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When Parthiban Chandrasakaran was investigating MBA degrees, he realised that he needed something more unusual. This was because he had been working in Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, since June 1997, at Independent Power Tanzania. “There are no MBA courses in Dar es Salaam,” he says, “and I knew I wouldn’t get leave to do a full-time course.”

In January this year Mr Chandrasakaran became one of the first students to graduate with an MBA from U21Global, the Singapore-based online MBA provider. The degree took Mr Chandrasakaran, now 41, three years to complete.

Mr Chandrasakaran is one of a growing number of wannabe MBAs who are opting for distance learning. The 32 programmes listed in the table, for example, have more than 75,000 students enrolled in every corner of the globe. What is clear, however, is that programmes can be very different from one another in format and requirements.

At the Open University Business School (OUBS) in the UK, for example, one of the oldest providers of non-residential courses, dean James Fleck eschews the whole idea of distance learning. He says that through the tutorial and summer school system used by the OUBS, it manages to deliver a very personal experience.

As the OUBS extends its reach, he says, one of the biggest challenges is to understand how students prefer to learn in different cultures – there is no “one size fits all” approach. “For example,” he says, “in Africa the preferred way of learning is through story-telling, which is not that different to case studies. In the Middle East it is rote learning. To service these different learning cultures is number one in our research priorities.”

While the OUBS is going it alone, other schools are collaborating to deliver a more international experience. In Europe, five business schools – Audencia Nantes School of Management in France, Eada in Spain, IAE Aix-en-Provence in France, Leon Kozminsky Academy of Entrepreneurship and Management in Poland and Universiteit Maastricht Business School in the Netherlands – have collaborated to set up the Euro MBA. “E-learning covers the standard, core academic courses,” says Stuart Dixon, director of the Euro MBA. “E-learning is to do with the students learning for themselves.”

The face-to-face elements of the programme, which take place on the different European campuses, are then used to debate hot topics and engage in skills training. Company visits are also part of the deal.

The University of Liverpool’s Laureate Online Education degree, by comparison, is taught completely online with each module on the programme running over a period of six weeks. Students work in groups of around 15 with one instructor and they are required to interact within the group through asynchronous communication links for at least four days every week.

This makes the programmes highly interactive, says Paul Leng, professor of e-learning and director of the University of Liverpool’s e-learning unit. “We believe that the learning experience involves more participation than you often get in an on-campus degree. There may be social values in getting people together over the weekend but there are none educationally.”

Not everyone agrees. Indeed, the business programme accreditation bodies are at intellectual loggerheads over the subject.

At the Association of MBAs, based in London, accreditation requires a minimum of 120 hours of face-to-face teaching to be included in the MBA programme. This can be substituted with videoconferencing. “We believe you need that to expose the students to management skills, such as networking,” says Robert Owen, director of accreditation at the association. “They [students] must engage in dialogue.”

In Brussels, the European Federation of Management Development (EFMD) takes a more liberal view. For programmes to earn the EFMD’s Cel qualification for technology-enhanced learning, at least 20 per cent of the teaching must be supported by e-learning. It accredits the U21Global programme and this month accredited the MBA from the University of Liverpool.

Sabine Seufert, executive director of the Swiss Centre for Innovations in Learning (SCIL) at the University of St Gallen, the centre which developed the accreditation criteria for EFMD, believes that for some people face-to-face learning is not necessary. Indeed for people who are geographically isolated or those who work long or unsocial hours, online programmes may be the only answer. “We have to provide something more flexible for them,” she says.

Download the 2007 table of distance learning MBAs here

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