March 12, 2012 12:03 am

Differentiation: Big names decide to join the fray

Established business schools have been reluctant to launch online degrees, often because of a perceived lack of quality.

But with an increasingly tech-savvy MBA population, and huge advances in pedagogical technology, a number of schools with highly ranked traditional MBA degrees are now seeking to create a presence in this growing market.

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Spain’s IE Business school in Madrid, ranked eighth in the world for its full-time programme in the 2012 FT Global MBA rankings, and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, in the US, where the full-time MBA is ranked 56, are among those that have recently taken the plunge.

At the core of their different approaches is a shared emphasis on ensuring consistency of quality with full-time, campus-based programmes.

At Warwick Business School in the UK, distance students follow the same curriculum as the full-time programme, which is ranked 27 globally.

No distinction is made at graduation between study modes.

Nigel Piercy, associate dean for the Warwick MBA, says: “With the same content and standards, distance learning is simply a variation in delivery mechanism, not a different degree.”

At Kenan-Flagler, applicants for its MBA@UNC programme have to sit the GMAT entry test just like their full-time counterparts. They also pay comparable fees of $89,000.

Warwick’s approach is one of “blended” learning, with certain modules taken on campus. Students can choose more face-to-face sessions, and amend their study mode in line with their circumstances.

“The increased volatility of today’s careers demands flexibility in programmes,” says Prof Piercy.

Marwa Bouka is one alumnus who combined periods of full-time campus-based and distance learning to study over two years without leaving her job.

“The full-time experience, though short, was incomparable, and it gave me a boost to continue the programme at distance.”

While studying away from Warwick, students are connected to their MBA community by “wbsLive” – a virtual classroom where students interact in seminar conditions – and by syndicate groups of 10 for completing joint coursework.

Bringing together individuals across time zones is problematic, but collaboration in these syndicates is seen as increasingly relevant in a globalised workplace.

“Virtual communication is an opportunity to develop and enhance one’s ability to organise thoughts and debate effectively – and this is another learning process,” says Ms Bouka.

Marcel Cohen, director of the Distance Learning MBA at Imperial College London, also advocates group work among students of diverse backgrounds and locations.

Spending only three weeks together on campus over the duration of their programme, students must adapt to long-distance networking, “the networking of the future”, says Mr Cohen.

Now in its 10th year, Imperial’s Distance Learning MBA is taught entirely online, and has different content from the full-time programme.

However, each module is written by faculty members who teach on Imperial’s MBA and Executive MBA programmes, and is scrutinised by a committee that ensures consistency and standards across the school’s “suite” of MBAs.

Each module is co-ordinated via its own “Blackboard”, which functions as a forum for study material and discussion between students and faculty. “We try to leave discussions alone for a couple of days to allow peer-to-peer debate to develop before intervening,” says Mr Cohen.

Professors can track who is following debates, as well as contributing to them, to monitor student engagement.

Across the Atlantic, Kenan-Flagler has embraced cutting edge technology in delivering its MBA@UNC programme, launched in 2011. On top of “asynchronous” study materials that students can watch on demand, including lectures, videos and interviews, there are weekly “synchronous” seminars.

Attendance – logging into the virtual classroom at the scheduled hour – is mandatory. Upon “dialling in”, each student’s face appears onscreen via webcam.

“Everyone is in the front row,” says UNC professor Doug Shackleford.

Students also have one-on-one access to their professors in online office hours, and can keep track of content “pinned” to each module’s virtual wall.

“While there are advantages being at the forefront of innovations, we are going to be constantly evolving,” says Prof Shackleford.

An iPad-compatible study platform is scheduled for late 2012 and the textbooks that were sent out to the first cohorts are to be replaced by ebooks. “There are fewer limits to the technology than you might think,” says Susan Cates, executive director of the MBA@UNC.

The programme’s “immersion component” – face-to-face courses at locations around the world, is a recognition of some of the technology’s limitations.

Students are required to attend at least two “immersions”, with sessions including persuasion, influence and performance under pressure: “experiential” learning that is difficult to replicate online.

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