Early in 2011 Waitrose, the upmarket UK supermarket chain, recognised it could use the latest technology to impart business school know-how to its cashiers and shelf-stackers, as well as to its managers and board members.
So the supermarket, part of the John Lewis retail partnership, worked with two UK business schools to launch its PartnerLearn website in July, giving access to all 48,000 of its partners (its permanent staff members).
Waitrose’s adoption of e-learning, in collaboration with Ashridge Business School and the Open University, is one example of how the internet can democratise learning, bringing business school programmes, once the prerogative of company executives and aspiring investment bankers, to everyone working in a business.
From degrees to seminars and text books to research publications, the past year has seen significant changes in the ways managers learn about their jobs and professors disseminate their knowledge.
There has been an explosion in the numbers and types of organisations offering courses, says Tony Sheehan, learning services director at Ashridge.
“The competition over the past year has come from every angle,” he says, including publishing companies and “open courseware providers”, which provide materials free of charge.
But as well as the growth in free online management programmes, the past year has also seen the launch of some of the most expensive.
In July 2011, the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina launched its MBA@UNC, with fees of $89,000.
At the top end of the market, quality not cost is the key concept, and Kenan-Flagler requires all students to meet the same entry criteria as for its full-time MBA, which includes sitting the GMAT, the Graduate Management Admission Test.
Kelley Direct, the online arm of the Kelley School of Business at the University of Indiana, also requires its participants to sit the GMAT.
Munirpallam Venkataramanan, associate dean for academic programmes at Kelley, says this reassures applicants that participants on similar programmes will be of a similar quality. “We signal to our students that they are going through a rigorous academic experience, ” he says.
Prof Venkataramanan says there is still some scepticism about online education, but that is changing.
“In the US, we are seeing companies comfortable with online degrees from the traditional bricks-and-mortar-institutions.”
Nonetheless, establishing that your high-quality programme is the one to choose in a market awash with low-cost alternatives is proving a hard sell for many business schools.
In particular, it is often difficult for prospective students to differentiate between the plethora of programmes, says Rebecca Taylor, newly appointed dean of the Open University Business School in the UK.
“Our real challenge is to make sure that people know why we are different. Getting quality out there is absolutely critical, ” she says.
While the past two years have seen interest focus squarely on the devices that students use to access coursework – be that an ebook or a tablet – the emphasis is now shifting to how data management software can be used to give each student a more “personal” service.
Such software can help analyse where students’ strengths lie and where they need extra help, and can target material according to an individual’s preferred learning style, says Robert Goodwin, interim dean of the Graduate School at University of Maryland University College.
“I think what you are going to see is education targeted at individual students. We’re right on the cusp of that,” he says.
Cost is frequently not an issue, especially for businesses designing corporate programmes.
Bettina Büchel, professor of strategy and organisation at IMD, a business school in Lausanne that specialises in executive education, says companies are now asking the school to design programmes that can be taught face-to-face or online, to give flexibility.
But online delivery between campus modules also enables participants to extend the “learning journey”, as she puts it. “Research suggests this increases impact,” she adds.
Though she insists that IMD only uses online learning as part of “blended solutions”, in which web-based teaching is combined with face-to-face sessions, she acknowledges that younger managers are far more comfortable with web teaching.
“We’re seeing a generational shift. Some [younger managers] say they prefer web-based learning.”
Part of the growth in online learning has been enabled by the willingness of publishers to distribute ebooks, sometimes simply an electronic version of the traditional tome, but increasingly “customised”, targeting a specific course and bringing together chapters from different sources.
Most textbooks are published by a small group of vendors, says Brad Wheeler, vice-president for information technology at Indiana University and a professor at the Kelley school. In dollar terms, 71 per cent of textbooks used by the 110,000 students across Indiana University come from five publishers.
Prof Wheeler has been at the forefront in the US of negotiating university-wide electronic publishing contracts with textbook suppliers, changing the economics of the academic publishing business.
He says he has managed to cut the cost of the required reading pack for MBA students at the Kelley school by half.
US universities have also been in the lead in enabling students to sit examinations online at their own homes, using cameras and software that monitor and analyse breaches of security, says Nigel Banister, chief global officer at Manchester Business School.
He says European schools are not yet ready to take this step, citing faculty resistance as one reason.
However, while some faculty are hesitant about using technology in the classroom, others are adopting it with gusto.
For example, two researchers in the marketing department at Aalto University School of Economics, in Finland, and Rouen Business School, in France, are pioneering the use of video to publish academic research.
The online video format means material is viewed by many more people than traditional research published in peer reviewed journals.
As for the partners at Waitrose, Virtual Ashridge, the business school’s online distribution network, has enabled the supermarket employees to manage their own career development, by selecting the 20-minute courses that they believe will bring promotion.