Mastering the distance

Kathy Harvey talks to James Fleck about his plans for global expansion of the Open University

What do an Ethiopian government minister, a Russian cosmonaut and a British nuclear submarine commander have in common? All of them are MBA graduates of the Open University Business School (OUBS). There are now over 15,000 OUBS alumni throughout the world, and the business school is confident that its method of teaching management through distance learning has proved its worth.

What do an Ethiopian government minister, a Russian cosmonaut and a British nuclear submarine commander have in common? All of them are MBA graduates of the Open University Business School (OUBS). There are now over 15,000 OUBS alumni throughout the world, and the business school is confident that its method of teaching management through distance learning has proved its worth.

But the school realises that, as demand for the MBA across the world grows, it needs to keep an eye on the competition. When the dean's post became vacant recently, the school decided to seek an outsider's perspective. The new incumbent, Professor James Fleck, starts work at the Milton Keynes headquarters this month, transferring from Edinburgh University's School of Management.

Fleck's enthusiasm for virtual learning may well have been the reason behind his appointment. While at Edinburgh, he set up a global e-learning MBA and ran the management school's innovation and entrepreneurship group. "The ideals of the OU, offering education through the best distance-learning techniques, are in line with where I come from. I've always been interested in using technology to aid learning. There's no doubt that it can be a great catalyst for transferring knowledge."

A future partnership between Edinburgh and the OUBS to deliver some courses was already under discussion before the dean's post south of the border became vacant. Fleck is keen to see this idea bear fruit and wants to explore the possibility of similar projects elsewhere. He forsees a day when staff from the Milton Keynes campus could form part of a community of academic experts contributing knowledge and teaching on a range of specialist management programmes - not all of them run by the Open University. "An MBA might be hosted by OU talent," he argues, "but include academics from partner universities. Modern technology makes this kind of invisible college of experts possible."

He acknowledges that other universities may be unwilling to run courses which don't bear their name but says these fears about loss of identity can be overcome. "People will ask who owns the brand, but we at the OUBS are in a different position from some of our potential partners. We have more expertise in the distance-learning field, and we are not really competing with them in a direct way." The recent failure of the government's multi-million pound e-University is, he says, an opportunity for the Open University Business School. The initiative was designed to offer UK universities a chance to deliver their degree programmes on-line to a global market but failed to take off. "We already have the tools needed to deliver high-quality education. Of course there are universities with a world-wide reputation but even Harvard isn't a global university in the correct sense, with students studying all over the world. But we are in a position to become a truly global university."

Critics may argue that this is stretching ambition too far. In the 1990s, some of the best known American business schools tried to expand through e-learning and found it harder than expected. Universitas 21, an e-learning venture capitalising on the expertise of universities across the world, is making inroads into the MBA market in Asia but still has to prove itself in Europe or the US. The Open University's own foray into the American distance-learning market met with little success and was abandoned in favour of a more modest partnership arrangement with one university. All this does little to dissuade Professor Fleck from his view that the OUBS has advantages over its rivals. "Some people think the traditional MBA market is collapsing but there's huge demand globally. Distance-learning programmes can meet that demand."

Even its competitors acknowledge that one of the OU's main strengths is the user-friendly nature of its text books. Over more than 30 years it has built up a huge amount of expertise, designing printed and now on-line materials to help students learn outside a traditional classroom. Not everyone at the business school will be delighted to learn that its new dean is taking a second look at how these course materials are developed. "The expertise is fantastic," he says, "but it can take a long time to refine and produce a course. We need to be more flexible and respond more quickly to demand." This, he says, is where partnerships come in. "We don't have to develop everything ourselves. And we need to ask whether our skills are geared too much towards a printed text which can't be revised quickly."

Taking the business school even further down the road towards virtual learning may also have risks. A recent decision to remove some compulsory residential study sessions from the current MBA programme led to complaints from alumni - who argued that the face-to-face teaching had been an important attraction of the programme. But the business school claims an increasing number of applicants can't afford the time away from work or families to attend residential courses. Professor Fleck, who introduced outward-bound sessions for new MBA students at Edinburgh, says he has no intention of turning the OU MBA into a completely on-line experience, though more could be done to exploit the technology. "You can't deliver an MBA through a mobile phone," he says, "but that doesn't mean you shouldn't consider using it to help the learning process." Residential courses do fulfil a purpose but, he says, this is not always academic. "Sometimes it's not the course content but the socialising which is most important at these events. Perhaps there are other ways we can provide that to our students. And of course we will listen to what they say about how they prefer to learn."

Fleck says he intends to spend the next couple of months listening to colleagues before making any big decisions; and he'll also be studying the Milton Keynes road maps to make sure he negotiates the many infamous roundabouts correctly. As part-time MBA study becomes increasingly popular, he is convinced that the Open University Business School is in a good position to exploit changing student demands. "Only a small proportion of managers have any formal qualification in the field. There's still a lot of managerial ignorance."

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