In the beginning there were correspondence courses, boxes of books, sheaves of typed essays left at the mercy of the postal service, and often long gaps in between times a student would hear from a lecturer.
With the advent of the Internet and the significant improvements in delivery technologies over the last decade, distance-learning courses are booming in all fields of education, including MBAs.
According to William McDonald, Director, Academic Programs for Europe at Thunderbird School of Global Management, distance-learning programs offer a viable option for a section of MBA candidates. Speaking to topmba.com (see the video interview here) McDonald says that the technological advancements are important for two reasons.
The generation moving into the MBA age now is used to learning in that [online] environment, acquiring information from that perspective. There's a level of trust in where the information was coming from that the previous generation of MBAs was not accustomed to, he says.
Crucially, it's not just the MBA students that find online learning easier but the faculty, professors who did not grow up in the Internet generation, are finding it easier too. Even faculty that aren't tech-savvy find it easier to post video lectures, hosting chats and so on.
Though there are downsides to distance learning, the key advantage that DLMBAs offer is flexibility. An MBA student can start at any time of the year, rather than the traditional twice-annual intake associated with campus courses. And this flexibility is being demanded by the market, says McDonald, of a higher education industry that has remained largely unchanged for many years.
Traditionally they are back to school in September, or some schools offer a January start he says. But online allows schools to deliver programs throughout the year, and to change the timing and the format.
And the flexibility is valuable for staff too. With the well-documented increase in demand for MBAs comes a demand for well-qualified faculty, a demand that is proving very hard to meet. For business schools, the online format allows great opportunities for faculty to spread the learning far wider than they would be able to in a classroom situation.
This is a challenge for business schools around the world, says McDonald. Some of our professors may be away for the week, teaching an executive course at LG in Korea, but they can still stay in touch with the students on the distance-learning program and those programs continue. This allows students and faculty to migrate in different ways, and that flexibility is what many students are demanding. And a distance-learning program allows [candidates] to start an MBA even if their job may change, they may leave London to go to Singapore, or they may change their hours, and it allows them that flexibility.
Until a few years ago, campus-MBAs held the fort as the course of choice in the eyes of most major MBA recruiters. Nobody is suggesting that this will change any time soon. The advantages of a campus-MBA are still numerous, in terms of immersion, language acquisition, vicinity to peers and faculty on a daily basis, networking opportunities and so on.
But recruiters are changing their attitude to online learning, almost as fast as online learning develops. There are even plenty of recruiters that have gone on record to say that distance-learned MBAs are just as desirable as a campus-MBA. After all, if an MBA can balance the extreme rigours of a full-time job, perhaps a family, their personal lives and the challenges and self-motivation required to complete an MBA, then they are very valuable job prospects indeed.
Recruiters are finding that there are ways that business schools are delivering online content that parallels the skill-sets they are looking for, says McDonald. It's becoming more and more critical that people are able to manage relationships at a distance, to build rapport with people in other locations, to work across cultures remotely and virtually. A lot of that takes place on online programs. In some ways it's a skill-set that you can develop in an online program that's harder in a face-to-face environment.
The most essential component of any MBA course, especially with the proliferation of online MBAs that are not necessarily associated with good schools, is to look at their accreditation. There are lots of national accrediting bodies in different countries, and three main international ones (EQUIS, AACSB and AMBA). In many cases, a school that is accredited and that has an online program, that program is accredited too, but it's worth following up. There are some schools out there that seem to offer MBAs you can simply buy. Sounds good? Well, it may do until the recruiters you go to dismiss it, and your time and money seem wasted.
The advice here is, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
For the full video interview, click here.