Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

In an age of austerity, students and companies alike are turning to online programmes to keep down costs and eliminate the need for time away from the workplace. As the latest web-based technologies and social networking sites deliver an increasing level of sophistication to business programmes, the appeal of these courses is growing.

But there is much confusion. For highly-regarded universities, online learning combined with classroom teaching is delivering flexible and high quality blended education. But for some distance learning degree providers, online programmes are perhaps synonymous with cheap programmes. How does the buyer differentiate? Do participants learn as much online as they would from a classroom programme? Also, do employers value online MBAs as highly as programmes taught face-to-face?

On Wednesday, March 16, a panel of experts answered these questions and others on this page.


The panel are:

Robert Goodwin, Chair of the Business and Executive Programmes Department at the Graduate School of Management and Technology at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), which runs one of the largest university-based online MBA programmes in the US.

Stuart Dixon, director of the Euro*MBA distance learning MBA programme, delivered by a consortium of six schools in five European countries. The programme celebrated its 15th anniversary this year.

Della Bradshaw, Business Education editor, Financial Times

What are the top three leadership challenges facing senior managers in organisations today?

Stuart: The challenges are:

1) Managing change
The first thing that strikes me regarding the Euro*MBA students, is the amount of change taking place in organisations. Of course, the financial crisis has stimulated a lot of recent change.

However, over the last 15 years that I have been involved in the training of managers, the greatest challenge they face seems to be organisational change. Few firms are able to keep the same strategy and structure and survive for long.

Environmental pressures, competitive pressures, societal pressures force firms to break from their status quo and this leads to fundamental changes in organisations. The ability to take people from a world of safety and stability to a new and uncertain world is one of the greatest challenges a manager can face.

2) Dealing with diversity
With the growing internationalisation of markets, driven by the emerging internet economies, all firms, large or small, are developing relationships with a culturally diverse world. This diversity affects how we were work together, how we communicate and the types of products or services that we want to consume.

But diversity itself also offers many opportunities. As well as new markets, it brings new perspectives, new ideas and new experiences. Managers that are able to tap into the potential of diversity will be able to create enduring sustainability in the future.

3) Developing human potential
As technology becomes more diffuse and readily available, the technical advantage of traditional market leaders is declining. This has helped the impressive growth of countries like China and India and this is now putting increasing competitive pressure on many Western businesses.

The key to future success lies in being able to develop the potential of people, at all levels in the organisation. Firms that can offer the best opportunities, will attract the best people and this will lead to a sustainable competitive advantage. However, managers need to learn how to attract, support and develop their employees if they are to realise their full potential.

Robert: The challenges are:

1) Mentoring and coaching employees, colleagues that come to the organisation with different perspectives, expectations and objectives.

2) Preparing for and leading an organisation through a crisis. This includes all types of issues such as succession crises, risk assessments, etc.

3) Sustainability of the business itself in terms of ability to adapt to the dynamic nature of the economic environment. This could also include innovation and reinvention as subsets (although usually considered as separate categories).

No doubt that online can deliver content and knowledge. However, what about motivation and networking face-to-face which are valuable? It seems that only physical presence can give that constant state of involvement and inspiration which are priceless and irreplaceable, even in our technological era. What innovations are out there?
Yaroslav Bozhenkov, Russia

Robert: We have found that the structure of our programme as a cohort one allows students to get to know each other quite well since they take all of their classes as a group over the course of the two years of the programme. We also include team projects in every course so that students get to know each other that way as well.

Finally, we can communicate in “real time” where face-to-face interaction might add value. We use various technologies that allow for audio (and occasionally video) interaction. In such cases there is always a transcript so that students who are not able to participate “live” can later access the discussion.

In sum, I believe that the state of involvement and inspiration that you mention can be provided through an online programme and, in fact, our students have told us as much over the years.

Finally, society in general has also moved away from the notion that inspiring, motivating and engaging imply a need for face-to-face interaction. Witness the power of Facebook and other social media inspiring and motivating the citizens of Egypt and other nations.

Della: The latest programmes from the US are being designed specifically to suit the different learning styles of individuals. This means that the same content can be taught through different media - video, role play, case study etc. I think this approach, as opposed to the one size fits all approach, will be very motivational. As to networking, the incorporation of social networking into programmes will be very exciting, I think.

Stuart: I think that face-to-face communication will always remain an important means of communication for us and certainly one that we (as social animals) enjoy.

However, other means of communication, such as the telephone and in more recent years, email, have become essential complements. As technology changes, we also need to change and take advantage of these the opportunities that these new innovations can offer.

