A growing number of prospective MBA students are interested in taking a distance learning MBA program, the latest QS TopMBA.com Applicant Survey has found.
While full-time MBA programs remain the preferred choice of study, the distance MBA option is growing in popularity among middle and senior managers.
In 2011, 10% of respondents to the TopMBA.com Applicant Survey favored the distance MBA option – a 7% rise in just two years when only 3% were interested in the remote study mode.
Revolution in telecommunication and the rapid uptake of WiFi technologies has seen a growth in well-established business schools offering distance learning MBA programs.
Henley Business School in the UK, Curtin Business School in Australia, Edinburgh Business School in the UK and IE Business School in Spain, are among some of the top-ranked distance learning MBA programs in the world.
The number of well-established institutions offering these programs has led to greater public acceptance of a mode of study that was once met with great skepticism. And while students now have greater choice over which school to take their distance learning MBA, these particular candidates are also faced with a set of very difficult pros and cons to weigh up.
“One of the major disadvantages is the lack of face-to-face interaction with students and their unit instructors,” says Professor Kelvin Willoughby, director of MBA programs at Curtin University.
“Subtle human interactions such as body language and some of the spontaneity that comes with a group discussion can be lost when people are not seated in the same room,” he adds.
Feeling isolated from peers and being disengaged from the school’s academic resources is another downfall of distance MBA study, Mike Keighley, head of program administration and director of Henley Business School’s flexible MBA points out.
However, a major advantage is the ease in forming a global network of contacts.
“Some of the ‘spin off’ benefits of a traditional campus MBA, such as a strong cohort identity and network, are not so prevalent on a distance learning MBA program, but this is replaced by a global network of students,” says Alick Kitchin, business director at Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University.
The enhanced opportunity to develop an international network of contacts could place distance learning MBA students in a favorable position to find work at multinational organizations.
“The experience working remotely also helps prepare students for their future careers if they eventually choose to take up positions in multinational companies,” says Willoughby.
The most obvious benefit is the flexibility a remote modular program provides, affording these particular students the time to work and study.
However, the benefits of flexibility are more significant than allowing the freedom to juggle work commitments with the demands of distance MBA study.
“Learning while working also enables the students to put the skills and knowledge they learn directly and immediately into their ‘day jobs’. Succeeding in a distance learning MBA program also demonstrates self-motivation and excellent time management skills, which are essential in today’s business world,” says Kitchin.
Many students are attracted to the distance learning option because it allows them to travel and relocate without jeopardizing their ability to obtain an MBA qualification.
Kitchin says a high percentage of students enrolled on the Edinburgh distance learning MBA move around the world, "as one would expect in a global business environment."
That is one of the reasons why Lara Moltoni, an MBA graduate from Curtin Business School was attracted to the distance learning MBA option.
“I wanted as much flexibility as possible,” she says.
“I was married to a mechanical engineer who frequently moved interstate and overseas. We also had three very young children. I didn’t want to have to defer my study if we were moved with my husband’s work.”
The family was later required to relocate to Vancouver for two years, but this did not affect Moltoni's distance MBA studies.
“In the end I completed seven units online. It was great to be able to study when I wanted to. I was able to access lectures and speak to lecturers when it worked for me. I treated it very much like a job and worked about six hours a day,” she says.
Weighing up the pros and cons of distance MBA learning is just one step in identifying whether this option is the right one.
Choosing the right business school to undertake a distance MBA program can be tricky because “not all distance MBAs are the same,” explains Dr Marcel Cohen, distance learning MBA course director at Imperial College Business School.
"Choose a reputable one. We have students who already studied for an MBA but felt it necessary to have another go with us," he warns.
The amount of ‘distance’ employed in a remote modular MBA program varies from business school to business school.
There are options for regular face-to-face meetings that are as frequent as once every week.
Some schools offer a ‘face-to-face intensive’ option, where students work online for the majority of the semester, and are then required on campus for one week of intensive in-classroom study, led by a tutor.
Others offer a 'blended' mix of online study and in-classroom lectures, where students are required to attend in-classroom lectures and discussions in intervals of four-weeks to three-months.
“Investigate the quality of the institution you intend to study with and take soundings from current students on the program you are looking to join,” says Keighley.
“You will need to feel relaxed and confident about the space you will be studying in, be that a physical location or a virtual environment,” he summarizes, emphasizing the importance of research when deciding upon which distance MBA program to apply for.