Decolonisation and the Digital Chatham House Rule in Online Business Education: Can we resolve the paradox?

Decolonisation is about balancing power structure and recognising multiple voices.  Recently, decolonising the curriculum particularly in business schools became a students’ demand and faculty’s moral obligation. 

Many initiatives in UK universities were launched in the last couple of years to balance the curriculum and allow students from diverse backgrounds and cultures to find their voice.  However, as universities are moving towards establishing online campuses in response to Covid-19 restrictions of travel and social gatherings, decolonisation efforts have been clouded by the adoption of standard technology. 

Technology platforms used for online design and delivery of business schools programmes are uniform tools that provides unified delivery across the students’ cohort. Most of these technologies and associated pedagogical techniques have been previously used in delivering MOOCs which are very different than university education. MOOCare typically standalone courses delivered either free or with relatively small fees to the masses. Unlike university education, which is heavily regulated and adheres to certain obligations, MOOCs are student-led on-demand education of isolated courses or collection of courses. Most MOOCs follow a standard approach to delivering ‘Western’ business schools education to the masses. However, business schools have increasingly subscribed to decolonise their curriculum and to move away from domination of certain cultures, theories, approaches and points of view to celebrate diversity and allow multiplicity. 

In repurposing these technologies and techniques, the question is how can business schools solve the paradox between adopting a standard online technology for the design and delivery while continuing their decolonisation and diversification efforts?   

Online education is mostly based on one-way communication, for example, posting videos of lecturesvoiceover slides, posting readings. When adopting these tools alone, there is a clear separation between the lecturer and students and the latter are viewed as recipients. When using them with interactive content, they continue to enforce a particular wisdom, hold a view that there is one ‘truth’ and a particular view on this ‘truth’.  For example, enforcing through the Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs) promotes uniform thinking where there is one right answer (even when multiple answers are right, each is typically given a portion of the mark assigned to Q). MCQs can be a tool that imposes one answer, one perspective, one idea, and one approach. 

What if a student holds a different view embedded in their own culture? It is wrong and will be penalised! For example, what if a student sees the African culture of Ubuntu as opportunity and not a burden on employment and companieswhat if the student thinks of the Oriental culture of Guanxi as a business advantage and not a sin; and the Arab culture of Mugamla as a form of politeness and curtesy not harassing or deceiving. How can students express their views and their authentic self in an online environment that endorses the uniform, the dominant and the correct?  

Even when two-ways and multiple communication is possible, such as online delivery on Teams, Zoom, Blackboard, Google Meet, icontinues to enforce a largely linear delivery. For example, two people cannot interfere in each other’s conversation, people have to take clear turns in hand rising or posting comments, and not all participants can visually see all participants either because of technology video-streaming limitations, IT network limitation or because of the invasion of private spaces it brings. So, opportunities for reflections, individuals’ thinking, and cultural formulations are limited to the formality of the communication tools and what they afford. 

Advanced online technology and techniques allow the personalisation of content.  But this technology-based personalisation is about pushing particular contents to users based on their use pattern. For example, based on how many times they click on videos, it will push more or less videos, based on answering questions right’ or ‘wrong’, it pushes more explanatory materials etc. These types of technical personalisation do not encourage freedom of thinking and development. On the contrary, it gives users more of what they already like and is based on a strong view of “right” and “wrong”; something that decolonisation and diversity stand sharply against.  

You might think, let’s allow students to discuss on live chat and discussion forums. However, live chat and discussion forums among participants/students and students’ private notetaking can be visible to organisers and downloadable. Their use by lecturers and universities - for reasons of monitoring participation or else - strongly resembles watch towers that enforce a particular power dynamic that heavily leans towards lecturers and their own choices. The recording and the possibility of monitoring all communication erodes the Chatham House Rule of free discussion of ideas and not associating ideas with people who expressed them. These rules were being increasingly held in classroom to open up discussions on cultural issues and providing freedom of expression in a safe learning environment. What will a digital Chatham House Rule look like in online university education?   

I think that as business schools succeeded in repurposing existing technologies to suit online campuses, they do not need to abandon their decolonisation efforts despite the obstacles digital technology presentsBeing aware of digital technology implications and finding less intrusive digital ways that balance power of lecturers and content are important. Business schools can also come together to form a unified view on how data of students communication will be used, what analytics will be extracted and the boundaries of the digital Chatham House Rule 


Dr. Amany Elbanna, Reader (Senior Associate Professor) in Information Systems, Royal Holloway University of London