Imperial College Business School in central London
Opening up: Imperial College Business School in central London

Blended learning, courses combining online and face-to-face tuition, are seen by many potential business education students as the ideal marriage of modern teaching methods.

Henley Business School’s latest annual survey of corporate learning found that half the organisations in its sample were already looking at doing some sort of blended learning during 2015.

This is in contrast to pure online business teaching, typified by massive open online courses (Moocs), enthusiasm for which dipped compared with previous years, according to Henley’s research.

Such findings are music to the ears of David Lefevre, programme director of Imperial College Business School’s blended learning course, the Global MBA. This programme uses the web to enable people to learn wherever they are, but also encourages them to meet in person periodically at Imperial’s London campus.

Its development began when Dr Lefevre, who describes himself as a “lecturer who got excited about technology”, created an online mathematics course. The pass rate of those who took maths immediately improved, something Dr Lefevre puts down to people being allowed to study at their own pace.

From that single subject, Dr Lefevre started developing the Global MBA. Students attend online lectures, carry out projects and participate in peer-learning sessions, which, he says, are on a par with any classroom teaching on a business school campus.

Teaching on the Global MBA programme is via the Hub developed by Dr Lefevre’s team. There is a news feed and the platform plugs in to email and social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter. The Hub analyses students’ performance, enabling them to track their progress and benchmark this against other people in their class.

Unlike purely online business education courses, Global MBA students are required to spend blocks of time together at Imperial’s central London campus. For example, at the beginning of this year a cohort of 70 students from 24 countries, began their studies with a week-long residential session at Imperial. The aim is to create strong relationships between the students to make later online interactions more dynamic, so there were team-building exercises and socialising.

After the initial meeting, students do not meet again formally as a group for another year, although they may do so informally in different places and are encouraged to return to Imperial’s campus whenever they are in London.

“The networking part of it is absolutely fundamental,” Dr Lefevre says. “Once you have built these bonds, students work together much better.”

Global MBA students pay £32,000. “Online teaching is expensive,” Dr Lefevre says. “We are still using the same faculty, the same career resources, all the costs are similar.”

Does he think that this puts the Global MBA at a disadvantage compared with largely free Moocs? No, Dr Lefevre says. “When you look at the detail of an MBA, you cannot have a free course. An MBA filters people, so if you have open qualifications where anyone can take it, then it is worthless. Computer-marked assessments are getting better, but to do it well you need a tutor. Then there is the cost of careers counselling.

“We may well develop cheaper models, but if you go down the cheaper route with the MBA, then it loses something. It becomes something else.”

There are differences between the Global MBA intake of students and those that apply to Imperial’s traditional MBA. The Global MBA students come from a much wider range of industries, for one thing; have a wider age range; and have a more balanced gender split.

Students on the Global MBA course tend to have a broader range of motivations for studying than those on a campus MBA. They might be looking to re-enter the job market or acquire skills to run a business.

“When you put them together, their differences is what they are talking about,” Dr Lefevre says. “But we all have this common goal — they are all eager to learn skills — and they all want to progress through the course.”

There is still a market for traditional classroom-taught MBA and executive MBA programmes, Dr Lefevre adds, but he is convinced that online teaching will become the dominant method.

“I am the digital guy, so I think this will be far more popular. It is the growth sector.”

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