To inform, educate and entertain. This extract of the BBC’s mission statement as defined by Royal Charter could just as easily be the motto of NEOMA Business School in France.
One of the country’s leading business schools with over 70,000 alumni has established a reputation for not only providing a range of high-quality undergraduate, MBA and Masters programs on their campuses in Paris, Rouen and Reims, but the triple-accredited school is also ahead of the game in delivering innovative new teaching models driven by VR, the metaverse and AI.
And while the disruptive business model of Netflix is a popular Harvard Business School case for discussion in the MBA classroom, the appeal of Stranger Things, Squid Games, Bridgerton and Wednesday is also a source of reflection for business educators.
“When students are at home, we consider our main competitor is not another business school, it’s Netflix,” explains NEOMA’s Dean, Delphine Manceau. “They can stop studying and just go on streaming services. So, our courses need to be as engaging as a Netflix show.”
In January, the school announced a set of new “iLearning” courses which aim to be just that. As well as being a nod to the iconic tech giant Apple, the letter “i” is intended to signify words like “impactful”, “immersive”, and “interactive”. Each student is treated like the protagonist on an adventure, with tough decisions to make along the way.
How professors can keep their students engaged when they are not physically present on campus is especially pertinent in the post-pandemic era, which has seen a sharp rise in the popularity and delivery of remote learning.
NEOMA had already launched a permanent 100% virtual campus in 2020 – the first European business school to do so. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are tools regularly used on its programmes, to assess each student’s performance, help with generating resources for collaboration and evaluation, and assist with case studies.
“The great thing about the online campus is that there are no boundaries and students from all over the world can engage very easily. For instance, we organise a day with all of our international academic partners, so 400 universities from around the world can introduce themselves to our students. These kinds of events would cost a lot to organise physically, and the carbon footprint would be disastrous,” Manceau points out.
Naturally, the virtual campus was a cornerstone in NEOMA’s response to the Covid pandemic, when travel restrictions prevented many international students from returning to France.
“That was the first phase where the virtual campus was key, because all classes were online and it was an alternative to Zoom. But now we’re back on site, we are trying to invent new pedagogical uses for the campus. For instance, our Executive MBA has tracks in China and some in Europe, and they work together very easily on the virtual campus,” Manceau explains.
Having taken a lead in remote delivery, the school is already drawing on the experience of the past three years for the next version of the virtual campus. But Delphine Manceau is determined not to forsake the traditional face-to-face classroom experience for advances in technology. The three French campuses are set up with top-notch pedagogical equipment including augmented learning rooms, creativity and simulation rooms, trading rooms and language labs.
“For us, it’s really not about technology substituting in-person teaching. I think tech is here to make humans more effective and relevant. That’s true for data, which helps with making the right decisions in many companies. It’s also true to professors: if they have data on the profiles of students, then they will be more relevant in the way they teach face-to-face, says Manceau. “What’s important is that we go in different directions, combining the best of each technology to complement the stimulating learning environment of the campuses in Reims, Rouen and Paris.”
Delphine Manceau’s positive attitude towards implementing new technologies that enhance rather than replace the learning experience stems from a genuine interest in people, and that is one of her favourite things about being the dean of a business school.
“What I enjoy the most is that we are, as universities and business schools, the first ones to share the goals of each new generation. So we observe the changes of society before they actually happen,” she says.
“In five years, young people have really changed. It has accelerated with the pandemic. Changing technology now plays a key role in our activity, ways of working in companies, and the challenges we face in society, leading us to change what we teach and how we teach it. I think it’s an amazing time to lead a business school because it’s not always easy, but you’re in the middle of what is happening.”
While the power to influence the future of business is a profound responsibility, she retains an optimistic outlook. In the students that come to NEOMA for their personal and professional development she sees a strong desire to be changemakers.
“I think they’re very anxious about the future of the planet. They’re sometimes angry about the way things have been working in the past years and decades, sometimes centuries. But, in every generation, there are contradictions. They want to enjoy life, and how could you blame them? These people were locked down at home with their parents as teenagers, when basically what you want is to go out and meet your friends and live your own life,” she says.
“So, this has changed their relationship to time. They want to make an impact. There is a tension in this generation between the aspiration to be long-term changemakers and their relationship to time that I think is different from previous generations. I think we have a key role to play, to transform this ambition and aspiration into something positive.”
However, Manceau believes that business schools and universities also need to make provisions for students who feel anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed. Last spring, NEOMA announced two new student wellbeing initiatives. “D-Stress on demand” is a series of virtual reality workshops which support students in overcoming fears that might inhibit their learning and subsequent careers, such as the fear of flying, large crowds, or public speaking. “Feel good on demand” consists of several online interactive modules, accessible 24/7, which cover various aspects of wellbeing: sport, nutrition, personal development, and so on.
“The year before the pandemic, we created a Wellness Centre at NEOMA, which was fairly new for a French business school. They’ve existed in the US for a long time. I think it’s very important that we help students to thrive while they’re studying because if we succeed in doing that, this wellbeing will keep on when they join a company for the next step of their career. We know how important the early years of being an adult are for the rest of your life,” says Manceau.
Looking after students’ mental wellbeing is a crucial part of the school’s push to increase the diversity of applicants on its programmes. The other key area of support is financial. Since 2008, NEOMA has worked with student associations on its Reims and Rouen campuses to deliver mentorship to secondary school students from deprived areas of France. The aim is to help them achieve their aspirations in higher education and climb the “ropes of success”, which is what the scheme’s name translates to in English.
“The first thing to improve social diversity is to provide funding to help students. We made a very public commitment to say that no student should renounce studying at NEOMA for financial reasons,” says Manceau. She explains that part of this pledge involves plans to double the school’s budget for scholarships within the next five years.
“It’s also a lot about the psychological barriers in place. Too many young people do not even consider applying to top business schools like ours, and they don’t even contact us to know what the scholarship policy is, so there isn’t a chance for us to show them any different.”
As one of the most prominent female Deans in Europe, Delphine Manceau is also highly committed to gender diversity at all levels of the institution. “I’m very proud that we now have 45 percent of our faculty who are female. That clearly results from a policy that our leadership team really push for to recruit more women. I think being a female dean also helps.”
Another priority for the NEOMA Dean is to help students, especially female students, to better negotiate their salaries. “We encourage them to try not to make gender-based career choices, because there are still a lot of stereotypes. But, once again, it’s a long journey.”
The dean of a business school naturally commands a great deal of authority and interest, and the many stakeholders of the institution want to hear what they have to say. In fact, through their social media engagement, deans can shape the perceptions of an institution, and this is true for Manceau who has a significant professional online presence.
But what is the secret to gaining this successful online following? Manceau does it herself, which she feels is important. “I don’t have anybody do it for me. I think we are ambassadors for our school, but we are also ambassadors of management, of higher education. Usually, I try to share information that I find relevant about NEOMA, but also on higher education in general. I think many young people, potential students, and their families lack information on management and higher education.”
If a clear picture emerges, it is one of an institution that is continually implementing and utilising innovations in technology, but with a very human core. NEOMA’s recent launch of their 2023-2027 strategic plan is appropriately titled “Engage for the Future”, as it aims to continue the school’s momentum in transforming its pedagogy, societal impact and student services.
Speaking to Delphine Manceau, it is clear that she is at the heart of this strategy, embodying the school’s vision whilst continuing to reinforce NEOMA’s position as an innovative force in higher education.
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