Every two months the executive MBA student Andrey Pechurin flies more than 2,400 miles from Ekaterinburg in central Russia to London to spend a week studying at Ashridge Business School.

"It takes me about an hour to get to the airport and four hours by plane. Ashridge sends a car to Heathrow for me, then it is about another 40 minutes," explains Pechurin, 37, the HR and organisational development director for a local machine-building company called Uralmash.

But for him, his mammoth commute is more than worth it because of the face-to-face contact he gets with tutors and fellow students.

"I strongly believe that face-to-face study is more valuable – and more fun. During the group exercises, for instance, we are always being shifted around, so every time we are with new peers" he says.

The past few years have seen a rise in distance learning-based MBAs, fuelled by the spread of faster and better internet access, greater demand from overseas students, declining employer sponsorship of (more expensive) residential programmes and simply more people looking to gain a qualification without having to stop their career.

But can you get the same level of debate, the sparking of ideas and networking, through a computer as you would get in a classroom? One who certainly believes so is James Fleck, the dean of the Open University Business School, the UK's biggest MBA distance learning provider. It may seem counter-intuitive, but such learning can actually take the distance out of relationships, he insists.

"In face-to-face environments there is often a lot of noise that goes on, and always people who will hog the limelight," Fleck says.

"If you are with 45 other people in a lecture hall, a tutor will hardly be able to make out the colour of the jersey of the person in the back row and you may only be able to get five minutes with him or her before or after. To me that's distance learning.

"But if you have a one-hour online tutorial, say, in which all the students are invited to make comments or observations about someone else's position, it tends to be a richer and more substantial exchange because it is more structured. We also have a smaller student-to-tutor ratio."

Santiago Iniguez, the dean of Madrid's Instituto de Empresa (IE) business school, is equally passionate about the benefits of distance learning. In a blog on the discussion forum www.deanstalk.net in November, he suggested that programmes that mixed face-to-face and virtual learning could actually produce better results than more conventional learning.

"Participants in the first sessions of a [face-to-face] programme make themselves quick impressions of their fellow classmates based on their looks, the timbre, volume and tone of their voices, their attitudes and, in general, all the non-verbal communication displayed," he said.

"Compare this experience with the alternative of online interaction, where participants start to know others though a mind-to-mind approach, a more intellectual relationship,"

Others are less convinced. "Virtual or online learning can certainly be used for certain sessions, but a lot of the value of an MBA comes from face-to-face interaction," says Narendra Laljani, the director of qualification programmes at Ashridge.

Gareth Griffiths, the MBA director at Aston University agrees. "I'd say about half of what you learn on an MBA is from what goes on with the other students."

While Aston has a distance learning programme, it also requires students to attend a residential weekend every three months.

Even the distance learning-based Euro MBA runs three mandatory residential weeks a year, says Valérie Claude-Gaudillet, the MBA director at Audencia Nantes School of Management.

"Technology is a plus but it will never replace the direct relationship. It is true for business and it is true for business schools."

Pechurin accepts that without his company footing the bill for his travel and half his study costs, he might have taken the distance learning route himself. "It is not just the pure knowledge," he says. "This kind of experience you cannot get remotely. There is also the socialising side. Ashridge has a good bar and every night almost everyone is there and there is lots of chat. You are just not going to get that with distance learning."

This is one argument that will run and run.

'I made the effort to attend the monthly tutorials an hour's drive away'

Laura Mattin, 30, an operations manager at management consultancy Leadent, based in Tadley, Hampshire, did her MBA through OU Business School in October 2006.

"I wanted something where I did not have to commit myself to being in a classroom every afternoon.

"Online discussion is good for everyone. What I liked was being able to think about what I was going to say before I said it, and doing it by email means you cut out the waffle. But I do not think it is that different. Certain people will always dominate or hold back. There were people who never contributed at all.

"I also made a deliberate effort to attend the monthly Saturday tutorials, even though it was about an hour's drive each way. They were only for three hours but made quite a big difference because you met the other people doing the course and you did not feel on your own. The moment I realised how it all fitted together was there at the face-to-face meeting.

"When I think back about the course and the people I met, the ones I remember are not the names on the email forum but the ones from the residential tutorials."

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