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May 29, 2024 Accountancy Alumni Business Administration Faculty Finance Student

Adapting the curriculum for the future of business

This article was originally published in the April 2024 AACSB Insights.

By W. Brooke Elliott

Business schools are facing pressure to adapt to a rapidly changing business environment marked by technological advancements, globalization, and emerging high-growth industries. This requires us to take a critical look at how and what we teach.

To thrive in the years to come, business schools must find ways to reach new learners, meet them where they are, and deliver instruction that is more personal, engaging, and impactful than they can find elsewhere.

At the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business in Urbana-Champaign, we recently underwent AACSB’s reaccreditation process. This experience gave us a chance to take stock of where we’ve been, where we want to go, and how we want to get there. It allowed us to reassess priorities, gauge our progress, and redouble our efforts. It also reinforced our belief that we’re headed in the right direction.

I think the entire business school community should consider taking a similar pause for reflection—whether as part of an accreditation effort or as a component of ongoing strategic planning. By identifying our strengths, addressing our weaknesses, and looking toward the future, we can collectively prepare our students and our institutions to thrive.


What We Learned

For the Gies College, reaccreditation provided the perfect opportunity for reflection and evaluation. In particular, it gave us clarity in four specific areas.

It showed us how our investments in strategic curricular innovation and management have paid off. In early 2022, we created a Content and Educational Portfolio Strategy unit charged with ensuring that our content is grounded in research and focused on learning objectives and outcomes. This unit has helped departments and individual faculty create material that is based on learning theory and provides consistent experiences across courses. We are pleased with our results so far and plan to continue investing in this area as we roll into our next accreditation cycle.

It helped us identify challenges and opportunities. These include hiring and developing faulty, diversifying our mix of international students, and maintaining educational quality and meaningful networks in online programs. Because we offer extensive online programming, that last challenge is especially important for us. We know that online learners have very different educational experiences than traditional undergraduates, so we look for ways to make those experiences engaging and give alumni reasons to stay connected with our school.

It led us to consider how we incorporate societal impact into our strategic goals. AACSB encourages schools to select one or two areas of focus and measure the impact of their scholarship, programming, and engagement activities in these areas. While we believe many of the activities at Gies already have positive social, economic, and environmental impacts, we realized we could improve how well we set our goals and measure our results.

It highlighted three key strategies we should follow in the coming year. We have determined that we must broaden the appeal and accessibility of our offerings, invest in specialized faculty, and embrace innovative teaching methods.  

I believe, in fact, that all business schools could benefit from adopting these three strategies. Here, I outline the plans that Gies is making and offer suggestions for other schools interested in following the same path.


Creating Accessible Offerings

Today’s business school curriculum needs to appeal to a wide range of tech-savvy learners—from young adults to seasoned professionals—who are looking for flexible learning models that fit into their busy lives. We must meet them where they are. Nowadays, that could be online, on the road, or around the globe in their full-time jobs.

At the Gies College, we recognized this shift eight years ago and began diversifying our offerings beyond traditional on-campus degrees. We first directed our time and resources toward creating a more accessible offering with global reach, and we launched our online iMBA in 2016. To date, more than 5,600 graduates have earned an MBA through our online program, and 3,700 more currently are enrolled in the program.

We learned from this experience that there’s a nearly insatiable demand for all types of flexible, affordable learning. This inspired us to expand our online offerings to three advanced degrees; so far, these have served more than 5,300 learners from 97 countries. We’ve also launched 13 fully online graduate certificates and moved our business minor online to make it more accessible to all students on campus. This past year, nearly 3,000 University of Illinois students were enrolled in the business minor, up from about 1,600 students four years ago.

One of our key strategies has been making certificates and degrees stackable. This modular approach allows learners to test the waters of online education and use bite-sized chunks of knowledge to explore new interests and develop valuable skills.

My advice for other schools: Center your strategies on the evolving needs of learners. Determine what aligns with your institutional goals and how you can best serve the learners in your sphere of influence. By improving accessibility, you will be able to attract a much larger, high-performing global student population.

