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Why MBA: Aston Business School — Online

Aston Business School's flexible online format will help Phillip Bird move into senior roles

Tue Jul 26 2016

With a wife, daughter and leadership role, full-time study was never on the cards for Phillip Bird. He’s spent 15 years at Boots Opticians, where he has risen to multi-site manager after joining aged 18, but wants to move into more senior roles.

So he enrolled in the Online MBA program at the UK’s Aston Business School, which is triple-accredited. The world has become Phillip’s lecture theatre — he studies on the train, in hotel rooms; all he needs is a laptop with decent Wi-Fi.

Online learning has proliferated at business schools, capturing the hearts and minds of managers, some of whom are questioning the time commitment and lost earnings associated with the traditional MBA degree.

For someone who’s never studied at university, the academic environment was frightening to Phillip, at first. But Aston’s professors proved to be highly accessible. And there are plenty of opportunities to meet both instructors and peers in-person throughout the program.

When and why did you decide to get an MBA? 

I saw the MBA as the biggest self-development opportunity available to me at the point I was at in my career. I’ve been with my company, Boots Opticians, since I was 18. So whilst 15 years of employment in a brilliant industry has given me sound depth of knowledge, I didn’t feel I had the breadth of knowledge required to lead at more senior levels in the future.

What made Aston Business School stand out?

I was really impressed with the flexibility the school’s program offered, its obvious commitment to online learning and finally, an old school friend had studied for an MBA at Aston a few years ago.

I spent a good few weeks researching on the Aston website, where there are interviews with alumni and a few of the course leaders. It seemed like a relaxed environment led by an approachable team of people, which was an important factor for me, as I had not previously studied at university; my qualification as a dispensing optician was gained via distance learning. The academic environment was a little intimidating at first.

What has the MBA added to your role at Boots so far? 

I’ve been able to contribute to work in other parts of our organization, such as the commercial department when planning a recent launch, so I feel the breadth of knowledge is already starting to come through. I’ve also shared parts of my learning, particularly from the organizational behaviour module, with my own team to support their development. Their feedback has been very positive so far, and I’ve even had a request for more of this!

What flexibility does studying online afford you? 

This really is the key element of the program. I am able to study when it suits me and where it suits me. As long as I have my laptop and earphones with a net connection, I am good to go!

Each module consists of learning material in the form of webinars with the course leader, pre-recorded lectures, case studies, group work and reading material. The webinars are recorded so they can be viewed at a later date, which is very helpful.

Also, lots of the textbooks can be downloaded onto your iPad, so you really can study on the move. I’ve studied on the train home from work, in a hotel room on a work stay-over, and at 1am when my daughter wouldn’t sleep — I’m not sure studying on campus could ever offer that level of flexibility.

What are some of the challenges of distance learning? 

Distance learning does not afford the simple luxury of face-to-face discussion and debate, which has proved challenging when working as part of a team on coursework that will impact on our final mark.

But the biggest challenge I face is planning my time, as the workload is very high. I’d estimate 20 hours of study per week is required and this can be very challenging whilst working in a field-based leadership role. However, it is possible!

I structure my study and plan the key milestones, such as exams and group presentations, into my diary as soon as the term begins. I am fortunate that Boots gives me one day per month as a study day. This has proved to be invaluable when preparing for exams, as I plan them in line with my wife and daughter being out of the house.

What networking opportunities are there with the online program? 

Online students are given all of the same opportunities and invitations that are given to campus-based students. Through a university email address, I have received invitations to evenings with company directors, student field trips and career advice seminars.

We do lack that instant meeting of minds with fellow students at lectures. However, lots of students have connected on LinkedIn and through other forums.

We also have a residential week at the business school in July. It provides the opportunity to spend quality time with each other and our module leaders, who have been extremely approachable and accessible since the outset.