Birmingham Business School Is Leading The Latest Trends In Online Learning

Michael Shulver, Birmingham’s director of online content, talks admissions requirements, the future of distance-learning, and an AMBA-accredited Online MBA

In June this year, the University of Birmingham was awarded a Gold rating in the 2016/17 Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a UK national teaching assessment.

For Michael Shulver, Birmingham Business School’s director of online content, it came as no surprise.

Part of the UK’s Russell Group, Birmingham’s unique teaching methodologies – high-quality interactive assignments and real-life case studies – extend from the classroom into the virtual world.

Birmingham Business School’s Online MBA was the world’s first 100%-online MBA to be accredited by AMBA. On both Birmingham’s Online MBA and Online MSc International Business, students come together in fortnightly live ‘Connect sessions,’ two-and-a-quarter-hours long.

To join Birmingham’s Online MBA, students need a 2:1 UK undergraduate degree or equivalent, three years’ relevant management experience, and an IELTS if they’re internationals. However, Birmingham makes exceptions if a candidate has considerable strength elsewhere.

BusinessBecause caught up with Michael who speaks openly on the future of online learning, flexible admission requirements, and the amazing MBA experiences you can only get studying online.

How have you made Birmingham’s online learning programs unique?

When I cast my mind back to the early days of the design process, I remember thinking that I didn't want us to fall into the trap of producing the boring ‘chalk and talk’ online delivery approach. My colleagues and I are very keen on exploring new methods of learning, and getting students to study in different ways. You can’t do away with ‘chalk and talk’ completely, but the less of it the better.

Online students have small gaps in their life when they can study; when they are waiting for flights, travelling for work or staying in a hotel room when deployed remotely. The implication of this fragmentation of learner time is that you have to fragment delivery in the same way – and then comes the task of helping students to ‘join things up’.

To address the latter, one of the key aspects of program design on both our online masters was to have an integrative module to analyze business subjects from multiple analytical lenses rather than just one subject perspective.

Do you accept Online MBA and Master’s students who don’t match the admission requirements?

We want to have variety in our cohorts. In approximately 10% of each cohort, we would accept candidates who do not address the primary eligibility criteria. These candidates would have to provide compelling evidence that they have considerable strength elsewhere. We are looking for professionals who present evidence of seniority and very good performance in their professional life. They could even be entrepreneurs. I don’t think we should punish people 10 years down the line from the education choices they made during their undergraduate degree.

The only issue is that we have a sort of ‘budget’ which we need to be mindful of. We can’t accept too many students without first degrees as to do so might risk our accreditation.

How do online students add value to their current employers?

In some cultures (Singapore springs to mind) we find that students sometimes hide their MBA studies from their employer! Possibly they are worried that their superiors may think that they are going to leave!

However, for the most part, students use assignments to add value to their employing organization. In such cases, a student could use any number of the modules to address an issue in their world of work, from accounting, operations, marketing, and so on. Students use their studies as an ideal opportunity to demonstrate skills to their employer – this is certainly the case when it comes to writing the dissertation.

Lastly, some students use their online studies to help transition from a specialist role into a more general management role. One of the main problems with business specialists is that they often lack the language to have a presence outside their subject context. Students therefore use the Online MBA to learn and demonstrate an understanding of the ‘vernacular’ of other subjects, as well as general business. If you aspire to the executive board, you need to understand how the whole business thinks and talks.

What is the future for online learning?

There will be more of it! The world is getting busier and our students are getting busier. Business Higher Education needs to respect people’s real lives. Some people have difficulty assimilating information in a standardized way. Online, a student can pause content and learn at their own pace. Business education is—and should be—much more personalized.

There are still limits to that which can be communicated online. In some ways, online education is more intimate than a classroom environment—everyone is in the ‘front row’ online. However, online education is less intimate in the sense that subtle nuances of communication are absent because of imperfections and limits in the communication approaches that we have to use.

Still, as is the case with the old style ‘summer schools’, you might have hundreds of students in a face to face experience, which can be overwhelming as these nuances of communication disappear. Studying online means that everyone is in the front row and everyone gets the very best attention they can get. The future of studying online is helping to improve this communication.

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