Capitalizing on Specialized Knowledge

As the business world becomes more complex—driven by a global workforce, new technologies, and evolving market dynamics—business schools must adapt their curricula strategically. This often means investing in specialized faculty and centers of excellence. At Gies College, we have found four ways to benefit from our deep knowledge in specific areas.

First, we had our Department of Accountancy appoint its first-ever specialized faculty associate head. Part of his job is to oversee 36 instructors who integrate real-world experience into the classroom. These instructors, many of them alumni, are long-time industry professionals who come back full-time to teach. Classified as specialized faculty, these “teaching-first” instructors are critically important to the learner experience. Because they don’t have heavy research agendas, they can take on much larger course loads and make an outsized impact on our learners.

Second, we launched the Gies Business Health Initiative, capitalizing on the research of our professors who focus on areas such as health economics, operations, and analytics. In their work, they have examined the impact of climate change on wealth and longevity, and they have developed a model to help physicians and hospitals better rationalize state-of-the-art surgical care.

Third, we established the Disruption Lab, which explores disruptive technologies such as blockchain, NFTs, virtual reality, and quantum computing.

Fourth, we began tracking how our faculty research aligns with our institutional goals. For example, we discovered that more than 70 percent of our faculty—including many tenured professors—conduct research related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

My advice for other schools: To navigate the changing business landscape, you’ll likely need to hire new faculty experts and adjust your curriculum, but that doesn’t mean you need to start from scratch to get in the game. Identify how your faculty’s current expertise aligns with emerging high-growth industries. Cultivate research excellence and innovation, and don’t be afraid to explore research areas that go beyond a business school’s typical topic areas. By codifying and branding these efforts, you can highlight the ways your curriculum anticipates major business trends.

Don’t hesitate to turn to your alumni for guidance and financial support. In our case, alumni have funded dozens of research grants over the last few years, including one that created the Gies Consumer and Small Business Credit Panel. This tool uses a dataset that combines individual-level data on small business loans, personal credit, and alternative credit to study topical subjects such as unequal access to financing by women and minorities.


Investing in Instructional Excellence

While it is essential to keep up with business and educational trends, we must be careful if we are simultaneously bringing in new faculty, expanding areas of expertise, and shifting to online learning models. We don’t want to create a mishmash of teaching methods and outcomes. It would be easy for us to be pulled in many different strategic directions, but we must maintain a laser focus on our collective goal—educating the next generation of business leaders.

One way we’ve prioritized instructional excellence at Gies is by expanding our Teaching and Learning (T&L) unit. This dedicated group provides expertise, advice, and support in instructional design, learning technologies, and best practices for teaching and learning. It helps faculty create new courses, certificates, videos, credentials, and other learning materials—taking them from course creation to delivery. The team also helps teachers structure courses in ways that mitigate test anxiety and make classes more effective.

In addition, the T&L unit provides a platform that faculty can use to explore innovative teaching methods and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. On the platform, faculty can find research on the impact of generative AI on online learning, information about scaling AI-powered feedback, and tips for developing an AI-assisted grading tool.

Many of our faculty already are exploring the possibilities of AI in education. For instance,

Robert Brunner, Gies’ associate dean for innovation and chief disruption officer, is currently using AI technology to build his latest course on Emerging Technology and Disruption. Students in the course have the opportunity to learn from AI and understand how they can adapt it to advance their careers.

My advice for other schools: In your faculty recruiting efforts, prioritize professors who have a passion for student engagement. At the same time, equip all faculty with the tools to excel in hybrid and online classrooms, and be certain that support is highly visible. Make it clear that a commitment to student engagement and an ease with technology can be factors in faculty advancement.

Innovating and Evolving

In summary, balancing strategic growth with a commitment to teaching excellence is critical to every business school’s success. By offering flexible, accessible learning models that cater to the diverse needs of today’s tech-savvy students, we can ensure our degrees and credentials remain relevant and impactful in the years to come.

Let's continue to innovate, experiment, and evolve, meeting our learners where they are and empowering them to succeed in this dynamic business world.



W. Brooke Elliott
Executive Associate Dean of Academic Programs and EY Distinguished Professor in Accounting, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign