David Lefevre

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A lot goes into designing an online MBA and if that’s something you’re thinking about, it’s important to look for a programme that not only fits around your work and facilitates a strong sense of community and collaboration, but offers an outstanding online learning experience.

Here I talk to Dr David Lefevre, who has directed the Edtech Lab at Imperial College Business School since 2002. David has a background in e-learning that spans more than 20 years and holds a PhD in instructional systems from Imperial College London. He shares his expert knowledge of the online MBA market and gives a background look at the Edtech Lab (spoiler: it contains Math), the team behind Imperial’s online learning technology platform The Hub.

Market leaders in education technology

Earlier this year, MBA Journal reported that only two of the institutions ranked in the top 40 of the Financial Times Global MBA rankings offer an online MBA, and it’s a step, they claim, that prestigious MBA providers are still hesitant to take.

I ask David why that is. “It was considered, by some, for a long time that online education was somehow inferior and that was unsuited to the top MBA schools,” he explains. “We never thought that at Imperial. We have thought for a long time that a technology enhanced offering could be as, if not, more effective than our face-to-face offerings.”

Imperial College Business School was the first MBA provider to invest heavily in EdTech back in 2003, when it created its Education Technology Unit (now Edtech Lab). In 2015, the School launched its Global Online MBA programme and the cohort now boasts 360 students from over 25 nationalities.

Because we’ve been developing online programmes for much longer,” David says, “we have a lot more cumulative knowledge than most schools. Our faculty are experienced in the online delivery of modules, our programme team are specialists in looking after an online cohort, and we have a 16-strong team in our EdTech Lab dedicated to providing excellent online experiences
David Leferve
EdTech Lab Director

What’s next for our competitors? Crucial to the creation of any quality online MBA is a vast amount of concerted planning, managed by a highly competent team. Behind the scenes, universities globally are hiring the best in manpower to offer the most competitive and interactive MBA learning experience.

“Schools typically start with pilot projects, perhaps some Executive Education modules, but they will usually require significant experience to reach the point at which they feel confident enough to launch an online MBA. All institutions need to go on a journey and this will take time,” David responds.

Each year, Imperial College Business School hosts EdTech and the Future of Business Education Forum where leading business schools across Europe gather in order to network and collaborate over learning and development in the space.

What’s next for EdTech

As more business schools invest in online education technology, David thinks that the same breadth of market offerings will emerge in the online space that currently exist in the market of full-time and part-time face-to-face programmes.

What’s next for EdTech

As more business schools invest in online education technology, David thinks that the same breadth of market offerings will emerge in the online space that currently exist in the market of full-time and part-time face-to-face programmes.

The online MBA market will comprise a spectrum from high touch, selective and high quality programmes competing with specialist online MBA pathways (e.g. finance, healthcare) to lower cost, less selective offerings. Alternative formats such as shorter programmes will also become common. Current experiments will mature and I expect we will see a lot of dynamism in the online space.
David Leferve
EdTech Lab Director

Imperial’s Edtech Lab believes that online education can be transformational for the user and focuses on delivering a high quality programme – a quality that’s reflected in the cost.

As education technology and online pedagogy improves, the space will continue to innovate and competition will drive it forward. The end result is likely better for the consumer: the online MBA market will be saturated with a wide range of programmes for prospective students to choose from.

Imperial’s exclusive ownership and development of the technology means the Business School is able to incorporate new technology and advancements. “The Hub is in continual improvement,” David explains, “Students are continually demanding new technology features. For example, right now we’re working on download functionalities so students can study offline. Global Online MBA students travel a lot for business and want to be able to download videos and podcasts whilst they’re on the go.”

Recently, the Edtech Lab hired a Research Associate dedicated to the merging field of Learning Analytics. Working closely with Imperial’s Department of Mathematics, the team is analysing data on student interaction with The Hub. David says, “Using advanced mathematical modelling techniques, the team is trying to identify patterns in data e.g. optimal study behaviour and which teaching interventions have the most significant effect.”

Partnering with truly excellent mathematicians, and applying models developed to analyse patient and treatment journeys on the NHS to the Global Online MBA with the view of optimising student experience, is something unique to Imperial.

Designing the online learning experience

Three themes drive the design of online learning at the Edtech Lab. The first is the human element, which David describes:

People are human and we value crafting programmes like craftspeople. We see course development as a creative process that has a strong human element. Think of the last time you’ve called a company and entered an automated support system. That’s the antithesis of what we attempt to do; we believe in connectivity and dialogue amongst humans.
David Leferve
EdTech Lab Director

Second, the design is based on a sound understanding of education. There’s a large evidence base around how people learn. “We incorporate sound education principles into our design, collaborating with lecturers and having digital education specialists on our team,” David says, “The Hub emphasises these principles, facilitating feedback to students, using multimedia and incorporating the repetition of information across learning formats.”

The third theme that underpins the Edtech Lab is that it’s “real”. There’s still a perception in the marketplace that online MBA learning is inferior in quality to an on-campus programme, especially when some providers skim on the online experience to reduce cost, for example, by taking out the live teaching element.

David explains, “We offer real, impactful programmes and that is one of Imperial’s key differentiators. The quality of online programmes such as the Global Online MBA is at least equivalent to the quality of their face-to-face counterparts.”

A future where online learning takes centre stage

I ask David whether online MBA programmes will overtake their face-to-face competitors. “I’m biased, but yes!” he enthuses, “The online format offers a flexibility which is attractive to the type of students we want to attract; students with flying careers who are not going to give up their job and go back to school. An online MBA enables them to continue with their career and achieve their MBA at the same time.”

Currently on the programme is the COO of a well-known airplane manufacturer, a student responsible for managing a number of nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe and the founder and CEO of a rapidly growing FinTech start-up in New York.

“The effect of a well-designed online MBA programme is that we have happy students who perform well,” David says, “We have a very low dropout rate, and even then, the handful of students who have left have been forced to do so for completely unavoidable reasons.”

Experience The Hub

Imperial College Business School’s Edtech Lab has created three free taster courses which cover Corporate Finance, Entrepreneurship and Managerial Economics. It gives prospective MBAs an opportunity to test-drive the university’s interactive platform and builds on the essential skills required to do an MBA. Get immediate access here.

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