It is more than three years since Dani McKinney, a psychologist at the State University of New York in Fredonia, found that students retained significantly more from a downloaded podcast of a lecture than those who attended the lecture in person.

His findings focused discussions about online learning less on its ability to meet the rising tide of demand for mass tertiary education in an affordable way and more on a shocking heresy: that online delivery methods might be more effective than real face-time between a professor and his class.

“If you want to learn how to read a balance sheet …or if you want to remind yourself what the four ‘Ps’ of marketing are, online is a great way to do that. You don’t need someone standing in front of a class and saying ‘product, price, place and promotion’,” says David Schmittlein, dean at MIT Sloan.

“But MBA programmes in the elite schools are less and less about that. It isn’t typically the case that you go to Stanford, London Business School, (or) University of Chicago to learn how to read a balance sheet. You go with some understanding in that regard to provide a basis to come into a classroom setting and have a discussion about outstanding unresolved issues,” he says.

The Kenan-Flagler school of the University of North Carolina, has developed its online MBA@UNC, which it believes meets the highest standards of intellectual rigour and challenge. The course is neither cheaper, nor less selective in its admissions criteria than its residential sister.

The school has developed the programme in partnership with educational technology specialist, 2tor, which provides faculty staff with technical support in instructional design. With taped lectures, the professor is able to refine and edit his or her performance and the student has the advantage of a rewind button.

“In this environment they [students] can replay the statement over and over again. The student can dive into it as many times as they need to get it,” says Susan Cates, executive director of MBA@UNC.

Some of the world’s best-known business schools remain unconvinced that online MBAs can deliver as rich and rewarding an experience as traditional residential courses, however.

Stephen Chadwick, MBA programme director at LBS, believes there is no substitute for campus learning. “Having that ability to share peer-to-peer discussion, debate, arguments and disagreements is so much more powerful than doing it online, writing on a discussion board. I appreciate in principle you or your avatar could be having that debate online but I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” he says.

Thomas Malone, professor of management and information technology at MIT Sloan School of Management, says that students like to be in the same room as a professor.

“Maybe it’s rational; maybe it’s partly emotional. We could ask why people want to go to rock concerts or football games in person. You can get a much better view on television than you can from virtually every single seat in the stadium,” he says.

For Prof Schmittlein, when it comes to “learning to be expressive, learning to listen …going through the thought processes of a problem …then a highly Socratic classroom session is very valuable”.

MIT Sloan additionally places emphasis on project learning. “Less and less of what elite institutions are doing will be about learning business functions,” adds Prof Schmittlein. “More and more is going to be about giving voice to the purpose of the organisation …about managing people in complex organisational settings …about leadership and teamwork driving innovation.”

Some universities, including Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, have been putting course material online for some years and free access has led to the democratisation of higher-level learning on an enormous scale. Apple’s iTunes U, a download service for lectures and resources covering everything from Aristotle to astrophysics, reports more than 700m downloads.

What is new, however, is the harnessing of innovative online technologies to provide an interactive, highly moderated experience that goes well beyond an upload of a professor’s course notes or videoed lecture.

MIT has been an early pioneer in the trend to provide course materials for a wide range of disciplines free and online. Its latest initiative, MITx, is building online materials that will carry the MIT brand worldwide, but will also modify and influence the design of on-campus courses.

At Kenan-Flagler, too, the online MBA “is changing the way we are teaching in our residential programme. It really makes us think about how we teach anywhere,” says Ms Cates.

There is an additional dimension to the growth of online management learning that has nothing to do with access, flexibility or cost, but relevance to the realities of today’s business environment.

“Today’s business world is less and less face-to-face,” says Prof Malone.

“Many companies today have remote teams. Increasingly the kind of interaction experience you need to be effective in business is not just face-to-face interaction, but text messaging and email.

“In some ways, the online environment will be a better way of learning those skills,” he adds.

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