On-line, on the ball

Studying for the MBA through distance learning need not be an isolating experience, writes Philip Schofield
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MANY surveys show that managers today work harder and for longer hours than in the past. Yet growing numbers, after a long day at work, settle down to several hours' intensive study. They sacrifice many weekends over several years in their pursuit of a Masters in Business Administration (MBA).

Distance learning is now the most popular way to take an MBA. Almost half of those graduating last year with an MBA accredited by the Association of MBAs studied through distance learning. They did do so for several reasons - because they were unable to take a full-time break from work to study, the flexibility of distance learning, the cost, and family commitments. And for those working in remote locations the regular attendance required on a part-time modular course is impractical.

Distance learners are often pictured working in isolation, never meeting fellow students and only contacting their tutors by mail, fax, e-mail or telephone. Some courses, such as the one at Heriot-Watt, can be taken in this way, although students do have the opportunity to study on campus for a six- to a 10-week period and attend classes.

An MBA is best taken after several years' work experience at management level. Consequently, students learn from each other, collaborate on team projects and discuss their experiences with the faculty. This interaction is an important element in all top MBA programmes.

Although personal contact and team working cannot be as intensive in distance learning programmes as on full- and part-time courses, business schools have found ways to foster such contacts. Indeed, the Association of MBAs will only accredit distance learning courses which do so.

Eight distance learning programmes meet the exacting accreditation standards of the association. These are run by the business schools at Aston, Durham, Kingston, Strathclyde, Warwick and the Open Universities and by Henley Management College and the Management Centre at Leicester University.

The largest provider is the Open University Business School, with around 25,000 students in more than 30 countries. It has a permanent staff of 200 as well as 750 part-time tutors throughout Europe. Students are found through the EU and Eastern Europe, as well as in Singapore, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Another 1,200 people follow OUBS courses in association with the Open Learning Institute in Hong Kong.

The OUBS uses a variety of systems to overcome the problem of isolation. It ensures face-to-face contact with other students through mandatory residential schools lasting from one day to a week, holds regular tutorials at regional centres and encourages the formation of student groups. Computer conferencing is also widely used on the school's courses and is an integral part of the MBA programme. There is also a high level of personal tutorial and counselling support throughout Britain, Republic of Ireland and many parts of continental Europe.

Henley offers regular workshops and a residential week as optional extras. Henley claims a "unique computer communication system [which] puts all course members on-line to a global learning network, enabling them to access data, exchange information and take part in electronic conferencing".

Aston runs a one-day orientation programme for new students at which they meet the academic and administrative staff and fellow students. Thereafter, they attend a residential weekend at Aston in the middle of each term. These weekends combine academic classes with working in small groups on case studies. These provide students with the opportunity to share experiences and apply them to the case studies.

Students starting the course at Leicester are encouraged to form local networking groups on a voluntary basis, they are offered a residential induction period and they attend a one-week summer school each year either at Leicester or with a support agency overseas. Students in the UK are also invited to attend a support day once a month.

At Warwick there are three compulsory eight-day September seminars and a programme of optional induction days, weekend seminars and local study groups. Strathclyde has five compulsory weekend schools and students also have the option to join those on the part-time MBA for one- week classes.

Ann Rinsler, course director of the Kingston MBA, says its open programme is "a hybrid between distance and part-time". Although it uses distance- type teaching materials, students attend intensive study weekends once a month. Students also form study groups based on geographical convenience, preferred meeting times and for having a good skills mix. Each group has a single academic and administrative contact to deal with queries and problems. Although the school does not put its course on the internet, it insists that all students are on e-mail to facilitate communications.

No one should underestimate how tough it is to do an MBA by distance learning while continuing in a full-time management job, today seldom restricted to the hours of nine to five. It typically takes about three years to complete, based on an average of 10 to 12 hours' study a week. There may be weekend schools, week-long seminars, tutorials, workshops or other special events.

Moreover, managers typically start distance MBAs in their early to mid- thirties when many have children. Studying in some quiet corner of your home isolates you from the family and can put pressure on relationships. As an MBA student you need the support not only of your business school and employer, but also your family.

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