The role of online learning in a post-pandemic business school

The acceleration of digital adoption in teaching and learning, during the pandemic, meant that often long-term strategic plans were abandoned. Now that a ‘new normal’ has emerged, is it time to re-evaluate the digital learning provision and how this supports the institution to achieve its values and strategic goals? Now that HEIs have had time to reflect on what worked well and should continue, and what didn’t work for their institution, there is an opportunity to revisit strategic plans and embrace the best of digital transformation.

Online learning involves synchronous and asynchronous activities, using digital devices (often smartphones) over the internet (early examples used radio as the medium). All parties involved can be dispersed in different geographical locations. Categories of online include:

  • Blended learning – combining traditional face-to-face teaching with online training
  • Online learning – face-to-face learning is substituted with online interaction using either synchronous or asynchronous modes, easily including third party organisations to collaborate
  • Distance learning – includes online interaction with learning materials provided by mail
  • Dual delivery – face-to-face learning is complemented with online engagement in the same learning environments
  • Hyflex learning – a hybrid course that enables flexible attendance

The recent Covid-19 online learning adaptations required higher education institutions to respond quickly, and a wealth of research has emerged in the immediate post-pandemic phase, taking stock of the student experiences of online learning. From this research, several value-added concepts were identified for students, including:

  • the needs of diverse learners can be met
  • larger, even global network
  • awarding gaps reduced
  • accessibility and convenience
  • community of practice formed
  • problem-based learning and authentic assessment

These benefits are not universally enjoyed. More mature students are shown to prefer online learning but more importantly, digital poverty is an important factor. Any move towards more digital teaching and learning will be limited by the availability of equipment, technology, connectivity and the extent to which they are accessible to all.

The investment in the ‘digital campus’ has given HEIs more opportunities to add value to their academic offering by increasing the modes of delivery. These options represent a diversity in design, delivery and marketing, enabling the business school to engage with, and reach, new markets with flexible modes of delivery.

Value-added areas identified for HEIs were:

  • economies of scale and scope
  • diversification

We now have a much more extensive understanding of the key challenges and resource requirements of online and blended learning. Much of the research measures the success of online learning by evaluating ‘success’ and ‘effectiveness’. However, when you further analyse the student journey, researchers have found that online and blended learning presents many challenges for students, including:

  • feelings of disconnection and isolation
  • less engagement
  • reduction in motivation
  • lack of digital skills
  • technical issues
  • socio-economic barriers

In order to assess whether the various delivery methods were successful, we considered the positive impact of online learning from five business schools, who each have teaching provision in one of the previously mentioned online categories. These schools were given a score of 1-5 (with 1 being the lowest, and 5 the highest) based on their rankings in the following sets of statistics, to allow us to evaluate which method of online delivery benefited students most. The statistic sets used were:

  • The Guardian Best University Guide
  • National Student Survey
  • Graduate Outcomes
  • Continuation and Progression


HEI Guardian ranking NSS C&P GO Total
University of Northampton


3 2 3 4 12
Open University


1 5 1 1 8
University College London


5 4 5 5 19
University of East London


2 3 2 2 9
King’s College London


4 1 1 3 12

University College London was the clear frontrunner with its distance learning, alongside significant experience of delivery in a variety of modes. This was followed closely by King’s College London and University of Northampton, who also delivered in more than one mode. Notably, the HEI (Open University) that specialises in a particular mode leads in the NSS rankings but does not fare well in our own holistic approach to the measurement of success.

Of course, there may be other factors at work (such as higher drop-out rates in online courses), the reasons for this are worth further investigation considering that many HEIs are now investigating how they can enter this market after dabbling during the pandemic.

Additionally, two of the top-ranked institutions have global recognition, which would boost their ability to recruit to digital programmes, while maintaining higher entry requirements which in turn impacts not only continuation and progression statistics, but also graduate outcomes.

We recommend a period of further research to be conducted before HEIs who are concerned they will ‘miss the boat’ embark on potentially expensive mistakes.  When viewed holistically, it becomes clearer to the individual HEI that achieving their values and strategic goals is limited/supported only by their current profile, reach, industry connections and student support mechanisms.


Dr Richard Berry is Assistant Head of School of Management and Marketing, Westminster Business School; Dr Rebecca Biggins is Associate Dean of York Business School; Richard Courtney is Head of Business, Entrepreneurship and Finance at the Royal Docks School of Business and Law; Dr Claire McCafferty CMBE is Director of Studies at the London Institute of Banking and Finance.