Although I do not doubt the importance of face-to-face contact, I also do not doubt the importance of asynchronous and synchronous communication in the virtual-digital world. For example, the success of the text message is driven because people find it useful and fun. I believe that virtual environments, such as discussion boards, webinars and the trend in telecommuting will have a firm place in future business environments.

What can deans do to improve the online learning practices of senior executives, who are enrolled on the EMBA and/ or customised educational programmes at leading business schools worldwide?
Viktor O. Ledenyov, Ukraine

Stuart: I think deans need to refocus on what they mean by education. I still see that many schools and universities have a traditional mindset regarding what constitutes a good education, which is in many cases constitutes a professor lecturing in front of a large group of students. Moreover, I still hear deans and programme directors discussing how they should recreate this same environment, using video, for the online classroom. This, I believe, is a mistake. The traditional system simply does not work.

Increasingly, we need to stimulate self-study amongst students. They need to develop their own learning goals, to search for relevant articles and cases and to solve real business problems. Using discussion boards, webinars and wikis, the online environment provides a perfect platform for activity-based learning. Deans need to embrace this new mindset and create the right infrastructure and incentives for staff to excel in this area.

Robert: Our experience is that executive students are equally proficient online learners as those more junior in organisations. This said, it is important to design assignments that are meaningful for them. Thus, one thing deans can/ should do is provide the resources and support required to ensure a well crafted curriculum and faculty who understand the needs and interests of those in senior positions in organisations.

Della: Here’s an additional question - what can deans do to improve their own online learning practices?

Generally, do employers value a classroom-based MBA over a distance learning programme? The concern is that online MBAs may not be highly regarded, but at least they are not as costly as some of the classroom based courses.

Della: I think when most employers assess the value of an MBA they look at the institution rather than the mode of delivery. Lots of institutions - IE Business School in Spain, Warwick in the UK - offer online or blended programmes as well as campus-based programmes, and these programmes are designed to be of the same calibre as their face-to-face counterparts. The downside is that high quality means high cost.

Stuart: I think there is a lot of undeserved prejudice regarding distance learning programmes. It is fair to say that pre-internet distance learning programmes were limited regarding communication and interaction. Students received their course materials in the post and then had to complete their assignments, working essentially alone. Certainly, for an MBA programme, where sharing professional experiences and building networks are essential parts of the programme, these activities are missing. However, virtual classrooms have transformed distance education, bringing it on a par with face-to-face education.

One could even argue that the online courses now being offered take education to a higher level: distance learning allows students to study whilst working (which means new knowledge can be immediately applied) as well as allowing them to study with people from all over the world. For example, I have an Iranian-Canadian student from the not-for-profit sector working in Columbia who is working on a group assignment with a Guinean petroleum engineer working in Congo. How often does that occur in the face-to-face environment? We still have to fight the prejudice (and it is no more than prejudice), but as more and more firms embrace the communication opportunities offered by the internet, virtual learning environments will become a key feature of all executive education.

Robert: We have found that local employers know us fairly well and understand the rigour of our curriculum. In fact, many of our students are having their education financed by their employer so the employer has to be comfortable with the value of the education which in our case they are.

The Department of Education here in the United States has recently released a study on online learning that found students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction. This type of information is becoming known in the employer community too.

I would like to pose a question concerning recognition of online management learning. There are now many examples of good quality online learning, leading as our own in the University of Liverpool, through their pedagogy. I wonder if now is the time to be more confident in the discourse we use concerning online learning and teaching.

The question I would like to ask the panel is whether there is now a need to adopt a more robust stance in this field and to embed the criteria for quality online learning more generally and if so, what are the responsibilities of the higher education sector, the accreditation agencies and employers respectively?
Alan Southern, UK

Della: I think you are right in saying that with a handful of exceptions - the Open University in the UK is probably one of these - distance learning has been very much the Cinderella of the education industry. But there are clearly some very high quality institutions now investing large sums of money in developing online and blended learning programmes.

The accreditation bodies have always been very prescriptive about what MBAs and other business programmes look like and I agree with you, they are going to have to change. For example, online technology can bring together study groups from around the world, which can be a valuable learning experience. But how can one business school offer on the ground career support - one of the criteria in MBA accreditation - in all the various countries? And should some kind of face-to-face, campus-based experience, be required as part of an MBA in order for the programme to be accredited? That argument is looking increasingly hollow.

Stuart: I think it is hard to separate universities and accreditation agencies here, mainly because the agencies evaluate through peer group assessment, so universities accredit each other.

