Online learning: studying for an MBA in another continent


Not many business degree classes will pass before students arrive at the subject of globalisation.

While universities have been largely protected from the competitive pressures of international competition, technological advances are quickly making the world of higher education much smaller.

Massive open online courses, (Moocs), non-degree programmes usually offered free, are often heralded as an embodiment of the globalisation of higher education, with students from around the world enrolled on courses.

But the process is not restricted to Moocs. Advanced online technology is also breaking down geographical boundaries in degree learning, with distance programmes seen increasingly as an attractive alternative to studying on campus.

For most part-time students, juggling professional and academic work, time is the greatest constraint. Like paper-based distance learning before it, remote online study allows students to fit university around work and family commitments, but technology reintroduces the important social element to a degree.

Aisling Doyle lives in Calgary, Canada, but is enrolled on the Global MBA programme at Durham University Business School, based in northeast England.

The Durham degree is co-ordinated via a Blackboard-based learning platform, used widely by international business schools. Students can access materials and video lectures that have been uploaded by the school, as well as professor-led “webinars” which allow live discussions about the content.

Ms Doyle says that an important supplement to formal interaction in webinars and on forums, is an informal study group that “meets” regularly online to support each other’s progress.

While the group formed during one of the degree’s residences — a compulsory part of the programme — it is online technology that allows them to communicate between countries. The “study buddies” talk using Skype, the online calling software, and via instant messaging.

Richard Smith, a Henley Business School MBA student living in Malaysia, is also part of an informal group of non-UK based students on the course that discuss assignments and questions. His group have found Google Hangouts, an instant messaging and video chat platform, the most flexible way to communicate.

The greatest challenge for Mr Smith’s group — one shared by Ms Doyle’s — is that students live across time zones, making it difficult for everyone to convene online at the same time.

Indeed, it is largely time differences that mean business schools such as Durham and Henley cannot insist upon mandatory live attendance of webinars, which are later made available for all students to view.

Paul Cross-Durrant, who is enrolled on Warwick Business School’s distance learning MBA, says that the challenge of time zones prompted his study group of 10 to establish from the start a time when they all meet online every week.

“When you’re studying at a distance, it is great to see how other people are progressing,” says Mr Cross-Durrant. “And when you’re looking for help, it is always easier to ask a peer.”

The different study methods offered by technology suit different personalities, he says, but individual students must identify what suits them, and their lifestyle, best. “If there is a concept which you don’t fully understand, the onus really is on you to use one of those methods to obtain a better understanding.”

Mr Cross-Durrant, who currently lives in Saudi Arabia because of his wife’s career, is taking advantage of the flexibility afforded by his online degree to accelerate his studies during a sabbatical from his job. “The MBA is a very productive use of time for me, particularly given the difficulties of working locally in Saudi Arabia.”

Returning to full-time study would have been incurred significant financial opportunity costs for Mr Smith, who has worked in Malaysia’s oil industry for eight years. He says that the structure of his course, with only one week in Henley, England, at the start of each of three years, was important in choosing between schools.

Ms Doyle, on the other hand, is looking to use residences — which Durham offers each semester — to help her develop a specialisation in the energy sector, as well as to make connections with fellow students.

Despite advances in technology, it remains a serious challenge to recreate the value of face-to-face networking, often seen as an important element of an MBA.

By Adam Palin