In February 2004, a Harvard student called Mark set up a social networking site. Seven years later, Mark has more than 600m friends via his site, Facebook. The past seven years have also seen the emergence of Skype, e-readers, iPads and other tablet devices, Twitter, the list rolls on. In the face of such dramatic technological and social changes, educational institutions should be continuously reassessing the importance they attach to online learning tools.

A few schools, such as the Open University Business School, have done an excellent job in exploiting new technology and rich content is increasingly delivered via YouTube GoogleU and iTunesU.

But these are the exception. For every school that fully embraces online learning, there are others that remain wedded to traditional classrooms and face-to-face tutorials. The digital transformation is having an impact on many areas of life and education is no exception. Online learning is not some gimmicky extra but fully ready to take its place at the core of business education, to MBA level and beyond – witness the new “Facebook MBA” that hit the headlines recently.

Online learning works. Virtual learning techniques have been evolving at amazing speed in terms of effectiveness and, above all, interaction and bear no relation to the “set of slides piped down the wire” of five years ago. Students can delve for more detail on specific areas of content, case studies and methods, get instant help if stuck, question their instructor and discuss ideas and solutions with their fellow students. And, of course, do all these things online from their home, office or workbench – or from the train or the airport.

Equally, many companies across a range of sectors have embraced e-learning. The leading banks that are using BlackBerrys for regulatory compliance training provide just one example. Indeed, the arrival of powerful mobile devices is key, especially for senior people who must often learn while travelling.

In businesses, online provision can spark a considerable amount of productive interaction between a company’s employees scattered across many global locations. Although this is not the same as a face-to-face business meeting, it can be equally and sometimes more effective. After all, a lot of bright people today are happy to give their views online but might hesitate to speak in the classroom.

Companies appreciate that online learning can save time and money, as well as reduce their carbon footprint. We must also never forget the global nature of businesses today. Will China, for example, rely on traditional education for its future business leaders? I don’t think so. It will surely embrace new technologies to the full.

At the same time, the “Facebook generation” is now arriving, both in business management and business schools – people who have been familiar with mobile technology since childhood and see no reason not to use it either when working or learning.

Business schools that fail to recognise the ubiquity of new technology, or fail to exploit the benefits of online learning, risk lagging behind not only the students they aim to teach but also the recruiters who come to these schools in search of MBAs. They may also find that a lack of familiarity with new technology puts them at a disadvantage when trying to attract corporate clients in the competitive executive education market.

We must not repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, when a lack of urgency in connecting computer science with prevailing teaching hindered the progress of essential productivity tools – word processing and spreadsheets – in reaching the business mainstream. The consequences of this are still being felt today as we shift slowly from business cultures focused on a hierarchy of access to information towards those based on the free access and exchange of ideas and content.

The best schools embrace the fact that today, virtual learning means real education. It is up to the rest of the business school establishment to follow suit.

Tom Blacksell is chief executive of Capgemini Consulting UK

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