New technology adds value to the distance learning process
Reports by Michael Taylor
Online MBA programmes are gaining popularity as new platforms enhance the education experience
DISTANCE LEARNING MBAs have been gaining in popularity as technology improves and the inevitable bugs associated with new learning platforms are slowly worked out.
Alternately referred to as e-learning, computer-enhanced learning, web-based learning, online learning and a host of other catchy new terms, distance learning MBAs are leveraging new technologies - from video-conferencing to CD-Roms to MP3 players - to offer a value-added learning experience. As a result, they are becoming increasingly popular.
'We have been growing rapidly for the past 10 years,' said Alan Au Kai-ming, associate professor and marketing and management strand leader at the Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK), which offers both English and Chinese-language MBA programmes.
'We believe that we have the largest MBA programme in terms of student numbers in Hong Kong. We have more than 2,000 students in China and 1,000 in Hong Kong.'
The popularity of distance learning MBAs is easy to understand. First, they are more flexible. Students can take as many or as few classes as they wish, and they can interrupt their studies and resume them later should changes in their professional or personal commitments make this necessary. Second, students can study at home, in the office, while in transit or at hotels.
Third, they provide various types of printed, online and telephone support.
Finally, many programmes offer 'blended learning', which means combining face-to-face components with distance learning. These sessions give students the chance to get to know their tutors and classmates, providing the same types of networking opportunities that many students find rewarding.
'Our mode is superior to traditional face-to-face programmes. In an international city like Hong Kong, many types of people are very busy, so for them spending two to three nights a week attending lectures would not be viable long term. Most part-time MBAs last two to three years, so if you require students to attend lectures regularly they might have to skip some classes - sometimes for a few weeks at a time.'
OUHK provides students with detailed hard copies of course materials, which can also be accessed online.
'For a traditional MBA, they would be able to get handouts, which might simply be printouts of power points from their lecturers, but they would not be able to hear the entire lecture. Our course materials are like a detailed lecture - only in written form so that students can read them in their entirety - like a guidebook, referring to articles or readings.'
Helen Lange, director of MBA programmes and associate professor of finance at U21Global, said online learning was most suitable for mature adult learners who were increasingly unable to engage in full-time or even part-time study at a traditional academic institution.
'For executives who frequently travel, distance learning allows them a chance to study any time and anywhere while maintaining their career opportunities,' she said. 'Another advantage of distance learning is that students in remote locations or in rural communities may also connect to professors and vice versa. Instead of classroom facilities, distance-learning programmes develop classrooms without walls to offset the cost of high-quality content.'
In many programmes, online learning really does offer the best of both worlds. 'It combines the excellence and expertise of traditional on-campus teaching with an innovative and flexible learning design,' Dr Lange said.
'There is a greater flexibility in relation to time and curriculum, and this flexibility is vital for time-constrained working professionals wishing to balance study with work and family commitments. Online learning puts time management firmly in the hands of the student and this gives far greater flexibility than experienced at traditional universities.'
As the number and quality of distance or online programmes grows, they are finding increasing acceptance in the marketplace.
'In many circumstances, organisations are reluctant to send their employees for further education because it means that they will be away from their workplace for significant periods of time,' Dr Lange said.
'Face-to-face education can be a huge investment for corporations as it is not only the cost of the programme but also the opportunity costs associated with the employee being absent from the workplace. This is probably the main reason why many organisations do not sponsor employees for further education.'
According to research analyst IDC, online learning is a rapidly growing industry. The body predicts that the global market for corporate e-learning will increase from US$8billion in 2005 to US$26billion in 2010. In the United States alone, 65per cent of graduate schools are now offering online courses, which can be taken by students anywhere in the world.
'Globalisation and the quest for higher learning in Asia will continue to spur the growth of online learning and programme offerings,' Dr Lange said.
'There is already a huge market potential for e-learning in Asia, especially in less developed countries where there is less access to established and reputable brick and mortar universities or places of higher education.'
Offering MBAs on a distance learning basis is not without its drawbacks. One of the biggest challenges facing programme providers is how to ensure that students are doing their own work.
Dr Au said: 'The authenticity of students over the Net is difficult to determine.'
For this reason, students in OUHK's MBA programmes are required to undergo 'physical exams' in order to guarantee that they have been doing their own work.