width=276The Distance Learning MBA (DLMBA) is new and improved, but the wider benefits of campus study should not be underestimated

For many MBA applicants, the full-time versus distance learning debate is a pivotal issue. Should candidates take the plunge and study abroad at a top European or US university, or utilize the advances in distance learned MBA (DLMBA) quality and repute by gaining the qualification from home? Does the new-found credibility of the DLMBA mean study abroad is now an unnecessary expense? Or do the contacts, skills, and experience developed through full-time study remain an investment of ever-increasing returns?

The new DLMBA

The Distance Learning MBA, or DLMBA for short, entered the arena in the 1960s and has been developing ever since. The stereotype of the 'correspondence course' - featuring boxes packed with books and valuable essays left at the mercy of the postal service - bears little resemblance to the new DLMBA. Advances in technology have helped transform the DLMBA into a credible alternative for those who are prevented by circumstance from being able to study full-time at a university.

Many of the prevailing prejudices against DLMBAs, for example, that they provide an inferior learning environment and are undervalued by employers, are now outdated. For one thing, DLMBA courses increasingly tend to involve a degree of personal contact. With institutions now capable of linking together globally diverse participants with online technologies, what was previously lumped under the title of distance learning is in reality a wide range of different learning models and modes of study. Models based entirely on self-learning are mostly being phased out, with many programs adopting a blended style, usually involving a number of face-to-face interventions and periods of online study.

Rather than being merely an imitation of the full-time MBA, the DLMBA has its own specific merits in the eyes of employers. What a DLMBA graduate is made of, many argue, is resilience, self-motivation and the proven ability to focus on and complete a complex and challenging task, qualities that employers find valuable and transferable. As Professor Richard Wheatcroft, Masters Programme Director at the Open University says, They have demonstrated their self-motivation so that concern has genuinely been dispelled.

The negative factor weighing on online master's programs is the lack of universal and recognized accreditation and official rankings, although QS TopMBA Scorecard (www.topmba.com/scorecard) does allow candidates to search and rank DLMBA programs to suit their individual criteria. It is a sad fact that the boom in low-quality 'online universities' has done nothing but harm to their respectable counterparts' reputation. This downslide is being headed off by new age, savvy and well-recognized multi-program schools like Aston, IE Business School, Open University and Manchester Business School.

Yet for all the advances that have been made in terms of study methods and recruiter acceptance, most candidates around Europe still opt for the extra expense and upheaval of attending a full-time MBA program. For many, this will involve overcoming cultural, linguistic and not least financial barriers. So are there additional benefits to studying abroad that make it a profitable investment for MBA candidates?

Learning carries on beyond the classroom

Ross Geraghty, Managing Editor of the QS World MBA Tour and TopMBA.com, says: A valuable part of the full-time MBA experience is the concentrated time with academics and, just as essentially, peer group, and, while it's hard to quantify that value, there definitely is some. DLMBA students will miss out on this to a certain extent. The value of studying on an MBA course alongside a range of well-qualified and motivated peers from diverse personal and professional backgrounds is difficult to quantify exactly. However, the message consistently relayed is that, while a DLMBA may cover the same syllabus as a full-time on-campus MBA program, that syllabus is only one part of the experience.

One MBA who has experienced the direct benefit of studying alongside cohorts from a range of professional and cultural backgrounds is Hungarian Zoltan Barcza, who studied for his MBA at Steinbeis University in Germany. He said, I think choosing an MBA with broad international classmates will guarantee to stretch your brain and cultural sensitivity. The hardest thing is to then figure out how to keep in touch with those folks after spreading all around the globe, when you finish the program!

Zoltan Barcza is now working as the Area Manager for Roediger Vacuum GmbH, a Bilfinger Berger Company in Germany, covering Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Israel. He said the knowledge he received from his MBA professors was not, on paper, much more than he could have learnt studying for an MSc in Economics.  Rather, it was the way in which it was taught - and the way in which this teaching was augmented by collaborating with cohorts from around the world - that made it of such great value. Combining real life experience, as well as being involved in 18 parallel international expansion projects led by each of my classmates, has meant my MBA is a real asset, he said.

Fellow Hungarian Csaba Soos chose to study abroad in large part for the cultural experience, and found this had a direct impact on the skill-set he developed during his studies.  I fancied the idea of both studying in English and getting to know people from all over the world, he said. When working with students from several industries and nationalities it was immensely beneficial to see how a problem can be approached and resolved differently because of diverse cultural background and working methods. 

These benefits are particularly marked for European candidates who speak a first language other than English. With movement of professionals across Europe in the past decade having expanded along with the growth of the EU, the experience gained by living abroad is increasingly valued by employers. Many courses at top universities across the continent are now being taught in English, and the number of MBA candidates studying abroad means that doing so becomes an ever more attractive option for others. Acquiring a geographically diverse range of contacts as part of MBA study could be a valuable foundation for a career in an ever more international marketplace.

However, it is not just MBAs studying abroad who benefit from time spent in the classroom with their peers while studying full-time. For those studying within their own country too, it is an aspect of the MBA experience that can be as difficult to replicate as it is to quantify. University of Alabama graduate Maggie Hammond, winner of the 2010 QS Golden Key scholarship, says that one of the most beneficial aspects of her course at Chicago Liautaud School of Business has been the chance to study with both full and part-time candidates: Because the majority of students attend school part-time and work full-time, they bring a great deal of real-world experience and networking opportunities to the classroom.

Because MBAs in many cases bring more significant professional experience than students on other graduate programs, the diversity of people drawn to MBA study, and the value of the cross-pollination this brings to full-time study, should not be underestimated. I've been amazed by the variety of backgrounds of my classmates, Maggie Hammond said. I have classes with people who majored in computer science, English, music, engineering, journalism... Some of the students work full-time for banks, hospitals, non-profits, marketing organizations, and many students are full-time students.