Higher Education’s Conquest of the Online World Should Serve its Quality Improvement

Andreas Kaplan, Dean, ESCP Business School Paris

The unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic is considered a game-changer within the world of online education. While it did not spur the reinvention of the wheel concerning online instruction, it resulted in a massive shift in the mindsets of universities and business schools, who finally came to terms with digital course formats. Higher education was somewhat reluctant to move into the digital sphere on a large scale until Covid-19 accelerated and accentuated their digital journey. However, some watch-outs are to consider. As Dean of ESCP Business School Paris and during the previous roles within the management of higher education I held over the past decade, I often get and got confronted with the idea that going online will significantly decrease cost and make business schools more profitable. The opposite is the case since substantial investments in digital infrastructures, support services, and the regular updating of digital material are essential. Instead of cost savings and profitability, one should think of digital education in terms of quality optimization.

First, the digital sphere provides several opportunities to improve teaching and learning directly. With the help of big data, professors can obtain granular insights into what learning materials students have looked at on their online platform, how much time they have spent working on them, and what degree online contents have been understood. These data can help teaching professionals to improve both online and offline courses. Furthermore, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) makes it possible to completely customize online courses by adjusting teaching materials to the knowledge and progress of each individual learner.

In addition, online teaching provides students access to multidisciplinary content from partner universities within other areas than the ones offered by the student’s alma mater. Business schools could offer classes in psychology, law, or programming. Moreover, the online world enables the integration of world-class academics or top-notch practitioners. While it often is impossible to invite speakers to intervene as experts in on-campus sessions when a long commute is necessary, they might happily accept to block one hour in their busy schedule for an online intervention.

Moreover, the digital sphere can help build strong communities, which becomes more difficult with an increasing number of online courses. Sitting at home following an online course will less likely lead to high attachment to one’s business school. However, in periods where students are naturally less connected with their alma mater, such as during internship periods or foreign exchange stays at partner institutions, or after graduating and becoming alumni, the online sphere provides new and unique possibilities to remain in close contact these times.

Second, the online world can indirectly result in quality optimization. Despite the significant investments required, online courses can lead to cost reduction. One example is when on-campus sessions in several (smaller) cohorts are replaced by synchronous online units in larger groups. However, experience shows that such online courses are perceived as less high quality than their offline counterparts. Nevertheless, the money saved can and should be invested in areas that generate significant perceived value for students, such as career service. Such reallocation of budgets can significantly increase overall (perceived) quality, which should be the primary goal of any top-tier higher education institution.

To conclude, I would like to discuss a further misconception with regards to the digital universe. Real estate and physical university spaces are there to stay. The more courses move online, the more critical facilities will become. Pure online participation will not result in high attachment to their business school. However, such attachment is vital since the more robust a community around a business school, the stronger the business school itself. Such strength is needed to cope with an ever-increasing competitive landscape due to the entering of edtech start-ups, big tech corporations (cf. Linkedin Learning), or new certification types (e.g., Google’s Career Certificates). Students attach themselves to the buildings where they exchange with each other, talk to their professors, or interact with professional service staff. Hence even in an online world, real estate must provide a pleasant atmosphere to motivate and encourage students (and professors for that matter) to come to campus, creating a strong community feeling.

Further reading: Kaplan Andreas (2021) Higher Education at the Crossroads of Disruption: The University of the 21st Century, Great Debates in Higher Education, Emerald Publishing.


Biography: As a world-class AI and social media expert, Andreas Kaplan has published several seminal articles and works, which earned him a spot among the top 50 global authors in business and management, according to John Wiley & Sons. Moreover, a Stanford study recognizes him as one of the most cited and influential scientists globally. Professor Kaplan has held a number of strategic positions within ESCP Business School, where he progressed from the head of the marketing faculty, to director of brand and communications, to dean for academic affairs and provost. For four years, he ran the school in Berlin before becoming the Dean of ESCP in Paris.