The University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School launched a new media marketing course in 2010, when Twitter and Facebook were starting to hit their strides as business tools. The elective attracted just 13 MBA students.
By 2012, enrolment nearly tripled – and then doubled again in 2013. The course would have had even more students this year had Ivey not put a limit on the exploding class size to keep it manageable.
The trend at Ivey in London, Ont., is not isolated.
Just as the use of social media has sharply grown over the past few years in the general population, so, too, has the number of students taking classes devoted to the digital revolution while completing their MBA degrees. Students are not only trying to stay topical but also become more marketable for when they seek jobs in a wired business world after graduation.
At Concordia University's John Molson School of Business, its social media course has been more popular than most electives since it made its debut in 2011.
"Usually in our elective MBA courses, we try to cap it at 40 people," says Christopher Ross, chairman of the Montreal school's marketing department. "Typically, an elective course can run between 20 and 30, but this one was at 40. It was packed."
The Concordia course, which also began in 2011, had the same kind of genesis as the one at Ivey.
"In the marketing department, we thought it was an important offering that we should make to our MBA students, and, at the same time, we had MBA students in casual conversations asking when we would offer a course like this," Dr. Ross says.
"… Lots of students recognized that if they wanted to get into the field of marketing, social media was vital for success. If you're going to be out there making decisions, it's almost as important as having some accounting knowledge. If you're going to function in an organization, you just have to be aware of what's going on."
While the interest is fuelled by students who are keen on marketing careers, entrepreneurial types and others also realize that basic knowledge of social media is a must.
"I've had a few finance people, I've had a few people who want to go into consulting, and a lot of people who want to be entrepreneurs," says Raymond Pirouz, the lecturer in Ivey's course on new media marketing. "The Internet is the No. 1 way for a startup right now."
Individual social media services might come and go (hello Pinterest, goodbye MySpace) but Peter von Loesecke, chief executive officer of the MBA Tour, believes the overall trend of teaching social media will endure.
"When the power of [social media] became obvious to businesses, business schools took note of it and studied it and realized what kind of value it could have," says Mr. von Loesecke, whose U.S.-based company conducts recruiting events for top business schools around the world to meet with potential MBA students. The MBA Tour recently stopped in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa among other North American cities.
The events are a good way for Mr. von Loesecke to hear about trends in business education, and prospective students, he says, are increasingly talking about – and demanding – practical classes in social media.
"What people are looking for is a way to make an impact [in their careers after graduation], coming up with ideas that are radically changing the way business is done," Mr. von Loesecke says.
Pat Tenneriello, a recent MBA graduate from McGill University in Montreal who now works at the MBA Tour with Mr. van Loesecke, says schools are responding to the students' message. "The key is to find more ways to add relevant content into the programs," he says.
But establishing courses is merely the first step for business schools. It would seem the material must stay as fluid as social media itself.
As Mr. Pirouz notes, every time he teaches a class, there are different things to talk about. "The course can be daunting," he says. "The more you dig into it – the Internet – the more you realize you don't know. I need to keep evolving. My own knowledge base has to keep expanding."
That would probably suit eager students just fine.
"Social media and digital media [knowledge] are almost table stakes when you walk into today's world," says Ross Tom, an online marketing manager at Microsoft Canada who graduated from Ivey in 2012.
Mr. Pirouz, who taught Mr. Tom, says that they spoke prior to his interview with Microsoft Canada, and Mr. Tom told him that he went through Mr. Pirouz's course material in order to prepare.
"I wish the course was longer to be honest," Mr. Tom says. "It was highly relevant.