Distance learning in a virtual world

The Open University Business School has created a winning educational formula

Martin Thompson
Friday 24 January 2014 04:39
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The president of Ethiopia was reportedly so impressed with his experience on one British MBA course that he promptly insisted that his entire cabinet sign up to study with the business school. This month, the school in question is opening a £11.5m new home but there won't be a student in sight. For the Open University Business School (OUBS) is a school without a campus. This brand new eco-friendly building in Milton Keynes will bring 250 key staff together under one roof to support the army of part-time distance learners enrolled on the MBA and other courses.

OUBS's new headquarters building, named after the great social entrepreneur Michael Young, one of the founders of the Open University, is an indication of its growing success in an increasingly competitive environment. The facts and figures seem hard to beat: 30,000 students enrolled at any given time (including 7,000 on the MBA course), 12,000 MBA alumni and 1,000 staff. What is it that makes the OUBS's approach particularly attractive to potential MBA students? While competitors such as Henley and Warwick have substantial distance learning programmes, the Open University remains ahead in the numbers it attracts.

The school's Dean, Professor Roland Kaye, explains that the key has been open access for all. "Around 20 per cent of students come to us without a degree. We have evolved a unique ladder of opportunity and progress which means that distance learning students from any background can progress step-by-step over a period of years, through a Certificate of Management then on to a Diploma before finally moving to the full MBA itself." He sees accessibility as another major incentive. Most students have to juggle study with full-time jobs and busy home lives. The OUBS approach mixes supported private study with local seminars and some residential courses up to five days in length.

This study method ideally suited Constance Hall who graduated with an OUBS MBA in 2001 at the age of 38. "As chief executive of a large London housing association working long hours, it was ideal to be able to work at my own pace, over four years, with excellent back-up from tutors and course colleagues."

This supported learning system, Professor Kaye maintains, is far more sophisticated than those of its competitors. "We recruit, train and monitor a body of 850 associate lecturers who supervise students all over the country, using OUBS's highly regarded teaching materials. Lecturers are accessible face-to-face at seminars, or by telephone and email. These contacts are backed up by online discussions via computer conferencing. In this way we create a community of learning in which all can take part."

Professor Kaye points out that the OUBS MBA has a workplace-centred philosophy – the course concepts and ideas can be applied directly to the manager's daily job.

"The course has particularly boosted my abilities in the field of strategic planning," says alumni Constance Hall, who was one of the 60 per cent of OUBS MBA students sponsored by their employer. "To be able to access resources and retain staff successfully you have to be ready to think outside the box. The creativity module has certainly helped me do this."

It is the "learning ladder" approach which works well for Rolls Royce plc, with 700 fully sponsored staff in the aerospace sector registered for OU business programmes. "The OUBS progression of courses ideally complements our own flexible approach to staff development," explains Richard Hill, who runs the company's Professional Development programme.

At the Kush Housing Association in London, Constance Hall uses her experience on the MBA to encourage ambitious younger colleagues in the black community to follow her lead and sign up with OUBS. "Part of my decision to take the MBA was to equip myself with a widely respected qualification to help me progress as a black woman with senior management aspirations."

Beyond its appeal to a broad spectrum of learners within the UK, the school has a strong following in Western Europe, with a large number of students based in former Eastern Bloc countries taking its courses via their local universities. It also operates via partnership arrangements in 43 countries including Singapore, South Africa, Hong Kong and Malaysia. The school's MBA has been endorsed by the Association o f MBAs and by Equis, the European kitemark. It is hoping to be given the seal of approval by the main American accreditation body early next year.

Pointing out that only a few business schools in Europe have pulled off the hattrick, Professor Kaye adds: "As our reputation continues to grow internationally, our capacity to expand student numbers is literally infinite. How many business schools can say that with confidence?"

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