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How Much Will Distance Learning Recede When Campuses Reopen?

Certainly the impact of COVID-19 on the management education sector is not, and should not, be of great concern to the masses at the moment, but for those of us who experience it on a daily basis, understanding how it will impact our sector moving forward is imperative. While we have spoken to many of our clients during the past few weeks, we thought it would be best to survey those most experiencing the business side of the pandemic – business school deans – to understand what can be learned so far, and best guesses for what it will all mean moving forward.

This online survey was fielded on March 24th, and we received 48 complete responses from a cross-section of the industry. Our intent was to ask the questions that other surveys may not be able to ask. Over the coming days we will share a series of blog posts that show the most pertinent data, and our interpretation of the ramifications when it is safe to return to campus.

We start with exploring a few questions about distance learning, which is often one of the most contentious topics on campus. While the national data related to the increase in demand for distance learning, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, has been irrefutable for a while, we consistently encounter situations with strong resistance to moving in that direction. What will happen now that it has become a short-term necessity?

Program delivery will never be the same

The surveyed deans, for the most part, believe that we are not going back to the way things were. Almost 75% believe there will be more distance learning on their campus once campuses reopen, with the majority of those believers saying there will be somewhat or substantially more distance learning (ie, the shift will not be incremental). Most everyone appears to be bracing for the distance learning door to be left way more open than it was a month ago.

If this is indeed the case, what was a slow and steady march towards more distance learning just became a (hopefully) truncated sprint that leaves every institution facing the reality of a very different market – financially, organizationally, structurally, academically, etc – than the one they were planning for previously.

The impact on OPMs

A fundamental next question centers on who supplies these online programs moving forward. One of the reasons partnering with an OPM was so attractive was because institutions did not believe they had the capability to themselves build and run online programs. With at least a few months of jumping into the deep end under their belts, will institutions still look to partner with OPMs – who, to be clear, often do more than just manage online programs – as frequently as they did before?

There is much less consensus here, as only about 1/3 of the deans believe the demand for using OPMs will remain unchanged, while there are near equal numbers who believe the demand will increase and those who believe it will decrease. Our hypothesis here is that those who are feeling the most squeamish about their current distance learning solution may be thinking that they will need to seek out a partner moving forward. Conversely, those who believe their solution was satisfactory, may be saying “you know, we can really do this ourselves if we want to”! Regardless, while OPMs have played a significant role in the shaping of the industry over the past 10+ years, their proposition moving forward may need to adapt to maintain their influence.

The pandemic that broke the resistance’s back

Our final question on this topic is one that we were eager to understand and we were frankly surprised by the consensus – especially since this question was open ended (while those above single-selection questions).

Business school deans believe that this complete, immediate, transition to distance learning accelerates what was going to take years otherwise – convince faculty and staff that it’s not nearly as calamitous as they thought to educate in this way.

Positioning yourself for long-term success

When an event like this pandemic comes along it is easy to think that, from a business perspective, it’s a major immediate obstacle to how a business school operates right now, but it will pass and we’ll be back to some sense of normalcy with it behind us (we’ll get to guesses on when “behind us” is in a subsequent post). In reality, it looks like most deans believe that the management education world will never be the same, at least when it comes to what their portfolio looks like from a delivery model perspective.

As any business school graduate can tell you, when there are major shifts in how any industry operates, that typically means there are significant opportunities for winners and losers along the way, and those who are not well attuned to market forces are more likely to fall into the latter category. So while each institution is likely experiencing a number of bumps in their transition to fully online learning, we recommend that you look at each of them as an input for learning and improvement rather than something to simply bandage over, because this may be closer to R&D for your next strategic plan than you think.