Distance learning stalwart relies on old methods

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Back in the late 1960s, when jeans were bell-bottomed and The Beatles ruled the airwaves, a bright young, Scottish faculty member at Stanford University was busying himself with educational research: Specifically, a study of thousands of students that attempted to identify the most effective teaching techniques.

The man’s name was Keith Lumsden and he is now a professor and the director of Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh Business School (EBS).

He says that the study came up with “the astounding conclusion that bright students learn faster than dumb students”, that there was no definitive “best” way of teaching people and that people learn more effectively if they are exposed to a number of ways of absorbing information.

At the same time as doing this research, he was involved in offering executive education (short courses for senior employees) to big companies including IBM and Shell.

He says that the participants were “crying out” for material to take back to the workplace and pass out to colleagues.

He saw a gap in the marketfor a flexible programme of generic business education aimed at mid-career workers – those who already knew how to “play cards and make friends”, as Prof Lumsden puts it – and did not want to sit in a classroom for a year or two and do a full-time Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme.

To fill the gap he came up with a flexible distance-learning MBA that could be studied anywhere and would offer a variety of ways to learn.

Students could apply, enrol and study at any time, would not be obliged to come to a campus for face-to-face teaching, and would have seven years to finish the degree.

The EBS MBA was launched at the end of 1989, and Alick Kitchin, the school’s business director says, “it took off like a rocket.”

The school believes that, by 1995, it had the largest MBA programme in the world, by number of students.

Mr Kitchin reports that applications nowadays are in “steady-state.”

At EBS, this means 6,600 active students. The average age of this cast of thousands is 37.

Few significant changes have been made to the EBS educational model over the years.

Naturally, course materials have been updated and the list of electives has grown.

As of 2003, all students must have regular internet access and the seven-year time limit has been abolished.

Full-time and executive versions of the MBA are now offered on campus and four specialist masters programmes were launched in 2006.

But for all of the MBA offerings, the same basic model remains: seven core courses and two electives, just as in 1989.

The school shows no interest in changing the way it assesses students.

Mr Kitchin puts it bluntly: “We are not interested in continuous assessment.”

For each of the nine modules, students must pass a three-hour closed-book exam.

These exams take place every six months using the same paper, in the same country, on the same day.

Moreover, if you fail an exam first time and, says Mr Kitchin, on average 30 per cent of students do, you will have one more chance to pass.

After that you will be asked to leave the programme.

The regime is designed to be “tough and clean” and Prof Lumsden says, only half jokingly, that “we fail more students than any other school” would be an EBS promotional slogan if it were up to him.

Both men note that this emphasis on final assessment demonstrates that “outputs” are more important than “inputs” for the EBS model.

Thus the course is open to anyone with a recognised degree or professional qualification at a certain level but also to anyone who has already passed the exams for three of the modules.

Mr Kitchin highlights another point he feels provides evidence of the focus on outputs rather than inputs (such as proficiency in English): the core courses and certain electives are available in three languages – Hebrew, Mandarin and Spanish – as well as the original English.

In addition, two modules are now offered in Arabic and Russian versions of some others are in the pipeline.

Luckily, the school and its eight full-time faculty are not entirely on their own providing multi-lingual support to the nearly 7,000 students around the world.

The school has three offices and a network of “approved learning partners” in 30 countries.

Students can choose to sign up with a partner institution and receive classroom teaching and support while they study.

Also, any student can choose to attend seminars on the school’s Edinburgh campus if they want to.

About 40 per cent of current students have chosen one of these options.

The remainder go it alone, usually for about three and a half years, which is the average time taken to complete the degree.

If all of these options do not sate a student’s appetite for distance learning, a newly-qualified MBA can always proceed to the school’s distance-learning Doctor of Business Administration qualification.

The DBA programme already has 300 enrolled students – 30 in the active research phase – who are being supervised by academics all around the world.

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