A calm expression formed on John Board’s face as he clasped a glass of water to his lips. Away from the pressures of his office on the outskirts of Reading, the British city an hour’s drive from London, his surrounding is serene.
John, the dean behind the recent innovations of Henley Business School, had come to escape the constant emails, lectures and telephone calls that are par for the course for a man who leads one of the UK’s best management educators.
But for a few minutes, the only thing on his mind was the imminent launch of the Henley MBA online, a new program he has overseen, which we can reveal.
It had started as an idea before the online teaching revolution took off – and now that more of the big players are taking to ultra-distance learning, he thought it the right time for Henley to enter the online market.
“With some MBAs,” John said, putting down his champagne flute, “it’s a bit like taking an undergraduate course; you go in, you take a course, you take an exam, and you take another course.”
He paused for thought, scanning the glittering Henley Regatta. “At a higher level,” he said, “it’s much more to do with interactions – syndicated learning.”
John’s main problem with online MBA courses has been replicating cohort experience. Technology wasn’t sufficient enough for him to flip his top-ranked MBA program online – but now he thinks it is.
Many deans share Henley’s new view. Last year, dozens of business schools across Europe and further afield in the United States rolled out online programs, often at a reduced cost. The world’s MBA providers are set to offer another crop of online courses this year, and many more European schools are expected to announce new online courses throughout the summer off-season.
The apparently never-ending march towards home learning, popular among those who do not wish to take time out of industry for intensive 12-month MBA programs favoured in Europe, has prompted fears that quality will be sacrificed.
John’s confidence remains undimmed. That will not be the case with Henley – the program will be below but around the full-time MBA’s price, he says. “Because otherwise my view is you end up cheapening the brand for no benefit.”
He is not the only one to think so. Of the world’s leading 50 business schools, few immediately jumped on the online MBA bandwagon. Some of the early movers are seen as second-tier schools.
Harvard, MIT Sloan, the University of Virginia’s Darden School and other big-brand US schools have only relatively recently begun experimenting with Moocs. Wharton was one of the first. There are as much as 10% of its two-year MBA core courses online for free access. One enrolled more than 130,000 students.
But online MBA programs are not the free courses lambasted as marketing gimmicks or brand-building exercises. Moocs are just one example of the explosion of distance learning enabled over the past few years by leaps in technological advancement.
The top business schools have begun spinning their MBA curriculums online by giving students video recordings in a traditional format, but also by providing interactive learning through debates and seminars. Some are even incorporating social media into their online offering.
“We just refused to do it when it was [the] old style,” said John. He added: "The technology is much cleaner... we've got an online system which allows continuous consciousness of what's happening. It's not passive.”
By all accounts Henley was late to join the party. In Europe, business schools IE in Spain, and Imperial and Warwick in the UK already teach online MBA programs alongside their highly-ranked full-time courses.
Some schools use technology developed in-house, but most rely on outside companies such as Coursea and Academic Partnerships.
For Jay Shah, director of digital marketing at an international delivery provider of online programs, business must be booming. His organization works with nearly 50 universities around the world, including top business schools. He says it is all about scale.
“If we can bring it online we can have multiple, different start dates, as opposed to one or two a year,” said Jay. “And you can grow the entire team from a cohort of 20 to 30 students to a couple of hundred.”
“From a student perspective, you’re working with a much wider audience. It becomes a truly global program,” he added.
He said that some US universities he works with have 500 students enrolled each year. For business schools, that is a huge incentive.
Imperial has intakes in both January and August – and hopes to support 200 students a year in its new online program.
The market appears to be growing. Not only are the elite schools warming to online education, but specialist courses are going cyber, too. The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School just announced plans for an online Master’s degree in accounting, called Accounting@UNC.
It is an extension of their Master of Accounting (MAC) program, of which 98% of their students were employed by graduation, said Douglas A. Shackelford, dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler.
“Historically, firms have wanted to hire more of our graduates, but space constraints prevented us from increasing the program’s size,” he added. “Technology now lets us increase access to a UNC education for even more talented people, and meet the demand from companies who want to hire them.”
The school launched its first online degree program, MBA@UNC, in 2011 with 19 students. Today, 550 students are enrolled. Accounting@UNC will use the same technology platform created by 2U, a cloud-based software firm for universities.
Some schools prefer a blended form of learning. Italy’s SDA Bocconi School of Management, for example, launched a joint specialist Master’s program with ESADE Business School of Spain. The 14-month Executive Master in Marketing and Sales is mixed – 50% is taught online and 50% is face-to-face.
“We don’t want to give up on face-to-face because there is a value in terms of emotional intelligence that cannot be delivered through an optical cable,” said Alessandro Arbore, the course co-director.
But the benefit to busy executives is clear: there is the value of convenience.
Yet Alessandro remains unconvinced that online programs will take off. “I don’t see pure distance learning as the future of executive education, and I don’t see distance learning as the future of education overall,” he deadpanned.
There are also concerns about engagement, although most schools insist that technology has allowed them to overcome those early hurdles.
However there are wider problems associated with employment, and the value that purely-online degrees hold with recruiters. For executive courses, students are already expected to be in careers – but for an MBA or specialist master, students are often searching for jobs.
Amy Wittmayer, the new managing director of the MAC program, remains defiant: “Accounting@UNC includes a three-month internship; a required face-to-face immersion in Chapel Hill for orientation, leadership development and recruitment; and a second, optional immersion coinciding with the recruiting period when employers come to campus.”