These are good times for distance learning. The technology is better, applications are on the increase and even the global economic uncertainty seems to be helping the sector. Furthermore, the technique is likely to become even more popular when today’s teenagers – already familiar with multimedia delivery – move into the workplace and want an MBA. There are signs that distance learning, once merely one option among many, is becoming some students’ first choice.

The cost of a full-time MBA – little change from $100,000 – might prompt a would-be student to think again about leaving the workplace in an economic recession to study full-time. But for online delivery, such considerations do not come into play. Many schools in recent months have reported increased enquiries for distance-learning programmes.

Technological advances mean more content can now be delivered online rapidly, flexibly and most importantly – cheaply. Meanwhile the growth of online social networking has led to virtual communities of MBA students able to interact from all over the globe.

This has enhanced not only the kudos of distance learning but also its familiarity. Once considered a viable alternative, now a distance learning MBA or a programme with a significant part of its delivery online is often a student’s first choice.

Warwick Business School in the UK has offered distance learning for 20 years. Its MBA programme can be delivered full-time, part-time or via distance learning. Dean Howard Thomas says the school has seen applications soar for the distance learning option and currently has 2,000 online students.

Steve Allison, a technical evangelist at Adobe, the software company, predicts significant changes in online learning. With employees increasingly mobile and working in remote locations, individuals will rely far more on e-learning.

“With on-demand learning and instant access, the technology will allow you to push out all the information and it is then that you will get a change in the habit of learning,” he says.

He says Adobe has found one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the acceptance of new technology is a traditional mentality, with older people reluctant to use the latest IT. To counter this, Adobe tries to ensure its products are easy to use. A further barrier that can dissuade schools from fully embracing new technology is the expense, but Mr Allison says an outlay of £100,000 would ensure that a school is able to hold its own in online delivery.

For the end-user the cost of new technology is negligible. Clive Holtham, professor of information management at Cass Business School, London, is a strong proponent of online delivery.

“It is reliable, ubiquitous and incredibly cheap for the end-user, but what we have to consider is, ‘are we using [technology] in ways that enhance the student experience?’”

Prof Holtham believes this is certainly the case at Cass, where the latest technology enhances the learning experience of both the school’s EMBA and modular MBA students. He says Cass has a policy to ensure it is at the leading edge of new technology. “The real pressure comes from students, if they want something they are very vocal.”

Students’ use of online technology extends far beyond educational delivery. The MBA Tour, which provides educational events to MBA schools, has recently launched MBA Networking on Facebook, the social networking site.

MBA Networking was initially set up as a forum for would-be MBAs where they would be able to ask questions and receive advice, but the site has proved so popular that it has grown well beyond original expectations and includes discussions ranging from international education to internships and specialised programmes.

“MBA Network can reach out to people in professions who might not necessarily think there is something in an MBA for them,” says Peter Von Loesecke, chief executive officer of the MBA Tour.

With increased use of technology has come the demand for benchmarking. EFMD – the Brussels-based European Foundation for Management Development – and the Swiss Centre for Innovations in Learning jointly established the EFMD CEL quality scheme for management-development programme accreditation in 2004.

It focuses specifically on technology-enhanced learning and aims to disseminate good practice. So far it has accredited seven programmes, the most recent at the University of Liverpool in the UK. Universitas 21 Global, the online graduate school based in Singapore, has also been accredited.

At U21Global, applications have been rising year-on-year, says Helen Lange, dean of business management programmes. Established in 2001, the school has the backing of 20 research universities across 12 countries.

Ms Lange attributes the success of online courses to changes in the style of education, with a move away from teacher-centric to learner-centric study. As time management issues become more pressing, online delivery becomes increasingly viable. U21Global has seen rapid growth in Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines and is actively marketing in both India and the Middle East.

U21 also has its eyes on China, where Ms Lange expects a surge in interest over the next few years.

She believes distance learning numbers will continue to grow. “Traditional face-to-face education cannot meet the growing demand. Good-quality education is not able to get to a lot of places that need it. The demand is there now.”

One of the perennial criticisms of distance learning is that students miss out on social interaction, regarded as an essential component of the MBA experience. However, Ms Lange believes that this disadvantage is offset by the development of global management skills through online interaction.

“At U21Global, students from as many as 65 different countries have to interact virtually with each other,” says Ms Lange. “They are learning to deal with different cultures and languages, mentoring other members of the class. These virtual management skills are …the development of soft skills in the virtual world.”

For Prof Holtham, online learning has a bright future, not only for teaching and learning, but also research.

Manchester Business School Worldwide agrees. It has launched the Manchester Global MBA aimed at the more experienced executive. It reflects the corporate workplace, blending individual research with face-to-face learning, online collaborative learning and virtual learning technologies.

“It is a convergence of lifestyle, working and learning,” says Nigel Banister, chief executive officer of MBSW.

While many would agree that online learning is the future of education, Ms Lange goes even further.

Having taught in a traditional classroom format for many years she admits she was sceptical that online education could offer as much as face-to-face teaching. However, having experienced e-learning first hand she has changed her mind. “Distance learning – when the pedagogy is right – I think that it is superior.”

When schools are entrenched in the face-to-face model, there is often so much invested in that model that it is not easy to change, she says. By comparison, distance learning has a flexibility that is hard to match.

With global economic uncertainty ahead, online learning – cheap, flexible and ubiquitous – would appear to be the solution for those who wish to learn while remaining in the workplace.

Financial Times Business Education Online Learning MBA special report

Financial Times Business Education Distance Learning MBA course providers (PDF)

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