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Distance learning/e-learning – that is, studying “virtually” while maintaining a full-time career – is increasingly seen as a viable alternative to more traditional, face-to-face learning.
Rapid improvements in technology, ease of access to web-based products and familiarity with the internet, have persuaded many institutions to launch distance learning/e-learning programmes.
But despite the fanfare that heralds the launch of an e-learning programme, many of these products subsequently find themselves consigned to a school’s back burner, or quietly shelved in favour of more conventional programmes.
The programme cost too much, the technology was not robust enough or it simply failed to attract sufficient numbers.
What makes a distance learning programme endure? Is it content, delivery, the brand, the price or a combination of these? Stuart Dixon, director of the Euro*MBA and academic director MBA programmes, Universiteit Maastricht Business school, is unequivocal.
He says: “Quality is the underlying feature for a [successful] e-MBA and you have to make sure that what you are providing is satisfying people.”
The Euro*MBA was launched in 1996 by an international consortium of business schools: Universiteit Maastricht Business School; Open Universiteit Nederland; IAE, Aix-en-Provence; Audencia Nantes School of Management and Eada, Barcelona.
The consortium also has partners in Ireland, Germany and Poland.
The concept behind the consortium was to establish a truly European MBA programme delivered via e-learning but with residential elements.
The fact that the programme this year celebrates its 10th anniversary indicates that it has hit on the right formula for success.
In many e-learning/distance learning programmes, says Mr Dixon, participants receive minimal guidance, often in the form of a video or webcam lecture.
“We do not believe in this approach, as this simply imitates traditional forms of education that we believe are ineffective.
“So we have processes that ensure students will want to discuss with each other and group assignments which are an effective size for discussions in this environment.”
All the groups have a team leader to ensure assignments are completed on time, the groups discuss how they will work together and tutors encourage discussion to create a community atmosphere.
“All these activities are designed to stimulate the learning process. They are indirect and do not tell students what they should know, they simply encourage them to learn,” comments Mr Dixon.
A lot of institutions fail to understand the importance of ensuring that these processes are coherent, he adds, which means that their programmes subsequently fail.
At the Open University Business School in the UK, one of the best known and established distance learning providers globally, Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, director of programmes and curriculum, says that when creating a distance/e-learning programme institutions must look beyond the technology.
“People have crashed and burned recently in launching e-learning programmes because they have thought it was mainly about the technology.
“People massively underestimate the upfront effort and production of good quality learning materials [in creating a successful programme],” he says.
In face-to-face learning, adds Prof Fenton-O’Creevy, much of the investment is in the professor standing in the front of the class, but in distance learning heavy investment resides in the materials and design of the programme.
Poor distance learning programmes try to translate the lecture experience into online courses he adds, but the best distance learning programmes are very high touch, with a great deal of interaction between students and faculty and between the students themselves.
Warwick Business School in the UK is another long-marcher in the provision of distance learning education.
This year it celebrates the 20th anniversary of its distance learning programme. It, too, seems to have discovered the secret of success.
At first, its MBA programme attracted 15-20 applicants a year, but this year it has an approximately 350-strong cohort and the course is now the biggest programme within the university.
“New technology changed the nature of distance learning for our students and has given us tremendous opportunities for building global networks,” says Ray Irving, head of learning resources for the MBA at Warwick.
The school intends to build on its strong foundations and expand its online modules, as well as delivering more live lectures with academics.
It provides dedicated teams for the distance learning programme, which for example look at learning resources, administration and the demand side of running the programme.
One measure of a successful and enduring distance learning programme is attrition; both the Open University and Warwick report very low drop-out rates.
Really good distance learning, says Prof Fenton-O’Creevy, has ways of rendering people visible when they have problems: “We know, for example, that if someone fails to hand in their first assignment on time it is a warning sign.”
The OUBS has learned through experience the value of pacing the workload, as well as the importance of regular milestones that help students pace themselves.
Marketing and brand are also essential elements in establishing an enduring programme, says Nigel Banister, chief executive officer of Manchester Business School Worldwide, the distance learning arm of MBS.
MBS is an established brand and its distance learning component is supported by experienced marketing teams.
Distance/e-learning programmes that stand the test of time appear to depend on no single factor when it comes to success, but essential ingredients are tried and tested practices, a strong brand and robust delivery.
While costly technology is not necessary, Prof Fenton-O’Creevy points out that it is important to invest in high quality course materials and these are not cheap to produce.
“Just as the perfect classroom will not create the perfect learning experience, in just the same way you can have an online learning platform that is super but will not create a good learning experience,“ he says.
What is important in creating an enduring programme, he says, is the educational factor.
Technology is no substitute for experience.