Regarding online programmes, there are certain accreditations that already exist, such as CEL (certificate for enhance technology learning which is issued by the EFMD) and AMBA. CEL is specifically designed for all educational programmes (not just MBAs) that make heavy use of technology, such as simulations and of course, the internet (thus including e-learning programmes).

AMBA, which accredits specifically MBA programmes, also has extra criteria for accrediting online MBA programmes. So I think the accreditation agencies are already establishing clear criteria for online programmes. Regarding employers, more and more firms are turning to virtual platforms for education. I think in the future this will become embedded in all areas of executive education.

Robert: I believe that there has been enough practice and learning curve in the online environment to provide solid indicators of quality online learning. Maryland Online is a statewide initiative that was developed to address the need for consistency and quality criteria (i.e., Quality Matters, an initiative affiliated with Maryland Online, which has developed rigorous criteria for quality online learning). UMUC provides its own quality assurance process through which a team of internal experts/ platform developers inspect every online classroom each semester, using a collaboratively developed checklist to ensure consistency across the institution.

Employers and accreditors will continue to demand quality and evidence of learning from universities in both on-site and online delivery platforms. There remains continued scepticism among traditionalists in higher education and in the community at large and it is up to online providers to prove the doubters wrong. Results of student learning assessment, equivalent to the accountability demanded of corporations by stockholders/ stakeholders, are the key indicators of quality. Universities will need to continue to find valid and reliable methods to measure student learning.

To what extent do the panel consider that online-learning is able to facilitate the emotional involvement of a face to face action learning set? Will there be a tendency to privilege ‘closed’ knowledge over reflective practice?

Is it likely that, owing to the nature of conversation on the internet, for example its discontinuity, that learning programmes will get by without much real sharing of experiences between people? In a face-to-face programme, such as an action learning set, people get to know one another, their feelings, emotions and detailed experiences, whereas online I have the impression that some of these qualities may be reduced or restricted at times.

What then gets done tends to be the explicit factual material, rather than the more complex material. Part of this could be about how unwilling we are to be open about our experiences with people we have not met in-person, and after all we never know what use might be made of our online words, so perhaps we are a little more careful about what we say.

I should admit there are facilitation skills and other influences on the conversation, for example, who is allowed in it. Also, I have heard indirectly that where the online conversation is between people with a common agenda, such as a group of midwives discussing how they can work with mothers in difficult circumstances, the quality of the exchanges is very high. To summarise, I wonder if managers need confidentiality to make the best use of online learning groups?
Dr.Rod Shelton, UK

Stuart: I think this is a very good point but maybe we first need to separate the different types of courses that are taught. Very generally speaking, we can think of knowledge-based learning and experienced-based learning. Most educational programmes are knowledge-based, covering topics like strategic management, human resources or finance. Experienced-based courses are skills trainings such as conflict management or communication skills. Regarding knowledge-based courses, e-learning programmes can achieve just as much as face-to-face programmes. Discussion board provide forums for discussion and in general, there is little emotional content attached to these topics.

However, experience-based courses are more difficult, mainly because to be effective, there has to be an emotional connection between participants. I agree that e-learning programmes are weak in recreating this emotional interaction, although colleagues tell me that virtual worlds such as Second Life could be used to do this (although I personally doubt this).

Needless to say, face-to-face environments are also not always the best place for sharing personal information, precisely because of the emotional element. Discussion boards can remove that emotional connection and even allow people to discuss things they would never do publicly. Even public discussion boards such as Facebook reveal surprisingly personal information.

Robert: We find that some students are more willing to engage openly in the online classroom because of the relative anonymity it provides. For students who may be more reserved in the face-to-face classroom in which they may feel overshadowed by more extroverted classmates, the online classroom provides a level playing field - a more democratic structure that allows all voices to be heard.

In addition, because our online environment is asynchronous, we find that students have time to reflect and develop more thoughtful responses and comments - in other words, quality of contributions is improved because of the time students have to respond whereas there is a pressure to speak quickly and spontaneously in the face-to-face classroom.

In addition, students are encouraged to engage repeatedly over time so they may respond on a Tuesday and then, after some reflection, contribute again on Wednesday or Thursday. Often, students are often required to post initial and follow-up responses to classmates’ postings.

It is because critical thinking has become such a predominant theme integrated throughout the coursework in our programme, we develop assignments that not only require students to apply theory or content knowledge to their unique workplace experiences, but also require a certain level of analysis, problem solving, and well supported decision-making. In this fashion, students must reflect and demonstrate their understanding of knowledge provided through textbooks and other learning materials. Assignments in our MBA programme are designed so that responses require a depth and breadth that mere memorisation of information will not afford.

