How the online learning network is growing strong

A growing number of online learning options are allowing MBA students to study from afar. By Steve McCormack

In a constantly changing business climate, with globalisation appearing to shrink the world on a monthly basis, it's not surprising that distance and online learning is booming. And nowhere is this more so than in the MBA market, where every year tens of thousands of students enrol on programmes at institutions hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles from their home.

But while the increasing capacity and reliability of the internet enables business schools to manage ever more students, spread widely around the globe, the schools are aware they have to maintain the quality of the qualification.

The risk is that the distance element will fatally undermine what is always cited as a key strength of any campus-based MBA programme, namely the interaction and cross fertilisation of ideas that takes place within classes of students.

This is a key consideration for the accrediting bodies, who will not endorse a programme unless they're convinced of the quality of the student experience.

"The value of the MBA is the opportunity that it gives for networking and collaboration and it's our belief that you can't replicate that without some face to face contact," says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA), which does not accredit programmes that rely exclusively on online contact.

"The fundamental requirement for distance learning programmes that we accredit is that there must be face to face contact among the students, and between students and lecturers," she explains.

AMBA does not have fixed rules on how much direct contact there must be – assessors make individual judgements – but it clearly has to be more substantial that one gathering a year.

Warwick Business School (WBS), for example, whose distance learning MBA has just been judged third best in the world, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, insists that students attend an eight-day September seminar at Warwick during every year of study.

WBS recruits more than 300 distance learning students every year, each taking between three and four years to complete the course. The geographical spread is vast. Current students represent 90 countries, but just under a half are from the UK.

In addition to the annual seminar, students are encouraged to exploit other opportunities for face to face contact, the chief one being the local study groups existing in many locations including New York, Hong Kong and several in the UK.

"We don't think we can quite claim these students get exactly the same experience (as their non-distance learning counterparts) but we do as much as we can to foster a good atmosphere of collaboration," explains Sue Beech, programme manager of the distance learning MBA at WBS.

All Warwick students receive purpose-written, printed study notes to augment the online materials and opportunities for discussion. WBS has also just successfully piloted an online classroom environment, in which students spread around the world can see a lecturer via a webcam, ask questions via audio link and talk to each other using a chat format.

The Warwick course attracts a variety of participants, many converting a single specialism into general management competence, and many who are running small or medium sized businesses, who have to continue their day job while studying.

Steve Hales, who runs a business which makes chemical process equipment for the pharmaceutical industry, has just finished his MBA by distance learning at Warwick.

He managed to see fellow students or tutors about twice a month throughout the course, but maintains that the real bonus was being able to study online.

"For me the online system was a real strength. You really are able to have discussions and debates, and the network is very strong."

UK-based small business owners and entrepreneurs feature prominently in the cohorts of around 40 who embark on the distance leaning MBA at Aston Business School, where the rule is that participants must attend six weekend sessions on campus during the two year course.

In parallel, though, Aston is forging ahead with impressive online teaching methods. All students are sent DVDs containing recordings of lectures delivered on-campus, plus PDF files of notes and handouts. And, recently a live element has been introduced.

"Some sessions are now streamed live," explains Gareth Griffiths, Aston's MBA director (external), "so that students can watch them and e-mail questions to the tutor during the lecture. He or she can then respond live, which benefits those in the lecture room and other distance learning students watching online."

However Griffiths doesn't suggest this should completely replace face to face interaction.

"I don't believe we are there yet with the technology. Virtual discussion groups are a stifled means of building relationships and not the same as seeing someone in front of you in the room."