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Far away from the debate about whether online learning can ever match the classroom experience is a group of people for whom online is king. For them, the nearest tertiary institution of any quality is too distant or too expensive, or both – making attending in person logistically and financially prohibitive.
To be able to access a quality online programme is a big plus.
One such student was Brenda Phiri, who is now an assistant manager, back office, in the Bank of Zambia, Zambia’s central bank.
The 33-year-old mother of two had been working with Deloitte & Touche as an accountant in the audit department when she decided she needed to return to her studies.
“I realised I was lacking in certain skills and I decided I had to upscale myself,” she explains.
Ms Phiri decided to pursue an MBA. However, to gain a degree from a respected school, it looked as though she would have to go abroad. It was not a decision she relished. To begin with, she did not want to leave her children. And she could not afford to give her up her job. Finally, the sheer cost of the fees and the cost of supporting herself made the overseas option impossible.
“Then I came across Heriot-Watt,” Ms Phiri says, referring to the online MBA offered by Edinburgh Business School, part of Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. EBS offers MBAs, MScs and DBAs (Doctor of Business Administration) and has been specialising in distance learning for 20 years. The school has developed programmes that allow students to study at their own pace, paying for each module when they are ready to begin it.
The business school has about 11,500 students, about half of whom are studying online. Of the total, 3,700 are studying in Africa. Ms Phiri is one of nearly 400 graduates in Zambia.
Alick Kitchin, joint head of school at EBS, says students in Africa pay £550 per course, a rate that has stayed the same for nearly a decade. Students then apply to sit an invigilated or “proctored” (verified) exam when they feel they have mastered a particular course and pay a fee of £125 per exam.
For Ms Phiri this type of course beat all other options. She could continue to work and spend time with her family. It also gave her the flexibility to study at her own pace and spread the cost of her course over a time period of her choosing.
“Basically, for me I mainly read on my own. It was quite a marathon,” Ms Phiri says. But she did attend classroom sessions in Lusaka for the economics module, as she had never studied the subject before. EBS offers students the option of classroom tuition in approved centres.
Studying on her own, as she did for the majority of her modules, was not difficult, Ms Phiri says, because she had become accustomed to independent study while qualifying as an accountant. She says EBS encourages students to network with one another through the school’s online portal. She was also able to meet up with students who lived in Lusaka who were studying for an MBA at the same time as she was.
For Ms Phiri, the greatest advantage of the MBA was that it opened doors. She says the MBA from Edinburgh Business School is well regarded in Zambia and was crucial to her gaining her job at the Bank of Zambia in 2012.
“At the time I applied for the job, Bank of Zambia required a master's degree,” she explains, adding that the bank was impressed with the qualifications she had gained from EBS.
Bank of Zambia may have been swayed by the MBA, but it must also have been impressed with Ms Phiri’s other achievements. In 2010, she was invited to participate in US President Barack Obama’s forum with young African leaders held in Washington DC. She was one of three Zambians who attended the event. “Even when I was nominated, I thought it was too good to be true,” she says.
The same year she was selected by the World Bank to attend a young African leaders conference on strengthening responsible business and governance, held in Brussels. That event led to the formation of the Young Africa Business Trust and later to her helping co-ordinate the participation of young professionals in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act conference in 2011.
This very busy time in her life coincided with finishing her studies with EBS. Ms Phiri says she finished her general MBA in 2010, but went on to do two “specialisations” with EBS, one in finance and the other in strategic planning.
“I think it’s good the way I have done it, because it has given me the chance to be with my family. Now they are able to see the fruits of my labour.”
Ms Phiri does not intend to rest on her laurels. She says her recent commitments outside work have included serving on the board of Restless Development, a youth-led development agency. She has also been a member of the ACCA Zambia ambassador programme and is a volunteer member of a group that cares for mothers and children who are in prison.
She has also set her sights on a further distance learning qualification. Ms Phiri is thinking of a DBA, also available as a distance learning programme through EBS.
The one thing she is certain about, however, is that she will be looking for a course that she can study online.