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Faculty Feared Distance Learning Course Would "Cannibalize" Traditional MBA

A leading business school's faculty feared that a shorter, distance learning course would “cannibalize” its MBA, highlighting the challenges schools face in moving into the digital age.

Thu Nov 13 2014

The executive director of a leading business school has said that his faculty thought a shorter, cheaper mini-MBA program would “cannibalize” the traditional MBA, highlighting the challenges that business schools face in adapting their content for the modern business climate.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to take two years out of work to obtain a full-time MBA degree. Many students are instead turning to flexible and distance learning programs. These formats allow managers to maintain jobs, learning skills and networking in their spare time, often through virtual learning environments.

Alan Middleton, executive director of Schulich Business School’s Executive Education Centre, said he faced internal opposition from his Dean and faculty in bringing a shorter program to market: “They saw it as cannibalizing the MBA,” he said.

“[They thought that] surely if somebody can get the brand, and something that said ‘mini-MBA’, that would signal that once I’ve got that, why would I need to go on and get a full-time MBA?” Alan said.

He said that domestic demand for MBA programs has been flat in North America and Canada, and there was “nervousness” about the “flat market”.

Demand from international students has been strong but US business schools rely more on domestic candidates to fill their MBA programs than schools in Europe, which have a higher percentage of foreign students.

Alan’s comments come at a time when professionals are turning to distance learning programs, which are often cheaper or free, in huge numbers.

Business schools have been forced to come up with more flexible programs to keep their numbers up, but many remain fearful of investing resources in shorter programs which typically charge participants less in tuition than full-time MBA courses. Schulich has since introduced a Mini-MBA program.

At a recent event at Cass Business School in London, Martin Bean, vice chancellor of distance learning specialist the Open University, said that people are “sceptical” about using virtual learning technology.

“Many are worried that what makes their institution unique will be diminished or eroded by the pace of change. In some cases that nervousness is translated into resistance,” Martin said.

“They often see technology as a threat, and incorporating it into teaching as dumbing down or diminishing the value to students,” he added.

But several business schools have successfully “flipped” their MBA programs online, including Henley Business School, Durham University Business School, IE Business School and the Kelley School of Business.

Others such as Cass, INSEAD and UNC Kenan-Flagler run flexible versions of their MBA or executive MBA degrees, which teach in evenings or at weekends.

Federico Frattini, director of the Flex EMBA program at MIP Politecnico di Milano, said: “Our distance learning executive MBA will not affect the attendance and interest towards full-time MBA programs… The target participants are very different and not overlapping, since the latter [targets] younger students with less work experience.”