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Ingersoll Rand wanted an executive MBA programme for its managers that exploited the very latest technology even though it is a traditional manufacturing company.

The degree had to be offered almost entirely online, says David Churchill, senior manager for leadership education at the company’s corporate university, and it had to be accessible to the manufacturing company’s employees worldwide.

It chose the Kelley Direct MBA from Indiana University’s Kelley school of business. As well as delivering the teaching asynchronously, so employees could dip into the programme at different times around the world,it could be customised to Ingersoll Rand’s specific needs, such as a course in global supply chain management.

Ingersoll Rand is typical of a growing number of companies, in the US and Europe that see value in the online MBA model from business schools such as Henley Management College in the UK and Kelley in the US.

Richard Magjuka, chair of the Kelley programme, says several of America’s top corporate names are now sending a dozen or more of their high potential leaders on the Kelley MBA every year and that demand has grown as US companies have begun to face more global management issues.

Two companies headquartered in China are also sending managers to Kelley.

“They are expanding into the US and bringing a cohort of employees from around the world,” says Prof Magjuka.

The appeal of the Kelley programme is that companies’ needs are incorporated into what its employees are taught, says Darren Klein, director of marketing for Kelley Direct programmes. Of the 17 different courses on the MBA programme a few will have been designed specifically for one company.

“Our experience with companies is that they say they want 50 per cent (of the programme) just for them,” says Mr Klein. “But with the feedback from students that changes very quickly.”

At Kelley about half the 958 students enrolled on the MBA are following corporate programmes.

This is very different from providers such as the University of Phoenix, which is the largest supplier of online MBAs in the world with around 40,000 enrolled students. There, slick technology and flexible enrolment arrangements – new students are enrolled every two weeks – are continuing to fuel individual applications.

Though the University of Phoenix has built its student base in the US, it is moving overseas, with support centres in the Netherlands and Dubai.

The two new centres employ about 100 councillors and support staff between them, says Peter Martinez, vice president of international development at Phoenix. The university is now considering a fourth support centre in Asia.

The Apollo Group, the university’s parent company, has also bought a private university in Chile through its joint venture with the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.

Support is the name of the game, says Mr Martinez. “Students want high-quality support around going to school,” he says. “Around 40 per cent of new students come from referrals from other students.”

Kelley’s specialisation in highly-customised programmes for corporate clients and Phoenix’s slick mass market approach demonstrate the extraordinary range of MBA degrees that can be earned by online or distance learning.

Students can now study synchronously or asynchronously; completely online or with the support of a variety of local study centres; with or without campus visits; and in Spanish, Chinese or several other languages.

“The important thing is that students are not isolated online,” says Alan Jenkins, managing director of Kaplan Open Learning, which has recently launched its programme in the UK.

The flexibility and low cost of online degrees is making them increasingly popular. In the 2008 Financial Times listing of online programmes, 40 business schools participated, compared with 32 in 2007 and just 25 in 2006.

These 40 schools reported more than 85,000 enrolled students, compared with fewer than 80,000 in 2007 and just over 70,000 in 2006.

Potential students are spoiled for choice. For some, the ability to study for an MBA in a geographically remote area will be key. For others, academic credentials of the institution will be paramount.

Although the two biggest suppliers of distance learning MBAs, the University of Phoenix and Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, with 48,000 students between them, have no international accreditation from the likes of the AACSB, Amba or Equis, most online programmes have passed this quality threshold. And business schools such as Manchester and Warwick in the UK and Kelley, Babson and Thunderbird in the US, all score well in the Financial Times ranking of full-time MBA programmes.

Indeed many of the programmes give the same qualification for the distance learning degree as they do for their full-time residential programmes (see course characteristics in the table).

For Ingersoll Rand, which enrolled its first students on the Indiana programme in 2004, the MBA has delivered on its promise. Having consolidated its resources into a single EMBA, and enrolling 20 to 25 students on the programme each year, Mr Churchill says the company is able to track the careers of those managers and ensure they receive the promotion opportunities they deserve.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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