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What Do These Business School Deans Really Think About The Online MBA?

Online MBA programs have traditionally been seen as secondary to campus-based courses. But now more and more UK business schools are investing in online

Thu May 10 2018

Go to a business school conference 20 years ago, and everybody would be talking about online learning. Go to a business school conference today, and people are still banging on about it.

While online learning hasn’t quite become the all-conquering disruptor that commentators once predicted, real developments have been made.

Today’s business schools have woken up to the importance of flexible, affordable alternatives to classroom-based study. In the workplace, everything is online. So why shouldn’t business education be too?

Still, every business school is different. Some schools offer 100%-online MBA programs; some offer online MBA programs with residential components; some schools don’t offer online MBA programs at all.

BusinessBecause caught up with business school deans and MBA directors across the UK—one of the more developed markets for distance-learning—and asked them one simple question: what do you really think about the online MBA?

John Colley, associate dean for the MBA at Warwick Business School

Warwick’s Distance Learning MBA is ranked the best in the world by the Financial Times. The program—which includes a residential component—launched in London this year, holding face-to-face weeks at Warwick’s campus in The Shard. Leadership and strategy professor, John Colley, says Warwick’s online MBA program is a direct alternative to the school’s campus-based course.

“Distance Learning MBA students are like other MBA students; they meet the same entry requirements and are also aspirational in terms of professional and personal development. The average age is a little higher, but we still make sure our MBA cohorts are as diverse as possible in terms of nationalities and backgrounds, as they learn a lot from each other.

“Unlike many other schools our online MBA does not differ from the full-time and EMBA in terms of its curriculum, so part-time students have to cover the same volume of study, and are marked at the same level as full-time students. Thus, they all have a Warwick MBA on their graduation certificate, with no reference to the way they studied.

“Our students move onto jobs with IBM, Amazon, Hewlett Packard and a host of blue chip firms. Networking, working together, and collaborating across the internet are increasingly important skills in the modern business world and this is something students learn with an online MBA.”

Michael Shulver, director of Online Content for the MBA and MSc International Business at Birmingham Business School


Birmingham Business School’s Online MBA is the world’s first 100%-online MBA program to be accredited by the Association of MBAs (AMBA). That accreditation was only made possible by the course’s highly interactive nature, with groups of up to 25 students connecting over fortnightly live sessions. Experienced director, Michael Shulver, says while going online isn’t easy, Birmingham’s program responds to student demand.

“The Online MBA forms the newest part of a portfolio of MBAs, known as the ‘One MBA’. [We launched the Online MBA] looking at the direction and travel of the industry and understanding that there is a need amongst professionals for this mode of delivery alongside our pre-existing portfolio.

“People who choose to study online are generally time-poor and cannot make the commitment to take at least a year out of work. Online, there’s more flexibility, so students use their fragmented ‘downtime’ (for example with when travelling for work, or during evenings) to pursue their studies.

“For a business school, the step-change from campus to digital gives you nowhere to hide. It’s a big learning curve, which means that teaching becomes harder work and more precision and resources are required. Business Schools need to really think hard about resourcing before deciding to go ‘online’.”

Angus Laing, dean of Lancaster University Management School


Lancaster University is ramping up investment in online learning for MBAs. A significant percentage of the school’s EMBA program is delivered online. While Lancaster doesn’t currently offer an Online MBA, dean Angus Laing says discussions are under way.

“There’s been a small number of universities who’ve been at the forefront in the online learning space. There’s been a vast majority, including Lancaster, who’ve not necessarily embraced it with vast enthusiasm.

“We’re now in an environment where a whole set of factors are coming together which do make us embrace it. The maturity of the technology makes it much more permissive; people are used to working in a digital environment. It’s not as if you’re introducing something new that’s in any way disruptive—we’ve moved beyond that.

“The ‘where’ of learning is changing out of all recognition. We’re having a real debate now as to whether we launch a full online MBA, or an MBA with a substantial chunk of online.”

Zoe Radnor, dean of the University of Leicester School of Business


The University of Leicester’s economics and management departments were merged to create a new business school in 2016 with professor Zoe Radnor at the helm as its first dean.

With the business school attracting many students from emerging economies, Zoe says the Leicester MBA’s blended learning approach, rather than a dedicated online MBA program, is the best option.

“I’ve been an academic for over 25 years and all that time the conversation has been about how online learning is going to destroy the classroom, but here I am at Leicester and students still want to come to university.

“I think we have to look at flexible learning approaches where you can do some of the program online or offline. It’s that flexibility people want and need. Plus, the whole world doesn’t have 24-hour access to electricity and Wi-Fi, so we have global learning centers, in Africa for example, where a huge part of our market it, for face-to-face learning.

“For the future I think we have to think less about the notion of online learning and more about which platforms are being used for it. I look at my teenage kids now and everything is done through tiny screens and Apple products.”

Stuart Robinson, MBA director at the University of Exeter Business School


Himself an MBA alumnus from London Business School, Stuart Robinson became director of the full-time Exeter MBA program in late 2017. While Exeter is integrating aspects of online learning its full-time MBA, the school doesn’t offer a stand-alone online MBA. Stuart says fully-online MBAs cater for a very particular type of student.

“Firstly, merging online elements with classroom teaching is a good thing for an MBA program. With some things, it’s better to create tools that will allow people to learn at their own speed—online is a great way of doing that.

“100%-online MBAs? I think they’re for people with problems with money or access. An access problem could mean you’re in outer Mongolia or it could be that you’re stuck at home with three kids. You want to develop yourself but you can’t commit to a structured education—that’s where online courses fit.

“Ultimately, I think you do an MBA to build a network, learn about yourself, and learn some stuff. Online is good for the third one. For the other two, it’s not as good—that’s the compromise I think you make if you do an online program.

“Online programs have their place and we’re looking at them, but we’re not there yet.”