March 14, 2011 12:01 am

Flexible study: Geographical boundaries are redrawn by web technology

During the three-and-a-half years it took Agnes Oon to get her MBA she worked full-time, travelled regularly for her job, changed employer and gave birth to her second child. Because the entire degree course was online, she could study in the evenings and at weekends.

The opportunity to form an international network of contacts was another big bonus. “I felt part of a community of students spanning Australia, America, India, China, Vietnam and Europe,” Ms Oon says.

“It was enormously stimulating sharing ideas and discussions with people from so many different cultures and viewpoints.”

Ms Oon’s MBA was with U21Global, a Singapore-based business school set up in 2001 to deliver education online. It is being joined by an increasing number of bricks-and-mortar business schools adopting web technology as a way to enhance and expand their curriculum.

The international dimension is one of the main benefits of online technology, says John Gallagher, associate dean for executive MBA programmes at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in the US. It has introduced a blended “cross-continent” course.

Students attend residential two-week modules in six locations worldwide over 18 months, with distance-working in between.

“This approach enables us to breach geographic boundaries and create extraordinarily diverse classes, because we are not constrained by place,” says Prof Gallagher.

Courses emphasise international topics such as cultures, civilisations and leadership, global markets and institutions.

This structure and content are much more consistent with the career ambitions of young people, says Prof Gallagher. “They are interested in experiences that help them cross borders and pursue opportunities in other parts of the world.”

In the past, distance learning has often been viewed as a second-class experience, but the latest online technology is putting it out in front, says Prof Gallagher. “Students are getting an outstanding experience that could never be available to people who are on campus every day.”

This view is shared by Bert Valencia, executive director of the global MBA programme at Arizona-based Thunderbird.

There is a perception among the alumni that online students are missing out on the campus experience and interacting with other students, says Mr Valencia. “But now the world is different and people in business spend much less time face-to-face.”

Global companies do not sit around the table to make decisions: they go online with video and audio conferencing, Skype instant messaging, and social networks, he says.

Students who study online have to learn to multi-task as they balance work, study and family.

“This is a better preparation for real life than the focused and rarefied atmosphere of the campus,” Mr Valencia says. He expects Thunderbird’s global MBA student numbers to double from 200 to 400 in the next five years.

The UK’s Warwick Business School (WBS) is using web technology to enhance campus experience. When the Iceland volcanic ash cloud prevented a lecturer attending a five-day module on service management for students in Dubai, it decided that, rather than abandon the lectures, it would stream video of them from Warwick.

In addition to saving time and money, this was an environmentally friendly option, says Ray Irving, head of learning resources at WBS. “It is also ideal for our senior guest speakers, who typically have busy schedules and may find it hard to get away.”

It is the reverse of the usual concept of online learning, because you are putting the tutor online rather than the student.

WBS has moved on from thinking about online technology as a way to improve distance-learning, to thinking about it as enhancing campus education, Mr Irving says.

Students can attend a lecture in person, or view it on a PC from elsewhere. This provides the flexibility and choice frequently expected in today’s business-education market.

People do not want to be told they have to travel to a specific place at a certain time, Mr Irving says. “They want to be able to watch a lecture when and where they can concentrate on it.”

Developments in online technology will enable business schools to offer more web-based options in future. U21Global chose Singapore for its headquarters partly because of the country’s high-speed communications network. But some of its students are in remote locations without access to broadband.

Someone in rural Africa or India might have only a 128K dial-up modem, says Nick Hutton, U21Global’s chief executive. This makes video streaming and conferencing impractical, he says. Within the next three years, however, he expects that high-quality low-bandwidth video will become more widespread, making many more multimedia options possible for online students.

U21Global is helping other institutions move online as a means of expanding student numbers. With the e-learning market expected to grow to $50bn by 2014, this should be a huge opportunity, says Mr Hutton. He expects it to be particularly popular in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe, where demand is exceeding supply.

The 6,000 people taking U21Global’s degree courses may never meet their fellow students or tutors face-to-face. A class may contain 30 students in 30 countries, with a tutor in a 31st.

Although Ms Oon did meet some of her fellow students face-to-face over the duration of her courses, she liked the “anonymity” of first getting to know people online.

“You only judge people on their ideas, not on their background or how they looked.” Eventually, quite strong bonds formed, she says, including with tutors.

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