March 12, 2012 12:02 am

Ask the Expert: Online Learning 2012

Q&A with Della Bradshaw

Online programmes have traditionally occupied the cheap-and-cheerful end of the management education market, but recent advances in software, combined with the growing fashion for tablet devices, electronic books and podcasts, have lured quality business schools into the market. But are employers convinced about this new generation of programmes? And are these premium MBAs, masters degrees and executive programmes worth the investment, in both time and money?

On Wednesday, March 14, 2012, between 14.00 and 15.00 GMT, a panel of experts will answer this question and others here on FT.com. Post your questions now at ask@ft.com and they will be answered on the day.

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IN Online Learning

On the panel are:

Mark Taylor, dean of Warwick Business School in the UK, which has been running a distance learning MBA programme since 1986 and an online Global Energy MBA since 2009. A former managing director at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, Prof Taylor is a finance specialist.

Della Bradshaw, Business Education Editor of the Financial Times

Douglas Shackelford, associate dean of MBA@UNC, the top-end online MBA programme launched in 2011 by the Kenan-Flagler school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. A professor of taxation, Prof Shackelford is also director of the UNC Tax Center.

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How do you see the role of mobile education evolving over the next two years?

Emma Stevens

Doug: We are the vanguard of a revolution in business education that will spread to the world’s other leading business schools as they recognise that quality does not have to be compromised to provide the flexibility that today’s students need and want.

At MBA@UNC, state-of-the-art technology enables us to provide students across the globe with the same extraordinary education associated with UNC Kenan-Flagler’s residential MBA programme. The admission standards, the quality of the faculty and the breadth and depth of the curriculum equal our residential MBA programme. While we are the first world-class business school to provide an uncompromised educational experience, we do not expect to be the last.

Della: Online learning is all about flexibility and mobile devices can only increase that. Tablets and smart phones are great for delivering materials, but my concern is how students will learn using these devices. To use an industry expression: laptops are “lean forward” devices, tablets are “lean back” devices. I am not sure any research has been done on how this “leaning back” will influence the way course participants interact with their peers or professors.

Mark: Mobile will be increasingly important over the next two years in providing students with the ability to access and transport content wherever they are, for example on a train or in a taxi, and our systems at WBS are already geared to providing this kind of access.

This is a tremendous benefit, but don’t forget that the MBA is an educational experience rather than a training course - and accessing and digesting content is only one aspect of the programme. Reflecting, communicating, engaging and collaborating with a network of academics and peers are equally important. Therefore mobile devices certainly do help students in gaining access to content in a convenient way, but it is likely to remain just one aspect of your studies for some time yet.

Are there any European organisations that accredit online MBAs from European business schools such as EFMD? What kind of accreditations should an online MBA have?

I have heard most people say that online MBAs are not as well recognised by employers as the ones pursued on campus, especially because you don’t interact in real time with other people or involve the same commitment.

Israel

Mark: Both EQUIS and AACSB accredit institutions as a whole, whereas AMBA will accredit individual programmes. So you should expect a high quality online or distance MBA to have at least two of these and preferably all three; then you can be sure that they have been externally judged to be of a high academic quality and professional relevant.

We see no evidence that recruiters discriminate between the way in which someone has studied their MBA. In fact, the feedback from employers is that our distance learning students are particularly impressive; because they are still in the workplace, will often have high levels of commercial awareness of the challenges and issues potentially facing the sectors involved and are able to utilise up-to-date and applied experience.

In terms of commitment, online learners are no more or less committed than full-time MBA students. Studying by distance learning requires high levels of self-motivation and commitment; to devote between 10-15 hours to studying each week when also juggling professional and family responsibilities is no easy feat! They have to be very focused and determined – traits that employers will also value.

Della: On the first part of your question, EFMD does accredit online degrees through a partnership with a group at St Gallen University. Cel, as it is called, now accredits 10 organisations in what it calls “ICT-based learning.”

However, the traditional MBA or business school accreditors - AACSB, Amba and EFMD will always look at the online degree as part of their accreditation.

Doug: MBA@UNC began in July 2011 and thus we have had no graduates to date. However, the two concerns (interaction and commitment) are not relevant in our programme.

We have 1.5 hour weekly live classes. The professor and the students (no more than 15 per class) see each other on the computer screen and interact as they would in a traditional classroom. Professors also hold office hours where they meet face-to-face on the computer with students. In addition, students meet in virtual rooms (again face-to-face) to work on projects and other assignments as well as the normal interaction that occurs in a traditional delivery system.

As far as commitment, class attendance is mandatory. Our students are highly committed to each other and successful mastery of their coursework.

My colleagues who studied for a full-time MBA say that a lot of the value is in the alumni network and being able to contact their classmates if they have a problem they need solving.

Is it possible for online degrees to give the same sense of community if you have never met your fellow students?

