Online education has become increasingly widespread all around the world. For example, as numbers from AACSB International’s 2014–15 Business School Questionnaire (BSQ) show, 13.4 percent of reporting member schools indicated that they provide fully online bachelor’s degrees against only 7.6 percent on the 2009–10 BSQ. Rapid expansion is notable especially in the U.S., where elite universities widely offer courses and full degrees online. For example, Harvard Business School offers an extensive number of online courses through their HBX online program. There are examples of online educational programs existing outside of the U.S., too. For instance, University of Liverpool provides online programs, including an online Doctor of Business Administration degree.
In the Netherlands, a European country that traditionally has been among forerunners in higher education, the future for online education looks promising, too. Although there are no precise numbers on student enrollment to any form of online education at the country level, according to the data presented in a report by SURFNet, most Dutch universities place priority on developing online and blended education offerings and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in the next two years. For example, 11 out of 14 research universities and 10 out of 21 vocational universities in the Netherlands report that online education is a central theme for the 2015–2018 period. However, despite these developments, fully online degrees are not prominent in the Dutch business education landscape (with the exception of a few executive online programs). A series of interviews with the deans and management officers of Dutch business schools shows that schools in the Netherlands put effort into developing and implementing blended programs that involve online elements to varying degrees; however, none of the interviewed business schools reported that they plan to develop fully online degrees.
Dutch business schools respond to the demands of the educational sector and incorporate technology in their curricula. Leen Paape, dean of Nyenrode Business University, says, “We run this project on blended learning where we explore what works the best for us; it is a lot about experimenting. No one knows what the best ratio of online and offline activities is so far.” While some schools are only starting to try out this area, others have a long history of using a blended learning approach. Rotterdam School of Management dean, Steef van de Veelde, says, “Professors have already been making class recordings for students for more than 10 years, but it has always been ad-hoc and left to the consideration of the professors.” Now, according to van de Veelde, the school thinks about how to make the learning process more structured, how to use new technology as a part of blended programs, and how to approach grading with these types of programs.
A common practice for blended learning in Dutch business schools is to incorporate MOOCs into course curricula. For instance, Hanze University of Applied Sciences uses MOOCs to support their courses: “Students watch videos online, instead of a teacher explaining the concepts over and over again using the classroom time,” says senior lecturer Uli Mathies. Another example is Rotterdam School of Management’s nine-week course on Innovation Management, which is offered through Coursera: “The idea is that bachelor’s students go online and use it as a bone for their course,” says van de Veelde. Nijmegen School of Management also offers a MOOC, although they have reservations about this method of teaching: “It is good for fields where the knowledge is stable; however, it is rather difficult in such fields as business,” says Nijmegen’s dean, Paul Hendriks. They will run their course on New Business Models in late 2016.
So, if blended learning is on the rise, why then are business schools not experimenting with fully online degrees in the Netherlands? The deans we have interviewed have named two major reasons for this:
-From Dutch schools’ perspective, fully online degrees lack an important social component. “[Fully online degrees] would be possible in other areas, but with business it is not much about knowledge, but a lot about context, group work, and experiential learning. Especially for undergraduate programs, socialization is really important and I don’t think we can replace that,” says van de Veelde. Dean of Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics, Philip Vergauwen, has a similar stance on the issue: “Online components complement the courses but do not substitute for them; there won’t be fully online degrees. We select good students and take them through all learning experience which goes far beyond the knowledge transfer. It involves co-creation, participation, experience-driven learning.” Current studies on online learning also point at common concerns related to socialization: the time lag between interactions and often a lack of clear norms of communication in the case of asynchronous interactions, and a danger of having students staying passive during online group discussions.
-Online education requires advanced technical equipment, financial resources, and training of human resources, and the need for such investments can be a barrier for the Dutch schools. Tilburg University’s dean of education, P.P.M. Joos, and associate dean of internationalization, Henk van Gemert, suggest that if business schools do not invest enough in new online courses, they may end up with unmotivated faculty and technological flaws that may damage the reputation of the school. Since such investments are often difficult to secure, this becomes one of the reasons schools in the Netherlands abstain from developing fully online degrees.
What’s next then? Han van Dissel, dean of the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Amsterdam, believes that the undergoing shift is inevitable, and as university-level contact time between professors and students decreases, the professor will play a different role, and some part of the learning process will be done online.
Dutch business schools that we talked to share a positive outlook on the future of using online education as a part of the learning process. Schools expand the use of technology in classrooms and replace or complement traditional methods of learning with online elements. Some schools stick to the flipped classroom method, exploring ways that technology can improve students’ learning experience, and experiment with MOOCs; other schools create fully online executive programs. Non-executive online degrees are absent from the Dutch business education landscape, and this absence is attributed by the deans we interviewed to the difficulty of socialization with this learning method as well as financial and technical barriers to implementing fully online programs.
Schools are aware of the upcoming changes in the way educational processes are structured and are ready to tackle it. The numbers in nation-wide reports and interviews with deans of AACSB member schools indicate that the schools are preparing for these upcoming changes and are primed to experiment and innovate in order to meet current challenges.