March 19, 2007 10:39 am

Up close and very personal

Distance learning and e-learning may have had their day, at least as far as common business school parlance is concerned.

“We are trying to drop the term ‘distance learning’,” says James Fleck, dean of the Open University Business School (OUBS), based in the UK. “I don’t think it accurately portrays what the OUBS does.”

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Jonathan Gosling, director at the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter, concurs: “It is close learning, rather than distance learning,” he says.

Similarly, at the University of Leicester, Gilly Salmon, professor of e-learning and learning technologies, says that the term e-learning has “gone underground”. Instead, she talks of “digital natives” – those students who have grown up with the digital world and are completely at ease with the host of communications technology available.

The phrase e-learning, she suggests, should perhaps be replaced by mobile learning, personalised learning or even ubiquitous learning. But it is not only the vocabulary that is altering.

John Higgins, vice-president of solution strategy and innovation at Accenture Learning, says that with the plethora of innovative tools now available – MP3 players for example – as well as the wide distribution of mobile phones and instant access to broadband networks, the e-learning landscape is changing beyond all recognition. “In the future, learning will be like turning on your tap,” he says

Distance learning is in step with this revolution, as providers offer more and more sophisticated programmes, blending face-to-face teaching with an online element.

It was this transformation that prompted Strathclyde Graduate School of Business in Scotland to rename its distance learning MBA the Flexible Learning programme, combining up-to-the-minute academic thinking with an immediate practical application in the workplace.

Participants on the programme begin on an open learning basis that allows them to vary the pace and order of study according to circumstances, but also offers the option of face-to-face contact with tutors and specialists.

At the OUBS, Prof Fleck, who took over the top job two years ago, has quietly sought to shelve the term distance learning. “It is practice-based learning, rather than distance learning,” he says. “We take ideas out into the real world and people [students] can immediately apply them. We specifically design our materials to engage straight away with what people are doing. It delivers immediate value to the individual and the employer.”

Prof Fleck believes that OUBS’s combination of practice-based teaching and its low teacher-pupil ratio – tutors are allocated approximately 16 students – means that it is no longer appropriate to refer to the school as a distance learning provider.

The school has more than 30,000 students worldwide, and number are rising.

Even smaller providers, such as the Robert Kennedy College in Zurich, Switzerland, which is dedicated entirely to graduate and executive online education, have seen a jump in applications.

David Costa, the dean, says student numbers on the distance learning MBA are increasing rapidly: in 2005 the school had 80 students, last year this figure had risen to 230 and he is anticipating even greater numbers this year, helped of course by ready access to online learning.

As e-learning becomes commonplace, Andrew Ettinger, director of learning resources at Ashridge in the UK, says more organisations are demanding content and learning portals, rather than courses. He adds that these programmes work best when they are linked to the training initiatives of the relevant organisations and are narrow and focused.

Despite enthusiasm for the concept, many companies still do not have an e-learning strategy and instead rely on an ad hoc approach. But e-learning is not a cheap option, Mr Ettinger points out. This is a sentiment David Lefevre, senior learning technologist at Tanaka business school in London agrees with whole-heartedly. He says that expenditure on e-learning at the school, part of Imperial College, is increasing by 300 per cent per year, a result partly of a programme restructuring that the school is undergoing to give e-learning a pivotal role.

“With part-time programmes we use e-learning to spread the work load,” he says. For example, on a course such as marketing, students study the basic theories of the subject in advance, supported by online teachers, so that face-to-face teaching becomes, as Mr Lefevre says, “much more engaging for all concerned”.

“We are trying to become more efficient and make better use of people’s time ... and enhance the learning experience.”

The business education market is a competitive one he points out and the school is keen to provide a rich learning experience.Business schools that run EMBAs from two campuses, such as Columbia/London Business School, which jointly run the EMBA Global programme, are also exploiting technology’s potential. “The glue that holds them together is the e-learning environment,” says Mr Lefevre. E-learning “enables these types of global EMBAS, where you are connecting communities of learners and teachers.”

This has certainly been the case for Cass Business School, part of London’s City University. The school offers a modular EMBA in Shanghai, in partnership with the Bank of China, which is delivered through blended learning – face-to-face teaching combined with an online element known as CassLearn.

Hassan Hakimian, associate dean for off-campus learning at Cass says that CassLearn bridges the programme gap, while spanning two continents, cultures and time differenceszones. It allows for a

three-way communication; between students, academics and administrators. CassLearn was poineered by the China EMBA pioneered CassLearn he says and its success there led to the school rolling out the same platform internally and also to the recent launch of the school’s EMBA in Dubai.

Corporate universities also continue to thrive. The Corporate Learning Improvement Process (Clip) – a corporate learningn assessment benchmark established by the European Foundation for Management Development – has awarded its quality certificate to 10 corporate universities from across Europe. A further two organisations are rolling out programmes beginning the process and there have been several other declarations of interest over the past few months.

Allianz Management Institute in Munch, the learning organisation of Allianz Group, is one of the corporate universities to have successfully been through the Clip process. Peter Clist, head of the institute, says that teaching is geared towards the company’s senior executives. Last year, for example, out of a total 172,000 employees worldwide, 615 employees attended the institute.

The campus tries to make the most of internal resources as well as external expertise, for which it turns to business schools (see above). For example, for finance courses Allianz will use London Business School expertise. “Why re-invent the wheel?“ asks Mr Clist.

Mr Higgins at Accenture Learning stresses that for corporate universities to succeed, learning needs to be sharply aligned with business outcomes and results.

Jan Ginneberge, vice-president of learning and head of Alcatel-Lucent University, the training arm for the telecommunications equipment maker, agrees: “What makes a good corporate university is its link with the business strategy. Is it capable of aligning with the priorities and structure of the company and is it able to return added value out of its activity to that strategy?”

The corporate university’s reach is vast, with 2,000 people a day occupying a seat. E-learning plays a vital rolewithin the corporate university, accounting for one hour in four of learning or approximately 40 per cent.

It would seem that e-learning and distance learning are no longer stand-alone subjects. Boundaries have blurred to the point that they can no longer be readily distinguished, with business schools and corporate universities alike using elements to support their teaching.

Further changes can be expected. “In the future,” comments Mr Higgins, “we will have access to learning at virtually any time, anywhere.”

The power to access learning whenever you need it.“E-learning and distance learning are becoming ubiquitous as their potential is finally being realised and exploited. And as they become ever more sophisticated educational tools, they will undoubtedly bring with them a vocabulary to match.

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