Shifting education from Art to Science: The adaptive learning-driven MBA

Technology is transforming graduate education to meet the needs of today’s student.

The business world is in constant flux, driven by geopolitical and societal demands, technological innovation and evolving trends. To meet the needs of employers in this dynamic environment, graduate business education – primarily the MBA – must also undergo significant transformation, capitalizing on innovative educational technology to serve a more diverse array of students who serve a more diverse group of organizations.
The first MBA program was established by Harvard University in 1908 to create knowledgeable government and public policy leaders. To gain legitimacy within a higher education structure focused on the importance of liberal arts education and knowledge for knowledge’s sake, early graduate business schools sought to develop an elite cadre of managers endowed with high morality who would ensure, in the wake of the explosion of robber baron wealth, that businesses served the public good.

The 1960s brought about a dramatic shift following the publication of the Ford Foundation’s Gordon-Howell report in 1959. The authors sought to transform management education to be dominated by economics and quantitative research, preparing future business leaders to succeed in their primary goal: delivering shareholder value. Under the influence of this report, many schools expanded their focus.

Despite these changes, MBA programs largely remained for the elite, accessible only to those of a certain academic or professional pedigree who could dedicate themselves to a traditional, full-time program. The leaders of many large companies served as donors and trustees of elite colleges and recruited new graduates to fill key positions.

Today, graduate business education has shifted once again, to focus primarily on global citizenship, sustainable business models and social responsibility. Seeking growth, graduate schools have expanded their offerings to include part-time programs for working professionals and expensive Executive MBA programs for high-potential employees whose education is often supported by their employers. Still, most business schools serve those who already hold an undergraduate business degree and who strive for higher-level leadership roles. This focus, however, is inconsistent with the needs of many employees and employers.

Today, an MBA is valued not only in senior leadership positions but also many entry-level and middle-management positions. Jobs in information technology, healthcare, science and even the arts increasingly require workers to incorporate business principles. An estimated 86 percent of U.S. companies expect to hire MBA-credentialed employees in 2014, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council; as such, graduate business education must be prepared to serve an increasingly diverse population of students, many of whom may not hold an undergraduate degree in business and may not have learning styles well-served by traditional schools.

Today’s MBA student may have been out of the classroom for two decades or more. Similarly, today’s student may be someone who, despite limited success in a traditional academic setting, has been successful in the workplace and requires a graduate degree to advance. These students bring a greater range of life and work experiences to the classroom, but the educational system necessitates a mechanism to recognize the different learning styles, needs and experiences of these individuals. The solution lies in a more accessible, learner-centric and personalized pedagogy. This is where adaptive learning technology is facilitating another major shift in graduate education.

Adaptive learning technology uses a sophisticated analytical engine, coupled with a robust content library, to deliver personalized learning experiences. It gives instructors (and students) the unprecedented opportunity to understand what a student knows and where he or she has opportunities to learn more. Through adaptive learning technology, each student’s learning pathway is constructed based on the knowledge and experience he or she brings to the classroom, the pace at which the student learns best and using curricular materials aligned with a student’s preferred learning style.

This is the approach taken by American InterContinental University (AIU), which launched the first program-level, adaptive learning-enabled MBA in April 2014. The online program is built around AIU’s proprietary adaptive learning technology, intellipath®, which uses embedded assessments and sophisticated learning analytics to allow students to skip topics they’ve mastered and focus on what they need to learn. Monitoring student progress in three-minute intervals, the technology identifies students’ learning patterns, dictating the format and order in which content is delivered.

Every day, intellipath generates more than 11 million data points, providing AIU instructors a rich, real-time understanding of each student’s progress, successes and challenges. And not only does AIU’s adaptive learning technology go beyond the multiple-choice or true-false test platform to require students to employ critical thinking and writing skills to complete their personalized learning map, the curriculum is designed to incorporate the development of soft skills most frequently cited by employers as being critical to employer satisfaction and employee success.

As technology drives business forward, it must also transform higher education to a growing and broader spectrum of students and employers. Thus, adaptive learning is the next step in the evolution of graduate business education.

Judy Bullock is the University Dean of Business at American InterContinental University and a graduate of the Strategic Human Resource Management Executive Program at Harvard. Contact her at [email protected]


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