Online discussions allow students to interact with a global audience / Alamy

Distance learning is proving to be a popular choice, finds Russ Thorne

Choosing to get your MBA qualification by distance learning may mean working independently but you certainly won’t be alone in your efforts. The popularity of studying long distance is rising among prospective candidates both overseas and in the UK, with a growing number of institutions offering flexible programmes.

Just as the MBA has evolved over the past few decades, with new offshoots, specialisms and a widening appeal beyond the confines of senior management, so too have the ways in which students access their courses. More than 8,000 students now subscribe to the University of Leicester’s distance learning programmes. Oxford Brookes University offers 200 examination centres in 140 countries for its long-distance learners when exam time comes. For 2011, the number of students signing up to Durham University’s global MBA trebled.

Imperial College Business School has also reported a “significant rise in course registrations” for its MBA programmes, according to a spokesman from the school’s partner, Study Group, which manages the delivery of the distance learning element. This is partly a result of more effective marketing, which may affect all business schools now that insight into a course can be a tweet away, but Study Group also says the economic climate plays a role. The spokesperson says: “Organisations are less likely to want to send their executives to the UK for a prolonged period of time and prefer to offer them flexible working plans and time dedicated to distance learning MBA study instead.”

Flexibility is perhaps one of the key factors making the distance learning option appealing to both overseas and UK students, as it allows them more control over when and how they study. Rhona Peat, a final-year student on the new global energy MBA offered by Warwick Business School, believes distance learning “gives you the ability to fit studying around other things. I think that becomes much more important for those with families – being able to choose when to study rather than having to attend weekend and evening lectures is very useful.”

Depending on where you are based and the MBA path you follow, there can also be cost benefits attached to a distance course. Study Group’s spokesperson points out that international students at Imperial College are spared the costs of living in the UK for the four-year duration of the programme. With MBA courses potentially spread over five years, distance learning also allows candidates at home and abroad to continue in their careers, helping both their finances and their professional development.

The delivery of courses varies between institutions, but webinars, virtual classrooms and online study forums contribute to study programmes, as do multimedia materials alongside textbooks.

As with any MBA, the learning curve for students includes adjusting to learning in isolation. “In the beginning it was quite challenging working remotely,” says Peat, “but once you have made contacts on the course you have enough of a support network that it doesn’t impact on your studies that much.”

Study Group agrees, pointing out that the online study environment “actually exposes students to a highly diverse global audience who can provide real-life examples for the MBA from their current job roles”. And as businesses increasingly span continents and work in the virtual sphere, it makes sense for MBAs to reflect this.

However, business still demands some pressing of the flesh, and students don’t spend all their time at their screens. Many courses have a mandatory face-to-face element. Imperial College students must attend a three-week module to apply their theoretical knowledge in the real world; Oxford Brookes runs face-to-face workshops; and Warwick’s MBA programmes require students to visit the campus several times during the course for residential sessions.

These meetings emphasise the fact that, when studying for an MBA via distance learning, being removed doesn’t mean being remote. Peat’s advice to those embarking on a course is the same as it might be for those following a more traditional programme: build a network, and make the most of it. “Take part in online discussions with fellow students and lecturers and attend online lectures,” she concludes. “I believe that interaction is one of the most important outcomes from MBAs.”