Courses go hi-tech but stay connected
Flexible study options are championed by learners who are unable or unwilling to commit to regular set classroom timetables. But, in the case of the MBA, online and distance learning modes are often resisted by students and educators.
The classroom-based MBA is the chance to learn from peers as well as tutors through face-to-face interaction, plus it offers the all-important networking opportunities that MBA graduates cherish.
But today's international business community calls for companies to work with clients and staff on a virtual basis, which requires a different skills set to face-to-face meetings. That, and the emergence of a generation weaned on cyber technology, will popularise the flexible learning environment, according to experts.
Helen Lange, dean of business management at online graduate school U21Global, said the trend for online education would grow because the demand would be for more education at postgraduate level prompted by a shortfall in labour.
She said there was still some resistance to online learning, particularly in Hong Kong because of a gap in the understanding of the outcomes of online learning and the enhanced benefits of human interaction, which many still saw as a face-to-face practice. She said the online learning environment developed capabilities and skills such as global competencies. 'Managers already are and will be managing virtual teams and doing this online is very different from the face-to-face format,' Dr Lange said. 'And this will become more important in a global knowledge economy.'
The first wave of 'Generation Y' (generally used to refer to those born after 1978; an estimated 200 million in China and more than 70 million in the US alone) is entering the workplace and they are expected to generate an increased interest in study environments that accommodate them. 'They want more flexibility because they have different aspirations and expectations,' Dr Lange said. 'More flexibility in education will be in demand through that generation. And also [online learning] is very effective for busy professionals and for team work.'
Alan Au Kai-ming, associate professor in the School of Business and Administration at the Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK), said there would be more demand for flexible learning, but he said people were still sceptical of online study. He said the online environment made it difficult to assess students, and it was open to potential misuse by students submitting work that was not their own. 'Although of course there are methods that can reduce that risk,' he added.
Demand for MBA programmes through the distance learning mode, such as the one offered at OUHK, had stabilised after a period of growth and then a period of consolidation, Dr Au said. 'We tended to absorb some students who in the past wanted to study an MBA, but couldn't because they didn't have time.'
All courses offered by OUHK's School of Business and Administration are supported by an online platform that allows students to communicate with tutors and other learners.
In October, the school will launch its first master's degree online, a Master of Laws in Chinese Business Law. The programme will be used as a test bed to launch other programmes in the medium, including its distance MBA. 'In the past, if we wanted an online lecture we couldn't, because the infrastructure was not there,' Dr Au said.
Developments in technology will make it easier to put courses online, but they will remain text-based initially. 'If we can develop a visual-based format maybe there will be more demand,' Dr Au said.
The addition of technology that allowed face-to-face support in a distance or online environment would result in a big demand when combined with the benefits of flexible learning.
U21Global launched its online MBA programme in 2003 and its first students graduated in January. The university developed the programme with the intention of creating an environment where students would be required to interact online with their professors and their classmates through the internet.
In addition to self study, students must participate in online class discussions and undertake group work through e-mail, threaded discussions, forums and chat rooms. Dr Lange said: 'Our students learn to apply cross-cultural management through working within different teams.'
The programme had attracted a disproportionate number of senior managers, Dr Lange said, which she attributed to its flexibility as well as its anonymity, adding that those students wanted to avoid 'a classroom full of hotshot 30-somethings'. She said the university correctly predicted faculty interaction online would be essential, but much had been learnt in four years.
'How we manage classes now is a little different,' Dr Lange said. Faculty members have been given intensive online training, especially in the areas of communication and in managing circumstances in a virtual world.
U21Global had also introduced a student service individual who assists each class with technical issues.
OUHK has put all its MBA course materials in the online environment although they remain text based. Its MBA student-base of more than 1,000 can participate in discussion forums and chat rooms through the platform.