In the same way that traditional MBA courses fight to differentiate themselves from each other and entice students, so do distance learning MBA courses.
This comes as no great surprise in an ever-expanding market like this one. Most schools seem keen to replicate the classroom experience as closely as possible, through online teamwork in particular.
But, overall, the 59 programmes that feature in this year’s Financial Times listing highlight a variety of ways to complete this type of degree.
“We are not trying to dehumanise the learning experience” says Devendra Kodwani, MBA director at the Open University Business School in the UK, when questioned on the qualities needed for online teamwork.
As a result, online teamwork is relied on to re-create traditional classroom interaction. An impressive 90 per cent of programmes in the listing have this as a requirement, while the remaining 10 per cent say group work is promoted.
“We are in fact encouraging more interaction,” Mr Kodwani adds, explaining that tutors are deeply involved in online teamwork, moderating comments and responding quickly to any queries. “They give more of their time, if anything.”
Jen Oberholtzer, an MBA student at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, says she would have felt disappointed if this teamwork had not been required. “Interactions with my classmates have been the highlight. One of the main reasons people go back to school is to network; if this had not been in place, I would have felt something was lacking.”
She adds that this interaction was in some ways more fulfilling than being in a classroom, because she was able to hear from every single classmate.
“There is a lot to be learnt through interacting with your peers” says Allan Scott, MBA director at Robert Gordon University in Scotland. “Students always bounce ideas off each other, so we wanted to mirror this online.”
But aside from this common element, other aspects of the listing reveal a vast range of learning structures available to students.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the US, for example, offers a general programme that has a time limit of 10 years with no campus visits required.
Robert Kennedy College in Switzerland has just introduced a specialised programme in leadership and sustainability that has to be completed in six years and requires a one-week mandatory residence in the English Lake District.
The growing divergence between general and specialised is a continuing trend.
Some schools prefer to maintain one general programme but add specialist modules within that to differentiate themselves.
Walden University, for example, an online-only US institution, has 13 specialist options within its general programme, including human resources, technology management, corporate finance and strategies for sustainability.
Other schools embrace the specialist option wholeheartedly, in the way Robert Kennedy College will be this year. And they either run the specialist programme alongside their general one, or give it their full attention.
Warwick Business School in the UK, for example, offers both a general programme and a specialist one in energy. In contrast, George Washington University in the US focuses solely on providing a specialist MBA in healthcare.
Mr Scott at Robert Gordon University believes that specialist MBAs are definitely the way forward, as general programmes are no longer considered to be focused enough. He adds that even Google trends are showing a decline in people searching for the term “MBA” and an increase in search volume for career specific MBAs.
David Costa, dean and collegiate professor at Robert Kennedy College, agrees there are too many general programmes around today. He says: “It is hard to recognise the difference between one and the another” he says, emphasising that “niches are now more popular because business has changed so rapidly over the past few years”.
Some 45 of the programmes featured in this year’s listing are general courses, while 14 are specialist.
Jo-Anna Allen, an MBA alumnus from Resource Development International in the UK, thinks general programmes are better for those needing to look at the broader context. Having come from a specialised background in pharmaceuticals, Ms Allen says she preferred not to tie herself to something else specific.
“The MBA took my blinkers off and made me challenge things I would have normally gone along with in the past.”
The necessity of face-to-face interaction is also up for debate. Of the 59 programmes, 35 require attendance on campus at some point, while 24 do not. And of these 24, 88 per cent do not require attendance at a local study centre either.
Those who insist on campus visits argue that this aspect strengthens their course and consolidates networks.
“This initial contact creates a wonderful foundation,” says Beth Walker, associate dean at Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business, where students are required to attend an orientation trip at the beginning of the course.
Mr Costa agrees, saying: “However technology develops, there will be no way to replace face-to-face interaction.” He explains that this creates a sense of belonging that even recruiters recognise.
Ms Oberholtzer at the Kelley school attended a mandatory residence. She says it was an intense environment, but helped prepare her to work with everyone once they moved to an online space.
Other schools, however, believe online teamwork is enough. Ms Allen, for example, whose MBA course at RDI requires neither campus visits nor attendance at a local study centre, does not view this as a disadvantage. She describes a Skype group her classmates set up instead that had a formalised agenda and involved students from all over the world, including South Africa, the UK and Ghana. This satisfied her needs sufficiently.
These schools also consider the issue of student’s schedules. Some students find it extremely hard to commit themselves to even one week away from their busy lives, which is why they opted for an online programme to begin with. “There is a great online ethos,” says Ms Allen, “which is enough”.
A diversity of programmes is clearly in place, and will no doubt continue to grow. Now it is up to the students to choose which one appeals the most.