When stories of COVID-19 cases started to emerge in Europe early in 2020, everybody in business education braced themselves. It seemed that few organizations would be as badly impacts as business schools, with their lecture-rooms filled with students and faculty constantly jetting to and from all corners of the globe, and a business model focused on the idea that face-to-face interaction is the cornerstone of a top-quality experience. When a deadly airborne pathogen is at large, that model no longer looks quite so appealing.
It was immediately obvious that life was going to change radically for schools, and they pivoted with aplomb, immediately moving learning online – and at the best schools, even developing whole new hybrid models that have proved so successful that they are being suggested as a blueprint for the future.
As well as being potentially vulnerable, businesses schools are also arguably the best-placed organizations imaginable to innovate their way out of the COVID crisis. They teach people how to flourish in a volatile and uncertain world, so it’s no surprise that they were in their element when it came to dealing with a crisis. And so it has proved. Zoom became a way of life, the long resistance to remote learning crumbled, investment in new tech was fast-tracked and best-practices were shared.
In the stories that follow, we look at how some of Europe’s most innovative schools reacted to the crisis to help re-create business education. One sped ahead with the creation of an astonishing virtual campus, where students and faculty in the guise of avatars wander can attend lectures and discuss projects. Another has found itself at an advantage after opening a new, hybrid-enabled campus immediately prior to the beginning of the pandemic and is preparing to leverage this in the post-covid landscape.
One has found that its focus on cutting-edge educational techniques means it has a head-start when it comes to rethinking and reinventing how we teach people in the future. Another has managed to use its new knowledge of remote teaching to quickly create a potentially disruptive online MBA of a sort not seen before in Europe, and another has seen its association with cutting edge science enhance its profile.
Far from crumbling, these business schools have reacted to uncertainty in a way that would have their professors nodding in admiration: by realising that when others are losing their heads, that is the time to innovate and create your own future.
Here are five European business schools to watch in the coming year – and beyond.
NEOMA, Paris, Reims and Rouen, France
Bored of Zoom? At NEOMA, a business school with campuses in Paris, Reims and Rouen in France, they knew right at the start of the pandemic that teaching via videoconferencing was never going to be pleasant, long-term. The solution? They accelerated the development of their virtual campus, the only one of its kind in Europe.
It’s an amazing thing, a Minecraft-like island with a campus building containing over 80 rooms, lecture theatres, classrooms, break-out rooms and offices where students and faculty create an avatar that resembles them, then wander about attending lectures, presenting projects, chatting and collaborating. When Alain Goudey, NEOMA’s Chief Digital Officer, showed us around, we bumped into another staff member and a student in a side-room chatting about creating a virtual Chinese New Year celebration. They told us they expect up to 1,000 people to attend.
Development of the virtual campus had begun before covid struck. “We have several campuses, and we needed to find a way to gather people together, so we need something like this for our day-to-day activities at the school,” Goudey explains. When campuses started to close down, NEOMA and partners Laval Virtual sped up the development.
The result is an experience that makes you think you’ve seen the future. A professor can give a talk looking out on the avatars of her students sitting on banked seating, and students can present and listen to feedback to their classmates. You could have a chat in a group, then if a colleague was there, wander over and ask for some input. Body-language is also possible: you can shake hands when you meet someone, shrug, nod or clap.
Your avatar can even log on to a virtual computer and use the internet in the virtual rooms. We had a look at poetsandquants.com, and students have used it to pore over spreadsheets or watch videos together. It’s not real life. But weirdly it feels a lot like it. “A tool like this creates a sense of unity in terms of time and place,” says Goudey. Starting in February, he plans to run a series of seminars around digital transformation inside the virtual campus.
“When you use Zoom you pay high attention to your own face on the webcam and your attention is not always on what is being said,” says Goudey. Because the avatar is living inside the space for you, you can drink a coffee and the avatar is still representing you in the right way.” It also allows professors to create interactivity and proximity, which is hard using just a webcam. And it’s less dispiriting than staring at a screen full of dozens of black rectangles for hours.
The virtual campus also lends itself to spontaneity. “If you are running a class and want to split people into groups, you have to plan that beforehand and it is quite difficult,” Goudey says. In the virtual campus, you can react on the spot to the class. If everyone decides to head to their own spaces to discuss something, they can.
The virtual campus is not just a pandemic workaround. “This is our fourth campus. And of course it’s virtual, but it’s real campus. If you want to book a room for a meeting, you use the same system as for our physical ones,” Goudey says. NEOMA has reacted to the pandemic in other ways too, using VR headsets for virtual site tours.
We finished our tour of the campus on the beach outside, sitting under an umbrella. It might be the Zoom fatigue talking, but it felt like the future.
SDA Bocconi School of Management, Milan, Italy
At first glance, it might seem that opening a swanky campus in October 2019, just a few months before covid shut down Europe, was a mistake. After all, much education will be online for the foreseeable future and all those state-of-the-art classrooms and breakout rooms are sitting gathering dust.
But SDA Bocconi’s curvaceous and shiny new building doesn’t just look pretty on the outside, it is packed with technology such as cameras in every lecture theatre because the Italian school had twigged that the future is hybrid, even before the pandemic forced everyone down that route. In 2020, that proved to be a great insight.
Bocconi – which is connected to a wider university — already had 30 online executive programs, often taught by the same professors who teach the MBA and MiM, meaning that when covid tore through the Lombardy region in March 2020 – the first big outbreak in Europe — the school was able to pivot fast, deciding one Friday evening that it would go online on the following Monday. (We wrote about their experiences here.)
After almost a year of online teaching, the school’s dean, Giuseppe Soda, is evangelical about the possibilities of hybrid learning. “We are not going to see online substituting face-to-face learning, in the way cars supplanted the horse. The learning formats are complementary,” he says. While much can be done remotely, the face-to-face experience is better for the vital element of “problematization”, meaning that it is easier to disagree, and present other viewpoints. “The plurality of perspectives is crucial to deal with the complexity of this world. You need to be able to join the dots,” Soda says.
Bocconi’s dean adds that the future of Bocconi is offering students “a less standardised more personalisation” education, recognising the huge variety of modern careers. Bocconi’s 12-month full-time MBA has just 100 participants split into two groups, but small is beautiful. “We know all of them by name.” says Soda, adding that “I don’t think you can if you have 1,000 per year.”
Milan itself is another attraction of this school. Over the past 20 years, successive local governments have attracted businesses with start-up friendly legislation, and Bocconi has tapped into this dynamism by creating a new-business accelerator. As an centuries-old banking center, it is expected to hoover up banking jobs leaving post-Brexit London. Of course, Milan is also a hot house for the luxury, design and fashion sectors and is a magnet for people from all over the world wanting to learn about it.
All of this has changed the city. “Milan is becoming a real melting-pot of cultures.” Soda says, adding that the school is aiming to “increase its global footprint” by appealing more to international students. It says that overseas applications have already increased 150 per cent in recent years. This is precisely the sort of place you might expect to be a winner in the post-covid landscape, as the new world is created.
Above all, though, Bocconi aims to imbue its students with a particularly modern way of thinking. Soda, who in 2020 was appointed for a second four-year term as dean, points out that the MBA has courses on populism and the economy and several on geopolitics, ensuring a wide and deep education. Bocconi has also built its values into the fabric of the university in the form of the solar panels that power it. “We believe that we are delivering knowledge, but also exposing students to our vales and view of the world,” says Soda. “Sustainable, open, and inclusive.”