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New Technology Enables "Lifestyle Learning" For MBA Students

It is becoming harder for MBA applicants to take lengthy periods out of work to study – but technology-enabled distance learning is catering for time-starved managers.

By  Seb Murray

Mon Dec 8 2014

Jan Villaluz is the new breed of business student. He works at a luxury retailer in London, the UK’s capital, but travels thousands of miles each week to study an MBA program at Grenoble Ecole de Management, the French business school on the fringes of northeast Italy and Geneva in Switzerland. New data show that a majority of students would continue learning if they could fit study around their careers.

Jan, a Canadian retail manager, settled in France earlier this year. He illustrates the way MBA students can benefit from maintaining a career while pursuing management training on the side.

It is something that many executives seek, but business schools have yet to fully convert their portfolios of programs to online formats.

According to a new survey, about three-quarters of all prospective business school students would prefer to learn in an environment where they could shape study around their lifestyles or work.

Several high-ranking universities offer degrees through online modes of learning but the survey suggests that this will soon become a necessity for top-flight MBA and other master’s programs.

“Technology is having a dramatic impact on business education,” says Andrew Crisp, director of CarringtonCrisp, a UK based education marketing consultancy which carried out the survey.

“Flexibility is the key theme to consider; it means that people can learn at anytime and anywhere, working at their own pace.”

He calls this type of education “lifestyle learning” – the theory that MBAs can fit training around not just their jobs but also other life commitments such as childcare.

“Many students believe academics are playing catch up, with few going beyond PowerPoint slides in their lectures,” quips Andrew.

“This is the web generation of digital natives… It’s hard to try and teach some of these things when you’re a 50 year-old professor.”

This is an area high on the list of business schools’ priorities. The Association of MBAs, the accrediting body, says that it is increasingly important to provide flexible learning options for business courses, but there are concerns that schools have not adapted fast enough to the pace of change.

Martin Bean, outgoing vice chancellor of distance learning specialist the Open University, says: “They often see technology as a threat and incorporating it into teaching as dumbing down or diminishing the value to students.”

Yet business schools can expand their class sizes through attracting and retaining more students by adopting new learning technology.

According to CarringtonCrisp, more than 70% of current students surveyed said that they would continue learning if they could fit study around their work commitments and lifestyles.

This form of learning also enables students to profit from a flexible study schedule by maintaining full-time jobs – eradicating a common concern among managers who are fearful of leaving the workplace.

James Stevens, senior assistant dean of student affairs at UC Davis Graduate School of Management, says: “As the economy picks up… People are more interested in part-time MBA programs because they want to stay in the workforce while preparing themselves for career growth through additional education.”

This extends beyond the online MBA and master’s programs, and Moocs – massive opening online courses – which are thought to be a threat to traditional degree programs.

Several top-flight MBA and executive MBA degrees are offered in flexible formats – taught online, in evenings or at weekends – including those at Melbourne Business School, MIP Politecnico di Milano, INSEAD and Durham University Business School.

The Modular MBA program at Cass Business School in London, for example, holds classes once a month, over a weekend.

Peter Fleming, course director, says: “Compared to full-time MBAs who have classes most days, MEMBA students can build class-time into their work schedules more effectively.”

The future for most schools, however, lies in tech. Online formats, which are usually enabled by partnerships with learning technology groups, have amassed massive audiences.

Mooc makers in particular have huge global student bases. The most popular include Alison, which has about 3 million users, edX which has 2.7 million, and the 1.6 million online users who have used courses provided by Udacity.

However Andrew Main Wilson, CEO of AMBA, thinks that a blended approach is best. He says: “The key is that the number of face-to-face hours offered needs to be replicated by synchronous online learning.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Dr Julie Hodges, director of MBA programs at Durham. She says that the school’s Global MBA is a mix of online content and residential modules.

“What is important across our MBAs is the use of online technology to enhance the learning of our students,” she adds.

For Jan, he will have to keep commuting from London to Grenoble. “Time is of the essence,” he says. “It’s all about time management and [having] the right mind-set,” he adds. But in the not too distant future, the majority of MBA students might not have to.