In the present difficult situation, not many can make a virtue out of… ability (paraphrasing the well-known expression). Skills and expertise cannot be rustled up, even less a culture of innovation; especially during an emergency. You need foresight to build them up in time, and the lock-down has only put that to further evidence.
Among the happy few is SDA Bocconi, whose online education offer has been conceived, designed and implemented in a time when no one could imagine the recent events: its goal being not only to tactically make up for the fallout of social distancing on on-campus teaching, but to strategically overcome geographical, financial and psychological barriers to offer a high-quality lifelong learning opportunity to a wider and more diverse public. “We aim at becoming the Netflix of education”, declared Gabriele Troilo, associate dean of SDA Bocconi’s Open Market and New Business Division, upon launching the online on-demand portfolio back in September 2019. Eight months later, when circumstances are unexpectedly but impressively confirming how smart that choice was, we have asked him to evaluate the project and outline its future perspectives.
How has SDA Bocconi’s online education evolved?
Online education and training have been developing in universities for almost a decade now, especially thanks to international platforms and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Executive education was lingering behind. In 2017, I was charged to broaden SDA Bocconi’s offer with a portfolio of fully web-based programs. Our initial approach relied on online on-demand courses, also known as “self-paced”, where everyone can go at their own pace in terms of learning times and modes. Anytime, anywhere, as the claim goes. We thought this was going to serve a practical need which is important to many users. After nearly two years of working on technology and teaching methods, we launched the first bunch of courses last year. They were 4 at the beginning, they are 17 at present (and more are on the go), covering various topics we teach at the School.
Can you say that the challenge has proven a win, independently from Covid-19?
Yes, we are very proud of our results so far. About 1,500 people have enrolled over an eight-month period. If you consider that the “classic” Open education accounts for around 2,000 participants per year, we have almost doubled our users. The lock-down has certainly caused demand to skyrocket, with a 100% growth week on week, but this only refers to the last couple of months. The growing trend was consistent even before that.
Are there important differences between online and on-campus users?
The main difference lies in who decides to purchase the course: 80% of online courses are bought by individual participants, whilst companies are the main buyers of on-campus programs. Another important difference concerns the geographical location of users: most participants in traditional programs come from the North of Italy, whereas those coming from the South are very few; the percentage is 50-50 for online programs, instead. Both data are certainly influenced by pricing, since online courses are less expensive. We could say they make the quality of SDA Bocconi education affordable to everyone.
By the way, in this period when the importance of distance-learning and working from home is highlighted, we have unlocked the platform for all of the School’s employees, who can therefore access any course they want at no cost.
How do you envisage to develop your online offer in the next future?
Developing our courses involves three main directions: the first is certainly broadening the portfolio, both horizontally, in terms of contents and topics, and vertically, as to the levels of education (building learning paths from basic to advanced).
The second driver of development is internationalization: we are building partnerships with important international online learning platforms to expand our presence abroad. As of today, around 80% of our programs are in Italian; we plan to extend our courses in English to target the international market.
The third big area are synchronous, live courses, which are more and more asked for, especially these days. It is the way to offer direct interaction with teachers and the rest of the class, which is key to the learning process, also online; without giving up the versatile self-paced components. Actually, this “blended” formula has been already built in all on-campus programs, which involve face-to-face as well as distance-learning modules.
May a broader spread of online programs threaten the quality of teaching?
Not at all. Online programs are not a mere virtual adjustment or simplified version of physical ones. Behind an online course is a meticulous planning of contents, teaching methods and evaluation of outcomes. There are methodologies you could not use in an in-class course, just think of the various interactive tools. You always get assignments and tests to evaluate your progress, and you only get the final certificate when you pass them all. To sum it up, online education is not “minor” but simply different due to the different instruments involved. As to its wider spread, I would say this perfectly suits SDA Bocconi’s mission, which is to be inclusive, not exclusive.
In the end, the goal of being the “Netflix of education” is always topical?
Netflix is a twofold metaphor to us: on one hand, it means a wide offer of contents and therefore different targets; on the other, it comes to pricing and distribution models. The School produces a lot more content than it has managed to convey on the market so far – just think of research and the various meetings and events; the reason being that it has been hold up by rather rigid teaching formats. Thinking of a platform to make much more and diverse content available through new distribution policies – e.g. through modular subscription formulas – could really be a new strategic development, not only for open courses but for the whole of the School’s cultural production. We have already started in 2020 with SDA Bocconi Insight, a virtual repository for the main results of research and analysis within the School. A model that still needs to be developed and expanded, in the open and sharing perspective the School has chosen to pursue.
SDA Bocconi School of Management