March 14, 2011 12:01 am

Blended approach extends reach

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago the most adventurous business schools were experimenting with e-readers – Kindles – to replace paper case studies and textbooks, and Facebook to boost student recruitment. Today, e-readers are passé; Facebook ubiquitous.

As tablet devices such as the iPad replace e-readers for both degree and non-degree learning, personalised electronic textbooks replace their paper counterparts, and web-based seminars – webinars – replace the classroom experience, technology is moving beyond its role in student support and becoming an intrinsic element of the pedagogy.

The lines between traditional face-to-face teaching and traditional distance learning programmes are blurring and “blended learning”, combining virtual with face-to-face teaching, is the latest buzz phrase.

One of the biggest developments over the past year has been the launch of high quality – and expensive – blended degree programmes. Earlier this month Brown University in the US, one of just two Ivy League universities not to have a business school, launched an Executive MBA programme with Spain’s IE Business School.

Half of the EMBA – an “Executive MBA” for senior working managers – will be taught face-to-face, the other half online, says David Bach, dean of programmes at IE. He is an avid supporter of using asynchronous communications to improve quality of participation on these senior programmes.

“Everybody participates, even the shy people. You think twice as hard about writing something as you do about saying it in the classroom.” As a result, a 90-minute classroom exchange can become a three-day threaded discussion, he says.

The 15-month Brown programme will cost $95,000, more expensive than many full-time programmes, but Prof Bach defends the cost. “This is the Starbucks model, not the Walmart model. You don’t economise on faculty. Blended programmes are as expensive as on-campus programmes and they will become more expensive.”

Prof Bach believes people will be prepared to pay for the convenience of blended programmes. But other benefits to this technology include the ability of participants to select the way of studying that suits them.

Recognition that advanced technology can help students learn more effectively is spreading at the very top schools, those not usually associated with e-learning. And it is being regarded as enriching the on-campus experience.

At the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, Karl Ulrich, vice-dean of the school’s innovation initiative, believes that blended learning – or connected learning as Wharton calls it – can respond better to different learning styles.

“You can provide different ways to deliver a module. Our current learning technology is one-size-fits-all. I think we can be more respectful of student’s learning styles,” he says.

But connected learning can also help the school extend its reach. “What I’d like to do is to have students in internships take courses over the summer. If you can separate time and place, we can get our people out into the world a bit more.”

Recognition of different learning styles will be one of the selling points of MBA@UNC, the blended learning programme to be launched in July by the Kenan-Flagler school at the University of North Carolina.

Like the IE/Brown programme, MBA@UNC is targeted at the top end of the market, priced at $89,000 for the two years including books, student fees, and food and accommodation for four weekend immersions.

The two programmes are also both limiting the size of their inaugural intake, to 50 for the UNC programme and 24 for the IE Brown EMBA. Although technology has solved the problem of linking students across distance – 12 nationalities are represented in IE’s first cohort of 24 students – it has not enabled business schools to produce quality programmes at scale.

But that may be changing.

At Ashridge in the UK, a blended learning master's degree launched in April 2010 is proving that online delivery can result in geographical reach and scaleability, says Roger Delves, director of the programme.

He gives the example of a video lecture he recorded for the current class that could be used for participants on future programmes – there are four intakes each year. In a face-to-face environment, he would have to repeatedly teach the same class.

“The biggest breakthrough [in technology] has been around increased bandwidth,” he says. “People can download materials quickly and the programme works seamlessly.”

By reducing costs, Ashridge has been able to attract participants from countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, says Mr Delves. “This is an attractive product for people in developing countries because the costs are much lower [than on-campus programmes].”

Mr Delves says Ashridge has been particularly successful with this model because of the years of experience it has in developing online modules through its Virtual Learning Resource Centre – recently renamed Virtual Ashridge.

Elsewhere, the latest web technology is breathing new life into established programmes. At Queen’s School of Business in Canada, which has been running a videoconferencing-based EMBA programme for a decade, improvements in web technology have enabled the school to extend its reach, says Michael Darling, programme director of one of the three videoconferencing programmes taught at the school.

Increased bandwidth means students can view the synchronous video lectures from their desktops, eliminating the need to travel to a videoconferencing “boardroom”. Students from Bermuda to British Columbia are participating in the same virtual learning EMBA team.

The UK’s Open University is an established player in delivering programmes at a distance, and it is embracing the latest technology.

Martin Bean, its vice-chancellor, believes the ideal scenario is for students to consume content and undergo a comprehension assessment at a distance and then use the face-to-face meetings with tutors and professors to actively engage in discussion.

He thinks this is particularly appropriate in business education. “I think the real value of a business school is the community of learning.”

Prof Bean says the demand for management education is growing to such an extent that online and blended learning will be increasingly popular globally. “The world simply can’t build enough brick-and-mortar institutions to meet demand.”

And, he believes its popularity will grow as the technology becomes more personal. “The technology is coming our way; it’s now a lot more social, which works well with education.”

That said, the success of blended learning – “supported open learning” as the OU calls it – will always depend on the quality of the teaching, he says.

For the OU, where fewer than 10 per cent of the 265,000 enrolled students live outside the UK, using technology to spearhead expansion overseas is a priority.

It has had some success, though, with podcasting, through iTunes University. Some 89 per cent of the 31m downloads of OU material on iTunes has come from outside the UK, says Prof Bean. “It’s an amazing base of informal learning.”

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