Regarding confidentiality - it is surprising how open we find our students to be in contributing their own experiences in the online learning environment. Again, perhaps the relative anonymity provides a sense of security. Another benefit to our programme structure is that it is cohort-based with students progressing through from start to finish with the same classmates; this structure allows them to build trust which is evident in the tone of camaraderie and support that faculty hear among their students.

What is the most effective method for ensuring learners’ remain engaged and complete their e-learning assignments and learn effectively via this medium too?
Andy Green, UK

Robert: In our experience the most significant factor for ensuring learning is faculty participation and interaction. Students deserve rapid feedback and advice in order to improve performance.

In addition, assignments should be designed so that the students need to undertake some activity regularly rather than structure assignments that are due at the end of the semester without ongoing dialogue with the faculty.

Stuart: I think there are a number of methods that together work well to ensure that learners remain engaged during the programme. In our own programme, we put participants into teams of no more than five and give them a group assignment. One student is assigned as a team leader to plan and coordinate the group.

The group assignment ensures focus and peer group pressure keeps the students engaged. We also have an online tutor that responds quickly to student questions. The tutor is also responsible for stimulating a general group discussion (with all students) on hot topics connected to the course. This encourages students to keep on coming back to the course database everyday. Also, if everyone is contributing to discussions, the more that they will get involved. Being involved ensures that assignments get done on time and that participants learn effectively.

Della: Corporate involvement and in-company projects can be very valuable, as can working in well-chosen study groups.

What is the level of resistance of students to online classes in the different areas of the world?
Marcos, USA

Stuart: This is a difficult question to ask given that all our students choose to follow the programme (they are not obliged to do the MBA). As such, they are all positive and highly motivated. I can imagine that different cultures might react in different ways to online education, but this is not something we observe in executive education.

Robert: In our programmes in the United States, we find no resistance to online learning from our students. In their first class the students have a brief introductory module on how to use the learning management system and they are quite adept as picking it up quickly.

We offer both a hybrid format (combination of online and face-to-face) as well as a 100% online format. Our students prefer the 100% online version by a ratio of approximately 85% to 15%. Since our University is focused on the adult learner, the convenience of the online format is a major benefit for most students who can turn to their class work after having finished their employment and family obligations for the day.

Della: I think that is changing and is historical. If the Financial Times had compiled a listing of distance learning MBAs 15 or 20 years ago, then the two schools with the highest enrolments would have been Henley and the Open University, both in the UK. Distance learning, and now online, programmes have a reputation for a level of quality in Europe that they have never had in the US. That is now changing, with high quality programmes from universities such as North Carolina and Brown launching this year. It will be really interesting to see how popular these programmes prove to be and which other universities follow.

How effective is online teamwork and group projects? Is 100% face-to-face group work better?
South Africa

Robert: I would not say that one is better than the other. However, in the real world of business today, employees will be called upon to work in virtual teams on a regular basis. In fact, many of our students (all of whom are working adults) are doing that now in their jobs, working with team members in different countries. By preparing our students for this reality, they actually have a head start on the use of virtual teams in the workplace.

Della: If you had asked me a year ago I would have said that face-to-face was always better, but the technology is developing rapidly, largely thanks to social networking tools and the willingness of young managers to use these. I think one of the real advantages of online discussions, particularly if they are asynchronous, is that everyone participates, even the quiet person at the back of the class. It is much harder for the domineering character to hold sway. So there are some real advantages.

Stuart: What we see is that online group work can be very effective, both in terms of the quality of the assignments and in terms of how our students utilise their time. Many elements of face-to-face group work are the same as online. Groups first discuss how they want to solve the case and then each member goes off and does some research.

The advantage of the online group work is that students have flexibility in when they work. This means that when they have time to work on the project, they do so. When they have completed an element of the project, they can put it in the discussion board where the other students can also access the information. This more efficient than planning regular meetings where people can discuss. Most of our students plan weekly synchronous chat sessions to keep up to date with issues. However, most communication is asynchronous in nature, making use of the discussion boards.

With developments in technology, do you see business schools moving to cloud-based services and the virtual environment, for example Second Life, in their teaching? What are the benefits and disadvantages?

Stuart: I think cloud-based systems are already starting to spread to the market and indeed, once IT departments accept that ‘clouds’ are a safe place to store data, they will be used more and more.

I think the virtual environment is also slowly creeping in although many universities are set up for face-to-face teaching (all those classrooms have to be filled), there is an increasing need to address the part-time market and web-based applications are the obvious choice.

