Making education better is not a nice to have: Why Business Schools need to engage in and value pedagogical research part 2

In part 1 of this blog, I made the case that pedagogical research is a third space for academic activity, one that enhances the quality of education and generates rhizomatic connections between faculty, institutions, and critical forms of scholarship in Business Schools. In this second and final part, I will explore the benefits that Business Schools can gain from supporting, rewarding, and celebrating pedagogical research. More importantly, I will continue to make the case that pedagogical research is not a nice to have, but mission critical to the pedagogical and financial success of a Business School in a disrupted post-crisis world.

Pedagogical research has deep connections to the practices of teaching and learning and the capabilities of academics to learn from each other’s reflexivity and innovation (Gurung & Schwartz, 2008). It is informed by a long tradition of theory development, intellectual debate and the transmediation of perspectives and methodologies from a broad span of social science disciplines. There is little evidentiary doubt that well designed pedagogical research can improve the experiences of students and deliver better educational outcomes in Business Schools (Daniel & Poole, 2009; Bacon & Stewart, 2017). The capacity of pedagogical research to enhance the practices of teaching and learning and the skills of academics in the classroom does not mean it lacks the methodological rigour, the epistemological interrogation or the theory development that define other forms of research. Alternately, the capacity to engage in deeply theoretical, reflective, or empirical analyses of educational data does not mean it cannot enhance, inform, or shift practice.

It is in this interstitial space that the benefits of effective pedagogical research can be found. The realisation of these benefits is not low hanging fruit for Business Schools. The structures and rusted on belief systems about pedagogical research are deeply embedded within recruitment, promotions, and reward processes, actively supported by research assessment exercises and research funding bodies guidelines and success rates (Chalmers, 2010). Pedagogical research that generates measurable impact is hard work and needs to find space within an increasingly complex and scale driven academic workload model. For academics whose work resides within the interstitial spaces of pedagogical research there is often a sense of liminality; an uncomfortable rite of passage away from established social structures of academia and into an uncertain epistemic state, filled with theoretical, methodological and institutional threshold concepts significantly different from their own frames of reference so as to feel disconcerting and disorientating (Tierney, 2017).

In the highly competitive market of Business School education, disrupted intensely by the pandemic, the capacity to leverage the teaching/research nexus within the interstitial spaces of pedagogical research and transform the ways in which both teaching and research are integrated and applied to the business of Business Schools is where sustainable competitive advantages lie. Noted management scholars Harold Enarson and Peter Drucker observed back in 1960 that:

Here we come to a paradox. Though the university community is a major force of innovation in our society, it is curiously resistant-even hostile-to innovations attempted within the university. The universities send out skilled specialists who spearhead purposeful change. But though specialists in the strategy and techniques of innovation crowd the campus, rarely are their skills brought to bear on the university itself. (Enarson & Drucker, 1960, p.496)

The 4Capability framework

There are four capabilities (outlined in the diagram below as the 4Capability framework) arising from pedagogical research that modern Business Schools need to develop to be able to be able to bring the knowledge and skills of educational experience to bear on the challenges of establishing and maintaining leadership and sustainability as a Business School. Despite over sixty years passing since Enarson and Drucker made their observations, little has changed. This has been starkly apparent in how Business Schools have reacted and responded to challenges such as the disruptive influence of MOOCs (Rosenbaum et al., 2021), the decoupling of the actions and assertions around responsible management education (Maloni, 2021), their complex relationships with central institutional forces, policies, practices and objectives (Peters & Thomas, 2020) and as with most discipline areas, the COVID-19 pandemic and the shifts to emergency remote teaching (Avolio et al., 2021 and Ramboarisata, 2022). The storm of competition, disruptive trends and the seeping in of for-profit enterprises into business education make the success of pedagogical research critical for ensuring the future of modern Business Schools (see Levine & Rascoff, 2019 for a summary of these forces of change). Moratis (2022) makes the case that Business Schools ‘face a choice: urgently embark on an existential innovation journey inspired by what they can become or submit to certain obsolescence following from what they have been’. Whatever the opportunities and threats there are for economic, societal, or sustainable, responsible impact, these four capabilities and how they leverage possibility and creativity from the teaching/research nexus (as well as the other Boyer scholarships) will be critical to how Business Schools can compete and innovate in activities like micro-credentialing, commercialisation, global mobility, knowledge exchange, crisis management and leadership for good.

1. The capability to reimagine business education

One of the biggest criticisms of business education is the perception that all Schools teach essentially the same thing, with the basics of accounting, marketing, statistics, economics, and management repeated ad infinitum across the world. This is an essentially unfair critique because all disciplines have foundational knowledge that is necessary to form the structures of competencies required to engage in the less certain debates that advancing learning opens up. In terms of competitive advantage, whether that be for research funding, industry engagement and advocacy or student recruitment, what is taught, what learning experiences are created and the types of graduates being produced offer fertile grounds to differentiate your Business School from others and carve out a unique selling point in the market.

Pedagogical research enables Business Schools to design the curriculum, program suite and micro-credentialed offerings that can position the institution as a leader in the skills, capabilities, and knowledges that industry, government and society know they are going to need for future success. The teaching/research nexus here is especially critical in that evaluation, experimentation and learning analytics feed into the iterative redesign of business education from within, but also engages the institution outwards with industry, the community and society through dissemination, translation and engaged pedagogical research. It is a unique interaction between practice, research and engagement that creates the environment that supports an effective and successful reimagination of the philosophy and activities of business education at an institution.

At the University of Sydney Business School (USBS) we have spent the last four years transforming our teaching and learning with a project called Connected Learning at Scale. Central to this ambitious project was the strategic intention to shape the future direction of pedagogy in a highly competitive market, for the School and the graduates entering the economy. Connected Learning at Scale is enabled by pedagogical research, posing critical questions to interrogate around scale, around educational design and development and the role of business education in a civil society. Pedagogical research at the USBS informs the iterative development of the CLaS project as it grew from a handful of units being transformed to nearly one hundred. It allowed for educational approaches to be improved, discarded, expanded, and customised. It supports academic and professional staff to be able to reflect on the technological, ontological, and practical impacts of what they do and feed that back into the subsequent semester’s student experience.

2. The capability for pedagogical innovation

As Enarson and Drucker noted, institutions are pretty good at sending innovators out to industry but not so good at innovating their own practices. In the disrupted marketised world of Business Schools, innovation in pedagogy and teaching is a currency that builds competitive advantage both at the point of student recruitment but also with the skills of graduates and the ways they are received by employers (in turn feeding alumni engagement and lifelong learning opportunities). Pedagogical innovations have the potential to be leveraged into commercial opportunities, industry partnerships and networks of collaborations between Business Schools and other faculties. They also support the capability to be agile in the face of disruption and crisis (see capability #4). Understanding the effectiveness of pedagogical innovation is also economically sound as it ensures bad innovation doesn’t proliferate and successful innovation can flourish. It is here that the rhizomatic connections build through pedagogical research come to the fore, allowing successful innovation to spawn more.    

Pedagogical research enables a Business School to deliver a student experience that is transformative, inspirational, creative, analytical, and responsible for graduates through the ways students engage in teaching, learning and assessment inside and outside the classroom. This can happen in many forms, from pure experimental research, through to post-facto evaluation through to theorising the impact of interventions. One critical benefit for the practice of teaching is how pedagogical research connects curriculum design and innovative teaching practice to the theories of adult education. Masterman (2019) explores the complex relationship that many academics have with theoretical frameworks of adult education and pedagogy, noting ‘Although theory can inform their practice, lecturers do not necessarily set out to implement a specific approach. Rather, theories tend to become interwoven into their general world view’ (p.126). Masterman’s observation is directly related to the third space nature of pedagogical research and how the teaching/pedagogical research nexus is transdisciplinary and dynamic.

3. The capability to hybridise and co-design

New markets, technological disruption and changing demographics for Business Schools have initiated several false dawns over the last decade, the most notable being the influence of the MOOC. Professor Arnoud De Meyer is the President of Singapore Management University. He makes the case that Business Schools have reached ‘a tipping point that can become a quantum leap if scholars and researchers are brave enough to break out of their comfort zones, combine their arsenal of expertise and confidently propose analysis, insights and solutions on a smorgasbord of issues that confront organisations across multiple disciplines’. (De Meyer, 2022, p.53). He argues that Business Schools need to hybridise and co-design their scholarship and their research with academics and students from outside the traditional disciplines, from faculties across the universities and schools of thought outside the academy. He states that the challenges of a modern Business School cannot be addressed:

…by the traditional management disciplines alone. They require fresh eyes looking through multi-disciplinary lenses beyond just management. To do this effectively, business schools need to bring onboard scholars and experts in political science, sociology, nuclear physics, ethics and morality, technology, national security and engineering sciences.

Pedagogical research enables a Business School to create a culture of engagement, integration, and application with technology, multi and trans-disciplinarity, whole of organisation engagement and the deployment of the principles and practices of student co-design. It brings together educational developers, learning designers, teaching academics and students with a common lexicon and measures of success (or failure). It provides a framework for cross-discipline, cross-functional or even cross-faculty teams to engage in innovation, transformation or change and find common grounds for impact and teaching and learning practices.

4. The capability to be agile in the face of change and crisis

Business Schools have faced and are told they are facing many crises of confidence or relevance in the modern world. The esteemed management scholar Henry Mintzberg in his 2004 book on management education Managers, not MBAs argued that if Business Schools were ‘really doing their job’ our graduates would leave the institution with an epistemic humility or as Mintzberg put it ‘an acute appreciation of what they do not know’ (Mintzberg, 2004, p.75). Writing in The Guardian, Martin Parker (Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of Bristol, UK) argued that whilst:

Business Schools have huge influence…they are also widely regarded to be intellectually fraudulent places, fostering a culture of short-termism and greed….employers complain that graduates lack practical skills, conservative voices scorn the arriviste MBA, Europeans moan about Americanisation, radicals wail about the concentration of power in the hands of the running dogs of capital.

Business Schools are always in crisis. They are not in my opinion, as Parker asserts, intellectually fraudulent. They do face crises of confidence regarding their relevance, the role in shaping the ethical and responsible frameworks shaping how societies and economies do business and what role business has in a productive and successful democracy. They are also at the nexus of both the influence and solutions for successive critical global and local challenges, with the expectations that curriculum and graduates can keep pace with the crisis that is yet to have happened or is unfolding in front of them at pace.

Pedagogical research supports how a Business School can prepare and plan for disruption in the face of crisis and the need for change and be able to respond responsibly to critical global and local challenges for the School, the faculty, the students and the community and economy. Pedagogical research provides a reliable and rigorous foundation on which agile decisions and rapid responses can be made with a higher degree of confidence. It stress tests models of curriculum and delivery, student experience strategies, uses of technology amongst many other interventions that can be deployed as part of a design portfolio to new and emerging challenges, opportunities and threats.

The ability to pivot so quickly from face-to-face teaching to remote during the COVID-19 pandemic (and do it well) was strongly informed by pedagogical research and its direct feeding back into practice. The change to remote broke many of the rules and traditions of business education. At the USBS, it accelerated the move away from lectures, frayed the lecture/tutorial model and began to chip away at the dominance of the exam form as hurdle task for assessment. Many of these changes were well underway before the pandemic, and their efficacy and limitations had been interrogated through pedagogical research projects, some theoretical, others action-based and others ethnographic in terms of student stories and experiences. What was critical during this time was the confidence with which change could enacted and the capability to support staff and students who feared the transition.

A conclusion (of sorts)

Business Schools face an uncertain future post-pandemic, with disruptions to international student recruitment, global mobility, international trade, a growing cost of living crisis matched with labour shortages and a looming recession. Their activities and their growth strategies exist within the existential storms of the climate crisis, an energy crisis, and a burgeoning stability crisis in geo-politics. Pedagogical research won’t dictate how Business Schools respond and flourish in this environment. What it does do, aside from the obvious betterment of the teaching and learning experience for students and staff, is that it enables a culture of rhizomatic connection. I have used this phrase several times across these blog posts. Changing the culture of Business Schools from essentially linear to connected transforms the skills and capabilities students graduate with. But more importantly, these connections, knowledges, and experiences spawn others, related and unrelated to their own. One teacher evaluating their practice inspires another one across the hall to make a change, impacting the experiences of even more students. Rhizomatic connection making is a transferable skill that if applied to curriculum design, research, engagement, advocacy, and strategic development will truly transform a Business School to lead for the betterment of society.

Image: Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

Published by Peter Bryant

Associate Dean Education and Co-Director of the Co-Design Research Group

One thought on “Making education better is not a nice to have: Why Business Schools need to engage in and value pedagogical research part 2

  1. We only need a few academics conducting pedagogical research, but many more trained in what is learned from the research. Education research, and better teaching practice, are good for students. But administrators realized long ago, that students select a university based on research reputation, which has nothing to do with teaching quality. As a result academics are rewarded for research in their primary discipline, not pedagogical education, or in learning to teach.

    The pandemic has illustrated this dilemma. Conventional campus based universities were caught unprepared to teach online, even though techniques for doing this had been developed over the preceding decades (and some of us warned it would be needed in an emergency). With the pandemic receding, academics appear bewildered by students unwilling to return to campus, despite decades of research available detailing the reasons.

    There is no paradox: the university community is resistant to innovations which threaten a lucrative business model: offer lectures by academics who are not trained to teach, for students who mostly don’t turn up. It was only when threatened with bankruptcy, and death, that most universities were willing to, temporarily, switch to online learning. With the pandemic over, the universities want to go back to pretending that students learn in class, which they mostly never did.

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