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by Vault Education Editors | March 18, 2011


The former CEO of a prominent company calls out the dean of Darden in front of a phalanx of other deans and CEOs meeting to discuss the state of business education. “You universities are dinosaurs,” says the former CEO, wagging his finger. “Look at all the lectures being put online; the digitization of textbooks; the rise of online degree programs.” He claims that universities built on dirt and grass from bricks and mortar will soon be put asunder by the force of digital technology now available in the public sphere. “You are sunk!” he says.

Dean Robert Bruner’s response, which he recounts on his blog, is this: Yes, the internet will disintermediate the knowledge-transmission part of teaching, but there’s one vital aspect of education with which digitally mediated education can’t compete with campus-based schools. Bruner, speaking now to everyone in the room, says, “I‘m willing to bet that each of us here was transformed in an important way by an in-person encounter with someone else.” The best education comes from transformative experience, in his view. He goes on to offer examples.

· A piano teacher, who over the course of many lessons chided, prodded, corrected, and complimented you to achieve a degree of mastery over that complicated instrument. The point was not just to hit the right key, but to play with feeling and personal interpretation.

· A coach who showed you how to swing a tennis racquet and then guided you to put spin on the ball, vary the strength of the return, and aim. At times, the coach held your arm and showed you where to position your feet. Through engagement with the coach, you became a decent tennis player.

· A friend, teacher, psychiatrist, or religious adviser who talked you through a deep personal crisis. The ability of the other person to read you totally was a key ingredient in your recovery.

· A manager gave you some difficult feedback early in your career and did so in a way that was empathetic and motivated new behavior. The face-to-face meeting was a powerful event that not only made you a better businessperson, but also became a model for dealings with your own employees.

· You learned to cook with the help of a more-experienced friend. Through repeated meals, you gained insights about how touch, taste, and appearance indicated a dish that was ready to serve.

Online education, on the other hand, enables the passive, empty-vessel approach to learning, he argues. It is hard to experience the things mentioned above when learning from a distance. That much is true.

A meta-analysis of over 1000 online learning studies, conducted by the Department of Education, found that students tended to learn better online than they did in a classroom. They learned best using a combination of the two. The hybrid or blended approach is what Bruner, and most deans, endorse—as a matter of common sense and inevitability. So, he advocates using online education for learning facts, dates, numbers, that sort of thing. The type of learning that’s transformative—the kind you got from your piano teacher who sculpted your hand with her hand into the right position—providing that kind of instruction, Bruner says, is what business schools need to focus on.

Bruner, as the head of a business school, has an obvious interest in disparaging online education. Aspects of it, at least. But that doesn’t preclude him from having a point. Does he have a point? On first read, what he says makes sense: Business leaders need to master the soft skills, cultivate tacit knowledge; those things require active, engaging, transformative real-world experience. That seems about right. My question is: Why do those things have to be taught at a university?

Changing one’s behavior is difficult; just try it. If you’re not a natural born charismatic leader, soft skills, in as much as they are behavioral attributes, require hundreds if not thousands of hours of work to tweak. Schools can change their curriculums to provide as much real-life, on-the-job training as possible, but if they concede that online education will one day surpass universities in knowledge transmission, and that the business school’s bailiwick becomes providing transformational experiences, then you have to ask why you can’t have the same community-centric, transformative experiences outside of a school environment. Are schools really these near-utopian communities of transformative experience? Depending on how you answer that question, I guess, is to know whether it’s worth all those tens of thousands of dollars.

[Robert F. Bruner, Dean]


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