Picture: 123RF/Rattanakun Thongbun
Picture: 123RF/Rattanakun Thongbun

It’s too soon for business schools to draw firm lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic on how clients can avoid disaster in future crises, says Helena van Zyl, director of the University of the Free State Business School.

Lockdowns, social distancing and infection fears have ruined companies around the world. In SA, hundreds, possibly thousands, of enterprises could go bust.

However, Van Zyl says schools should not rush to conclusions about how to help clients crisis-proof themselves in the future. “We are all in unclear waters,” she says.

For one thing, she believes there is a danger of overdramatising Covid’s impact on business and society. Ignorance of the virus, allied to rumours and a lack of reliable information, is creating confusion and gloom. Even so, she says, nothing will be quite the same again.

“I do not believe the world will ever completely return to pre-Covid,” she says. “It has taken away the innocence and spontaneity of the world.” For example, the proliferation of online platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams has shown that much of the time and cost associated with meetings is no longer necessary. “I believe the days of travelling for meetings have gone,” says Van Zyl.

The same applies to guest lecturers visiting business schools for face-to-face teaching. “I believe guest lectures will in future mostly take place in webinars.”

Free State is one of SA’s smaller business schools, describing itself as “a boutique school filling an important void in the business environment of central SA”. It has 12 full-time faculty, of whom most are women, and 23 part-time, all from business and industry.

Last year, the school taught 371 students on customised corporate programmes, 98 on open programmes and 165 on digital programmes.

Van Zyl says the school was already deep into blended learning – a mixture of online and face-to-face – before Covid-19. “It definitely accelerated and expanded online teaching,” she says. “The school will do everything online for the rest of the year. Fortunately, we have been able to continue with all programmes as scheduled. We even completed MBA selection tests online.”

Nevertheless, she says, face-to-face teaching will always have some advantages, “particularly for the more technical modules and programmes”. Online, despite the “very intensive” demands on lecturer preparation and delivery, has the edge on time and cost.

Van Zyl adds: “What I have experienced is that older students prefer face-to-face contact, while the younger generation sometimes don’t care and may even prefer to work off-campus.”

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