Learning Curve

Mentoring programs have helped Chinese B-school professors tap into Western teaching methods

When MIT's Sloan School of Management entered the Chinese management education market in the early 1990s, shortly after the government authorized universities to start their own MBA programs, the school's administrators turned to a well-known proverb. "You know, the one where you give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Or you can teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime," says Senior Associate Dean Alan White. "Well, we chose the latter."

White and his colleagues approached two of China's top universities, Fudan University in Shanghai and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and found their Chinese counterparts eager for education. This mutual enthusiasm spawned an innovative faculty-mentoring program at MIT that allows teachers at the two Chinese institutions to tap the combined wisdom of MIT professors with years of experience in Western teaching methods.

"At that time, no one here had taught business before," says Fudan's School of Management Dean Lu Xiongwen. "We naturally looked to the United States, where the MBA was invented."

Fudan and Tsinghua's business schools were both seen as innovators in the field, but their faculty still had much to learn about how to teach the new degree. At the time, graduate business education was largely a matter of lectures in China -- where teachers are revered and students expect to have knowledge imparted by instructors, not developed through class discussion.

Today, in part because of faculty-mentoring programs such as MIT's, teaching methods in Chinese B-schools more closely resemble those used in the U.S. A combination of lectures, case studies and team projects dominate the curriculum.


  Launched in 1996, the MIT mentoring program partners Fudan and Tsinghua faculty with Sloan professors to learn curriculum creation as well as pedagogy. Chinese professors spend five months on MIT's campus, observing what goes on in Sloan's classrooms through the eyes of an MBA student.

A weeklong case-writing course at Harvard Business School demonstrates the power of case-method teaching. Finally, under their Sloan mentors' tutelage, they also develop their own course to be taught as a part of the Chinese universities' English-language international MBA programs, for which MIT provides all the course materials. "This partnership has revolutionized the path of MBA education at Fudan, even in China, as much as nearly any other factor," says Lu.

It has indeed become a symbiotic partnership. As China's economy advanced into the powerhouse it is today, the American professors soon realized the amazing resource they had in their Chinese colleagues, who are clued in to Chinese business practices in a way that the MIT faculty are not. About 80 percent of Sloan's faculty has now mentored at least one of the 90 Chinese professors Sloan has hosted over the years.

"We have an edge in China and Asia knowledge other schools can't compete with," White says. "We learn from them as much as they're learning from us."

Of course, the beneficiaries of all that learning are the students. At Tsinghua, associate professor Chen Taotao teaches a class in international economics that she developed in 1998 at MIT with well-known economist Lester Thurow, who has taught at MIT for 35 years. Teaching methods are not identical -- Chen distills every case study down to its fundamental lessons for students, something that MIT professors rarely do -- but there's been a marked improvement.

"Before we started this program, even though Tsinghua was one of the best [universities] in China, our curriculum was far behind that of MIT," she says. "We learned the curriculum from them. Now the curriculum at my school is one of the best."

The knowledge-sharing doesn't end with faculty mentoring. Since 1999 MIT has sent its students to Fudan and Tsinghua each spring break to interact with and learn from their Chinese counterparts. Sloan faculty frequently visit the schools to lecture. "You find they're equally as interested in what's going on for you and for China as you are in awe of them," says Fudan professor Rose Zhou, who visited MIT in 2000.


  Relationships have also grown deeper as the Fudan and Tsinghua professors' learning curves improved. In the early days, they were generally satisfied to imitate their American mentors. This is no longer the case. Chinese faculty still study basic principles while in Cambridge but add their own local knowledge and experience interacting with business to their course design.

Now all three schools eventually hope to collaborate on research. "Just like in manufacturing and other major industries," White says, "they've managed to create a truly Chinese MBA."

That may be just what the next generation of MBA seekers in China is looking for. When asked why he chose to attend Fudan's international MBA program instead of going abroad to an American or European school, student Roger Wang shrugs his shoulders. "Why would I learn about business anywhere but Shanghai?" he asks. "I'm already in the middle of all the action."

With faculty mentoring programs such as MIT's delivering the best of the West to his doorstep, he has no reason to go anywhere else.

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