Distance learning: How to get an MBA from your armchair

Distance learning means you don't have to go to college.
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Distance learning - long associated with the correspondence course - is changing. Instead of arming themselves with a pen and paper, today's students are as likely to work on a PC, downloading coursework from the World Wide Web, attending seminars using computer conferencing, and sending work to tutors by e-mail.

Computer-supported learning is growing rapidly, and its impact is being felt far beyond computing and science courses, where access to PCs is an obvious requirement. Business course directors in particular are turning to computers as a valuable tool, both for learning and for the communication between academics and students and between students themselves, that is a vital part of higher education.

Students on masters' courses in business, including MBA programmes, are well-placed to benefit from using computers alongside more conventional teaching methods. A large percentage of MBA students will have a PC at home; if not, they are almost certain to have access to one at work.

Universities hope to exploit the power of the computer, not just for typing essays or analysing data, but for communications. Even a modest computer provides access to the Internet, including e-mail and the World Wide Web. For private individuals, an Internet subscription costs between pounds 5 and pounds 12 a month - a small sum when set against fees of up to pounds 10,000 for an MBA programme.

David Thompson, the head of the flexible management learning centre at the University of Northumbria, is enthusiastic about e-mail. "If you don't have regular contact with students, they can slip behind," he says. "With e-mail, you can send a message every couple of weeks, bringing the programme to the front of their minds."

Northumbria uses the Internet for administration as well as for communication purposes. MBA material is on Web pages, but e-mail is the core tool.

Student demand has led Bradford University's business school to develop its open MBA, which starts in the autumn. The university has an existing, evening MBA and students there were asking for an open learning option: work commitments made it hard for some to attend the weekly seminars.

According to George Luffman, the MBA programme chairman, the full-time, part-time and open MBAs will be fully integrated. He expects some existing part-time students will move to open learning and suspects that more potential students, deterred by the need for a regular commitment to the part-time course, will rekindle their interest in an MBA.

Computers will be central to the new programme. Open learning students will be required to have a computer with a particular specification so they can communicate with the university, and fellow students, by electronic mail.

"One of the problems with open learning is that you lose a lot of people because they sit in their garrets and lose interest, or come up against problems," Dr Luffman says. "Regular electronic contact will, we hope, provide the cohesion and spirit of the part-time and full-time courses."

Bradford is moving into distance learning following a contract to train managers for the BBC. The BBC course is an "executive MBA", developed with the employer, and students go to the university for blocks of seminars and tutorials. The preparatory study is via distance learning. The open MBA will also have a college-based element at the start of the course.

Bradford expects a sizeable proportion of its open MBA candidates to be local, despite the technology's global reach. Figures from the Open Learning Foundation support the idea that 50 per cent of people on open learning courses live near the university; work or other commitments simply mean that open learning suits them best.

The Open University, with no campus-based students, has considerable expertise in distance learning, both conventional and electronic. Its business school makes extensive use of e-mail as well as computer conferencing, which lets students share views and information regardless of location. The OU uses computer conferencing on its MBA to bring together students working in an industry, for example brewing or oil, to share their insights.

The OU is making use of the Internet, and produces case study CD-Roms for its MBA students with links to company Web sites. Students have yet to abandon paper in favour of the PC screen. "We prefer to provide text- based workbooks," explains Gilly Salmon, the director of presentation at OUBS. "Students still want them."

Some academics worry that taking on too much technology might close the door to students on limited means. Computers should support, not replace, conventional techniques. At Northumbria, David Thompson cautions: "You have to design the technology so it is an aid, rather than a 'must have' which risks becoming a hurdle."

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