March 11, 2013 12:01 am

Flexibility of online MBA adds value

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s executive MBA can be done in as little as one year. Andrew Ross did it over five years – but the journey was, he says, as important as the destination.

Five years ago Mr Ross, an analytics manager, was undertaking an epic weekly commute from Bowral, south of Sydney, to Melbourne and back. Deciding to study online was an obvious choice, if not the only one. Having never studied at university before, he initially considered an MBA but at the time those were mostly on-campus.

“If you’re working 14, 15 hours a day, that’s never going to happen,” says Mr Ross. “I had to squeeze in work, commuting, and family. So that was the only way we could get it done. Working long hours, I couldn’t get into a classroom to save my life.”

Mr Ross was in one of the first intakes for the RMIT online EMBA, which launched in 2007 through a partnership with Open Universities Australia.

Brian Corbitt, director of MBA programmes at RMIT, says about half of EMBA students are now studying in online mode. This year, for the first time, the university is offering its MBA online, too.

As the course is mainly geared towards people who have only been in the workforce for a few years, students have generally been more willing to take a career pause to study full-time, in contrast to the EMBA students whose careers and salaries are more established.

However, the university has observed that MBA students, too, are increasingly interested in alternatives to full-time study on campus.

“It’s an interesting dilemma. I think it’s partly to do with the fact that we’ve got a lot of people travelling these days,” says Prof Corbitt. He says it also appears to be connected to the generation Y and Z approaches to career paths. “There’s a tendency to try a job for a year or two years, move on, then move on after another year or two. An online MBA gives them the flexibility to do that, and move on.” Adding to the appeal of online MBA is that candidates are increasingly tech-savvy and unfazed by the prospect of using various online tools to complete their course.

RMIT’s online MBA is quite different to the online EMBA in its teaching style, materials and content, says Prof Corbitt. However, both courses begin with a four-day intensive at RMIT’s central Melbourne campus, which allows students to get a clear understanding of the course content, and to meet with teaching staff, mentors and each other. The EMBA also finishes with a four-day intensive on campus which, Prof Corbitt says, allows students to integrate what they have learnt.

The university has collaborative tools such as email, blogs and wikis built into its own learning management system, but students also use other tools as they need them. Skype is popular, of course, and Mr Ross says Dropbox and other ‘cloud’ type services were particularly useful.

Mr Ross says one of the benefits of the course was working on collaborative projects with fellow students located in places as diverse as Russia, the US and Vietnam. Some were expats, some were international students, and others were studying through RMIT’s Vietnam campus.

This required much more than identifying and using the best technological tools for remote collaboration. Finding times that worked for all group members was sometimes a challenge, but Mr Ross says the different time zones were actually an advantage in some ways.

“You’ve got to learn to leverage the global clock. For me that wasn’t new, but for some people it was, so you had to get used to it.” More important was gauging and working with different types of people. “I don’t know you, so I need to work out your strengths very quickly. By the time you get through the programme, you’re very global in your outlook, and very aware of cultural differences.”

Although he’s only recently finished, Mr Ross says he was reaping the benefits while still studying. “Strategic thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship were very strong for me,” he says. It changed the way I thought.” It was also directly applicable to his work at the time; one of his first subjects involved a scenario to outsource Qantas’ frequent flyer programme to India, at the same time as Mr Ross was working to outsource some of NAB’s (National Australia Bank) IT work to India. That synchronicity occurred in three of the 12 subjects, he says.

“Within the subjects you get to explore things that perhaps you’d question, but you didn’t know why, perhaps it was gut feeling. By going through the theory you learn why. And then you take it and decide, I’m not going to work that way, I’m going to be a bit different.”

The MBA without advanced standing costs A$55,680, with advanced standing it is A$41,760. The EMBA is A$41,760.

Only the EMBA course is available to international students; the cost is A$31,680 per full-time year. Students have the option to do short intensive courses in Hanoi with RMIT’s Vietnam campus, or in France through a partnership with L’Ecole de Management Grenoble.

There is also local competition: RMIT’s home city of Melbourne is also home to Deakin University, one of Australia’s earliest and most successful proponents of online external learning. Australians have a propensity to study in their home state in contrast to students in the US.

There were 945 EMBA online enrolments last year, and enrolments have not yet closed for MBA online enrolments. The enrolment numbers change from year-to-year, says Prof Corbitt.

“The market for education is like the market for lots of products, it fluctuates.”

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