Whether Second Life will ever be used as a realistic means of educating people, I have my doubts. From my experience, people want to learn effectively and efficiently and I do not think Second Life or other such virtual worlds can offer this. At the end of the day, education is about gaining knowledge, which comes from reading, discussing and formulating new ideas and knowledge. I do not know if we need avatars to do this.

Robert: Certainly as technology develops business schools will evaluate the extent to which a new technology can add value in the classroom. Our faculty are always on the look out for new developments and new technologies that will enhance the learning experience.

But the important point is to be careful to make sure that the technology actually does enhance the learning experience and avoid using something simply because it is the latest technology. We advise our faculty to evaluate how a technology fits the objectives of the course and the outcomes of the programme. Where technology does is that it can become a wonderful addition to the course.

Second Life is used by a few faculty members in our technology programme for very specific learning purposes. Others have looked at it closely and decided it is not appropriate for their course. So, it really comes down to looking at such developments on a case by case basis and making a judgment on the points that I have outlined above.

What are the key pedagogical debates in the delivery of MBAs at the moment? How does online learning play a role?
Emma, UK

Stuart: I think that the challenge that many programme directors have is how to provide the best learning environment for their students. MBA programmes are very much at the forefront of education, people pay a lot of money and they expect value. So there is a lot of pressure to offer something that is new, innovative and that creates a valuable learning experience for the business student.

This is a challenge for the face-to-face MBA just as much as it is a challenge for the online environment. However, what is essential is to focus on learning and not to think about transplanting one learning environment into another. Too often academics believe that lecturing is the only way to transfer knowledge and therefore in the online environment, lectures should be given, via webinars or video streaming. This, I believe, is the wrong approach. The medium we use to interact has an effect on how we can learn, and so we need to start from the basics. Trying to convince people to break away from ingrained traditional methods is one of the greatest challenges we currently face.

Robert: It seems to me that the key debate at the moment is whether the current structure of most MBA programmes is adequately preparing future business leaders. There are two perspectives to the criticism.

From one perspective, the complaint is that MBA graduates may have learned the tools of business but have not absorbed the ethical lessons. The track record of MBA graduates in some of the recent crises such as the Enron case and the financial meltdown have led to a broader criticism of how MBA programmes teach such subjects as ethics and public policy. The second perspective is a general criticism that the MBA should be more relevant and more applied and less disconnected from the real world.

At our University, we address these concerns in a number of ways. We incorporate ethics into all of our MBA courses so that it is not simply a single subject matter but is integrated throughout the programme. We ensure that most of our faculty have business experience and we structure assignments so that students apply their learning to their current employment. Finally, we do not believe that our role is only to focus on providing the students with the tools and techniques which, after all, can be learned in the self-education mode. Rather, we continue to emphasise critical thinking and decision-making skills for our students.

Della: I think one of the really big issues is timeliness of teaching materials. Coincidentally, I was talking to some folks at IMD in Switzerland yesterday and they mentioned that a group of students from their MBA programme select five news stories every day that they want professors to consider in their teaching. It is hard to imagine other business schools doing that.

The second big issue, I think, is globalisation and the use of teaching materials that are international in perspective.

Anyone following the tragic events in Japan and the extraordinary events in North Africa can see how these two themes come together. Using contemporary online materials - blogs, newspaper analysis, video broadcasts - can only help students understand the complexity of business issues.

Why is it that people still choose face-to-face MBAs over online MBA programmes although all these types of accreditations and rankings seem to boost the perceived quality of these programmes? What holds managers back from doing on online MBA since it seems to have so many advantages, for example, its flexibility, which a regular MBA does not offer?
Maastricht, Holland

Stuart: I think this is a problem of mindset. We are all raised with face-to-face education and therefore we believe this to be the best form of communication. I remember discussing online education with a professor (not from Maastricht I should add) many years ago and the professor asked if the students had online lectures (using a webcam). I said no. The students have books, readers and cases and they work in groups with a tutor to support them.

The next question was ‘So how do they learn?’. The professor could not believe that students could learn by themselves. For the professor, learning was simple: I tell you what you need to know, you memorise it and then write it down in the exam…I am afraid this traditional form of education is what we are used to, and although we did not like it, we still believe that this is how education should be. But with time, mindsets change, and as we see today, face-to-face education is switching away from lectured based systems.

Robert: I suspect that the real answer to this question is that change comes slowly. We need to continue to educate employers and others on the issue. Developments such as the U.S. Department of Educaiton report that I mentioned earlier will certainly help in this regard.

The most thought-provoking contributions may be published in the Financial Times newspaper, so please supply your full name and location.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.