education will grow in importance since management is a fundamental in almost any working context. Digital delivery of management education would be a major trend that facilitates such democratisation.”

While the brick-and-mortar feel and the social interactions in a campus/hostel are important aspects of a student’s life, the convenience and flexibility that online courses provide are unmatchable. “Online education is going to be the norm in days to come,” says Himanshu Joshi, associate professor at International Management Institute, Delhi. “With the number of b-schools coming up, the sustainability of their business model is a question mark. They will have to cater to the requirement of the audience that wants convenience-based education.” B-schools that adapt to this delivery model, and provide high-quality content, will thrive.

With Nachiket Kelkar