Doug: At MBA@UNC, students take live classes together with their classmates and work face-to-face virtually on projects and study together. Furthermore, four times a year all students gather for a common immersion over three days (e.g. we will be in London in June and São Paulo in September). Thus, our students meet regularly with their classmates and have a similar sense of community to students in residential programmes. They also have access to the same alumni network as all other UNC students and are connected to our alumni director when they join the programme.

Mark: Your colleagues are absolutely right. The community and networks that you join when studying for an MBA will be incredibly valuable. On the Warwick MBA by distance learning, you DO meet your fellow students; in the first year, students will participate in two campus residential sessions. These involve lectures, case studies, group work, networking and social events along with careers and study skills sessions. It’s a busy but important time - it sets the foundation for the rest of the learning that takes place virtually.

Don’t forget that technology now also allows significant communities and networks to be built online; our students will work together using our virtual classroom and other synchronous technologies on group work on a regular basis.

For example, we have a team of distance learning MBAs which has been shortlisted in the M&S Sustainable Retailing Competition this year; they are based across the world in different time zones and proved it is possible to achieve great things – you can read their story here.

I have to travel a lot for my job so an online degree is the only way I will be able to complete studies. What criteria should I use to select an online MBA?

Mark: You are not alone – yours is a commonly cited reason for choosing the flexibility of an online MBA.

Clearly, not all online MBAs are of an equal quality. So always choose one that is accredited and that preferably has an on-campus MBA also. Always seek out information about the student experience, preferably by talking to current students and alumni to get their views.

You also need to understand what the time commitment is, what type of academic and admin support you’ll receive, when and how you’ll be required to participate online. Think about how you will fit study into your travel, work and family commitments. And finally, consider what you are trying to achieve and whether that particular school can help you to achieve it. Can you tailor your programme and extra-curricular activities to meet those goals? You’ll be making a big investment; you want to make sure that it is for the right purpose.

Doug: You should use the same criteria that you would use for a traditional delivery system MBA. Namely, what is the quality of the students, faculty, and curriculum? Will the education provide me with the knowledge and contacts that will radically improve my career? As the only world-class business school that provides the same quality MBA online as on campus, we believe that MBA@UNC is the best option for online MBA education.

I graduated from my undergraduate degree a year ago and I now work in the IT industry. I want to get an MBA from a top US or European business school, but am worried about the years of work experience needed.

Will an online MBA programme accept me with one or two years work experience?

Della: You will always find business schools that will offer you an MBA with one or two years experience - both online and campus-based programmes. But the reason quality programmes prefer/require more work experience is that this will help you get the most out of your studies by engaging in a higher level of debate with your class peers.

Mark: Some business schools will but many won’t. We wouldn’t at WBS because we believe an MBA is a post experience masters qualification and you will gain so much more from the MBA experience with a little more business exposure and understanding first.

An online MBA is no different in this respect from a full-time campus one. However, we offer a range of other business qualifications for people with little or no experience and no academic background in management – including our Masters in Management and our Masters in Business programmes.

Doug: At MBA@UNC we would require at least two years of work experience.

The way I see it, distance education programmes are for someone who is busy and doesn’t want to leave his / her job, and continue studying. But if you compare this with full time courses, where people are involved full time, day and night getting 100 per cent out of it, online programmes probably give you 20-30 per cent in comparison.

What is your experience so far? Is it just a ‘learn, apply and forget’ system? How much do people really learn from distance learning? For those who can, would leaving your job and doing a full time course make more sense?

Alok Jadhav

Mark: There is no one “ideal” way of studying for an MBA. Everyone is different and will have different objectives, needs and preferences. The experience of studying full-time versus part-time can’t really be compared as they are for different groups of people.

Full-time study is great, especially if you are looking for a career switch but distance learning or part-time study may be more appropriate if you are looking for a career boost. And if your employer is keen to retain you in the organisation then distance learning is a great way for you both to work together to achieve your aims.

Della: I think the big issue is that in this economic climate far fewer people are prepared to give up their day job, but are still looking for a way to learn more about business. This is an ideal solution.

Doug: MBA@UNC students want a world-class MBA, have and want to keep their great job, and need flexibility - often because their work requires them to travel extensively. To graduate, they have to take the same credit hours and do the same work that they would do in a residential programme.

If they complete the programme in two years (they have an option to complete it between 18 and 36 months), they go at a slower pace that our residential students because the residential students complete the programme in just 16 months (4 semesters with a summer break).

However, even though the pace is a bit slower, MBA@UNC is an extremely demanding programme for rising hard-working, ambitious executives. Thus, we are highly selective, admitting only those students who are both qualified and willing to earn an unparalleled online MBA education.

Many people consider that distance learning and education technology are a good answer to solving many of the quality and access issues present in the school systems of developing countries.

