Open programs evolutions: what should stay and what should go

The last few years were a real moment of change for the role of education, and the world of open programs was not excluded: the challenge now relates to understanding which of the phenomena recently witnessed are supposed to become permanent and which are likely to go away.

Antonella Moretto, Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Open Programs at Polimi Graduate School of Management

The last few years were a real moment of change for the role of education, and the world of open programs was not excluded. Just a brief definition: with the term open programs, I mean master programs available on the market and targeting the B2C world. As master programs, they could cover from 1 to 2 years, in case they are respectively full time or part time.

Over the last years, in the education on open programs, we saw three hot topics circulating.

During the first lockdown, the only discussion topic was online learning and how to make it as effective as face-to-face learning was.

Between the first and the second lockdown, the new issue became hybrid learning and the need to simultaneously manage people in presence and people online. The purpose was to give to anyone the possibility to attend classes the way they preferred, while always worrying about how people online could feel isolated and feel that they were getting a learning experience not effective and not valuable.

Finally, over the last months, when it became once again possible to go back to face-to-face classes, the key point of discussion became how to bring the students back on campus, as they apparently were not finding a reason for doing this anymore. This is a shared problem among different schools internationally.

The scenario has changed a lot of times in a pretty short period, and this is a fact. The purpose of this short paper is not to discuss what is the most effective teaching method. The key takeaway point is that, whether we want it or not, the world of open programs has changed, and now we are struggling to understand which of the phenomena recently witnessed are supposed to become permanent and which are likely to go away.

I present here, without any purpose of completeness, my personal list of four key points that I believe are supposed to remain central in the following months.

Digital is no more the byword for evil

Before the pandemic, when we already offered some online programs, a typical question was “could you reassure me that in the diploma it is not mentioned that this was an online program?”. During the first wave of the pandemic, a typical question was “could you reassure me that the graduate school is planning to come back to face-to-face classes or otherwise could you refund me?”. Now… There simply are no questions like these anymore.

Digital became accepted as a powerful learning tool and people simply expect to have the support of digital to expand their opportunities.

The old-fashioned dichotomy “either online or in presence” simply lost all sense. Now, for open programs, it really doesn’t looks like a matter of how you deliver education, but rather of how you are planning to do so.

A new why for a new world

Now that digital is accepted, it is also very clear that there are wonderful online resources available to learn something new, always up-to-date and very often free of charge. Does this mean that attending a master has lost all its sense? The answer is (hopefully) no, but we must be ready to offer something more than contents, and something more than support to placement.

Attending a master is a “once in a lifetime experience” and should be managed as such. For a junior, it could mean living an experience which is more relevant than ever; for an executive, attending a master could be not a matter of career anymore, but rather a matter of personal satisfaction.

Experience is more critical than content

As written before, for months the “riff” was the desire to come back on campus; when this was possible, the apparently incomprehensible consequence was that the classes remained empty. Someone connected this to a stronger laziness of people, and maybe this is also part of the story. Anyhow, people are lazy when they do not care about something, when something is not providing them real value. Students have understood that they can also learn from home and that this is more than enough to get contents. This means that we need to focus more on the experience, on our capability to offer something more, to offer something memorable in which students are the protagonists and not simply the spectators. Someone says that education should be a blending of content, network, and fun; we devoted a lot of time to content, we exploited our resources for network, it is now time to introduce also the component of fun.

One-to-one caring and the role of pastoral activities

Since students find themselves everyday more in a liquid environment, without a real distinction between online and offline, if we want to provide a value for education, there is a growing need to pay attention to one-to-one activities and pastoral caring. Students want to feel as people, to be supported in designing their own experience, in identifying what it matters more for them. In this field, although new technologies could provide a lot of support, the human touch becomes more relevant than ever.

How to Pay for an Executive Course

Executive education can be expensive, but the benefits should far outweigh the cost

Traditionally, corporate sponsorship has underwritten a large chunk of executive education, as companies throw their financial backing behind rising stars destined for a place on the board. That source of income for business schools is now under threat as participants report that employer funding is harder to come by.

Demand for executive education tends to track economic cycles. When the economy is doing well, companies are more willing to splash out on training for their senior managers. But in a downturn, revenues will dry up and employers will cut back on expenses.

“Some of the professionals who are interested in taking executive education courses tell us that they are finding it more difficult to obtain employer funding. They also report that in some cases it’s hard for them to make the time available, because they are so busy [managing a crisis],” says Nicole Kleyn, dean of executive education at Rotterdam School of Management.

That said, she believes forward-looking organizations realize that during these difficult times, employees will need new knowledge and skills. “We’re not seeing a change compared to before COVID-19; around 90 percent of our participants are funded by their employers,” says Kleyn.

The Dutch school also works with grant providers who seek to create impact by funding education. “We offer discounts for our alumni and self-employed professionals and, under certain circumstances, allow for payments in instalments,” says Kleyn. RSM also collaborates with UAF (a Dutch refugee organization) to offer executive education scholarships to refugees, to help them find suitable employment on the Dutch labor market. […]

MIP Politecnico di Milano also has several loan agreements with financial institutions. But if you need to apply for a loan, you need to be sure the business school you choose will lead to the job opportunities and networking that will help you to quickly offset the financial investment that you are making.

Greta Maiocchi, chief customer management officer at MIP in Italy, says the benefit of executive education far outweighs the cost. “Employers have come to rely on executive education to fill skills gaps, solve challenges and meet business goals. It is also a great way for an employee to get exposure to the latest trends and business thinking.”

As a result, employees are often more engaged at work and, if they received corporate sponsorship, are more loyal too. Maiocchi says: “These are just a few of the many reasons — for both employer and employee — to invest in executive education.”

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