Bought anything on eBay recently? A flight booked online, perhaps? Or maybe surfed around looking at insurance premiums? We do so much of our own business online these days that it's hardly a revolutionary idea to learn about business via the internet. That explains the healthy supply of online and distance-learning postgraduate courses in the field of business education. The Association of Business Schools (ABS) lists higher-education institutions offering one or other model of distance learning, leading to a management-related Masters.
"They are very much part of the scene now," says the ABS chief executive, Jonathan Slack. "They have a good track record and the use of technology means they are better than ever before."
Slack also says that, for the schools, launching and maintaining distance-learning courses is becoming easier, since increasing amounts of course materials – even for campus-based students – are being made available online.
There are various models of learning, and many ways of describing them. If you trawl around prospectuses, you'll find references to e-learning, open learning, supported distance learning and blended learning. But the devil is in the detail. If you're choosing a Masters course at a university hundreds of miles away, as well as being satisfied the course content matches your needs, you should check how you'll receive course materials, whether there's an element of "live" online lecturing or discussion with fellow students, and if so, when it takes place, and what the arrangements are for you to communicate with your teachers. Tuition fees are rarely much lower than for campus-based courses, but cost-of-living and transport savings can be huge.
At the University of Leicester School of Management, three Masters courses (in finance, marketing and management) are offered, by what the school terms supported distance learning, and the content and assessment format for each course is identical to the equivalent courses followed by the full-time, campus-based students. Across the three courses, around 250 students begin study every year, each taking about two and a half years to complete them. The majority come from the Middle East, West and East Africa, and the Caribbean, with a small number from the UK and mainland Europe.
But the school deliberately does not rely solely on the internet to communicate with students. "We are trying to span new and old technology," says Dr Steve Conway, Leicester's director of distance learning, "because lots of students are in parts of the world where broadband is not very good. So we still send course materials through the post as well as give students access to our e-library."
Since there are no timetabled lectures or online events, students have flexibility on when they study, but can get academic advice from their Leicester-based tutors by email. The university has employed staff worldwide to give local support. "These local agents act as a hub and try to create a sense of community by setting up local tutor groups," says Conway.
The university organises summer schools in Leicester for distance-learning students, but these are not compulsory. However, regional summer schools are being introduced – the first, for Caribbean students, in Miami next May or June – which may lead to attendance at a summer school becoming mandatory.
Most schools manage all the academic components of their distance courses in-house, even if there's rarely face-to-face contact between students and academics. An exception to this is Liverpool University, where the management school works in partnership with Laureate Online Education, a worldwide organisation specialising in the technical side of distance learning. Laureate contracts and coordinates, from its European base in the Netherlands, all of the distance courses' teachers, known as instructors, who are spread around the world. Laureate also manages the online platform, which carries course materials and real-time discussions among students and their instructors.
"The reason we work with Laureate is one of scale, since we have 3,500 online students," says the school's director, Murray Dalziel. "But we develop the curriculum; we approve and train the instructors; and we constantly monitor the quality of what's going on."
There are eight management-related Masters courses available at Liverpool, and a further 10 courses, in the departments of law, medicine and IT, also run in partnership with Laureate.
Dalziel was initially sceptical about contracting out the teaching element. "What changed my mind is talking to the students, who have given us very high satisfaction ratings," he says.
More schools are adding distance courses to their portfolio. Warwick Business School is the latest to join in, with its MSc in management due to start with about 50 students next April. The format is described as blended learning, with students working partly on their own, and in their own time, and partly joining online classes. "It's not for every lecturer, nor every student," says course academic director, Michael Shulver. "You have to be savvy with technology."
The timetabled element will be a fortnightly, Saturday-morning lesson, where, using the web-based, interactive technology, students will work with a tutor, do group work and make presentations. Exams will be taken at accredited centres around the world. Shulver says: "People looking for a job want a course where they know that, if they get a job, they'll have the flexibility to accept it and continue with their Masters."