However, many teachers I talk to about this idea immediately (and justifiably) show scepticism about the learning outcomes of students who are educated exclusively or predominantly via distance learning channels.

Are there any studies which demonstrate the relative long-term risks and merits of distance learning within a controlled student group? If these studies haven’t yet ‘proved’ the case either way, what should be the key educational measures you would want to be tested before introducing distance learning more widely within mainstream education?

Gordon Carver

Della:I am not aware of any studies, though I am sure my two panel colleagues will be better informed. The question for me is what these online programmes replace. I remember listening years ago to a radio programme which documented the trials and tribulations of an Australian teacher teaching children in the outback. She used a rather squeaky old radio system, and would definitely have benefitted from modern video technology and computer-based programmes.

Mark: The best way of answering this question is to look at the success of our distance learning MBA in terms of student demand, completion rates and the achievement of graduates from this course: all are extremely high and our distance learning MBA programme is consistently ranked as the best in the UK and one of the best in the world.

But the standards achieved on that programme, in terms of the syllabus and the examinations and assessment, are exactly the same as those taken by our full-time and part-time students. Indeed, all MBA graduates at WBS achieve exactly the same standard, regardless of the mode of delivery, be it part-time, full-time or by distance learning. The fact that we turn out so many highly successful DLMBA graduates is therefore testimony to the merits of distance learning – or at least, the way we do it at WBS.

Are employers convinced about the new generation of premium online programmes? And are they worth the investment, in both time and money?

Della: It strikes me that there is a lot to be said from an employer’s point-of view in having your managers study on a top-notch online programme. To begin with, they stay working for you - they don’t leave. But more important they are constantly bringing fresh ideas back into the company. And any company project they complete as part of the programme can bring real benefits - it’s really a piece of free consultancy.

Doug: MBA@UNC began in July 2011. So, we have had no students graduate. That said, our current students, all of whom are working professionals, have found that their employers are excited about their enrollment in the programme, both because it is enhancing their productivity at work and it signals their commitment to excellence.

Moreover, MBA@UNC has the same admission standards, faculty and curriculum as our highly regarded residential programme. Thus, we would expect that the return on the MBA@UNC education to be comparable to the excellent return that our students have long enjoyed in our residential programme.

I am a commerce graduate (Calcutta University) associated with private banking / investment advisory for the last ten years. I would like to know whether I should do an MBA or MSc Finance course? I would prefer a part time or online course due to full time employment. Please could you suggest?

Rakeshh

Della: It all depends what you want to do with your career. If you want to stick with finance and banking, a MiF degree would work well. If you want to move into a different sector or into general management, go for the MBA.

Mark: Rakeshh, it really depends on what your future career goals are and in which direction you’d like your career to head. An MSc Finance will be excellent preparation for a career that specialises in finance either in the finance industry or in academia, whereas an MBA is really designed to give you a more general understanding of a wider range of functions.

An MBA won’t teach you to be a specialist financier, but it will help you to develop managerial capabilities. So if you want to specialise in the future, study for an MSc Finance. But if you are now looking towards a more general management role, which requires you to have an understanding of other functions such as marketing, operations and HR, then the MBA is a better route for you.

Incidentally, years ago I took an MSc Finance myself, which equipped me to work in the finance industry as well as to do academic research, but much later I took an MBA when I wanted to switch from being a technical finance specialist to being a more general manager (i.e. Dean!) If you’re interested in joining us at WBS, our MSc Finance is top ranked by the FT (fifth in the world) and our MBA likewise (27th in the world). Think about your future and take your choice!

I agree that technology can enable a much richer learning experience for third level online education but most of the course materials that lecturers use are static PDFs or power point documents, that are relics of the PC era, not current with interactive mobile device capabilities or advances with digital pedagogy.

How can colleges fill this gap and bring lecturers along with them?

Fred Thomas

Mark: There’s clearly a huge variety in the quality and type of course materials available but I would expect the very best MBA programmes to be embracing the latest digital technology in order to bring their teaching and materials to life.

We certainly do this at WBS. Our online teaching delivery is state of the art: we pioneered the distance learning MBA twenty-five years ago and we have now perfected online teaching and learning into a veritable art form. We offer tailor-made multimedia study materials with integrated video and audio clips that feature both WBS faculty and inspirational business leaders. We use our virtual classroom to deliver interactive lectures with time for Q&A, tutor-led seminars or focused revision sessions.

Combine these with e-tests, simulation tools and the intranet, which gives you access to discussion boards, library resources, study skills support and career information, and the result is a really rich learning experience.

What has been the feedback of employers on your online / distance MBA programmes? And what are the critical success factors of your programmes?

Elly Hoekstra

Mark: Feedback of employers – see answer above. The critical factors for success are the quality of our students and quality of our programmes. This is measured by factors such as completion rates, geographical scope, academic performance and impact on careers.

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