Study at the click of a mouse

Online MBAs may lack human contact, says Steve McCormack. But they also offer more flexibility

Most people's image of a class of MBA students would feature a group of professionals, perhaps sitting in a lecture theatre, or thrashing out business theories around a table. Above all, the image would be of lively debate among people who are there to be taught and to learn.

What people probably wouldn't imagine is hundreds of students, each sitting alone and staring at a computer screen, in locations around the world. The distance-learning format, you might think, doesn't quite fit with the teamwork-based approach of traditional MBA programmes, where students often report learning as much from each other as from the lecturers.

Well, perhaps we should adjust our preconceptions, because distance-learning MBAs now account for thousands of new qualifications every year. But is the quality the same?

At Edinburgh Business School (EBS), part of Heriot-Watt University, a persuasive case is put forward in support of the distance-learning route, hardly surprising given the scale of its operation. In the decade since EBS was founded, there have been 6,500 MBA graduates, from as many as 150 countries. Moreover, its website boasts 9,000 students currently doing the MBA programme.

To qualify for an MBA, students have to pass exams in nine courses. There's no time limit, but most finish within three years. Around 30 per cent, for one reason or another, drop out before getting their MBA. Fees are £900 per course, and exams are taken in the conventional way, at exam centres administered locally by the British Council or accredited universities. The course content, in keeping with all MBA programmes, covers core management disciplines, including finance, marketing, HR and business strategy. But EBS's business director, Alick Kitchin, stresses that they haven't just "slapped together the lecture notes from the full-time course and put them online". Care has been taken to ensure that the material is tailored for someone learning on their own in a remote location. And, via the online message board and discussion elements, students from Turin, Tokyo and Toronto can compare notes and exchange ideas.

Kitchin feels that the course gives students the flexibility that many have been seeking, and claims that results show that distance learning can be just as successful as the conventional variety: "When we compare the exam results of on-campus students with those of distance-learners, the performance is not dissimilar."

However, although far too diplomatic to do so publicly, many in the management- education world would question the quality of an EBS MBA, chiefly because of the lack of a face-to-face element in the student's experience. For this reason, the Association of MBAs (AMBA), the main UK-based accreditation body, does not recognise the EBS qualification. "The key characteristics of an MBA are collaboration between students and development of interpersonal and leadership skills," explains the chief executive Jeanette Purcell. "These are difficult to develop at a distance, so some face-to-face contact between student and tutor is a minimum requirement for accreditation." This element has long been central to the experience of Open University students, around 15,000 of whom are currently working towards an AMBA-accredited MBA. Frequent contact between tutor and student is a given, some of which is face-to-face.

And at AMBA-recognised Henley Management College, whose distance- learning MBA currently has about 6,000 participants worldwide, the element is viewed as an integral part of the experience. Over the three years, students attend on average at least one two-day workshop, at an HMC premises in the student's own, or a nearby country, every three months. "The workshops are taken by our academics, who fly out from the UK, or by locally approved tutors," explains Lynne Stone, business development director at the college. As a result of this, and the identical nature of the exams and assessment framework, the qualification at the end is indistinguishable from that of students who have spent 12 months on the full-time course. "They all get the Henley MBA," says Stone.