The Debate: Traditional Learning vs. Distance Learning

debate on distance learning and traditional learning formats

Which are better, the face-to-face interactions of traditional learning within the confines of a business school’s campus or the flexibility and ease of access of distance learning ? There is, of course, a case to be made for both in business education today, but one format might well suit your individual circumstances a lot more than the other. With this in mind, HEC Paris’s Matthew Gibb and SKEMA Business School’s Sophie Gay Anger take it in turns to focus on the benefits of traditional in-person learning and online/distance learning experiences, respectively, in the following faculty debate.

The case for traditional learning: Matthew Gibb, HEC Paris

Which are better, traditional learning modules or distance learning?

HEC Paris's Matthew GibbI do not think there is a right or wrong answer to this question. It all depends on what the participant is trying to achieve. If a participant has limited financial resources to put towards travel and accommodation, heavy family commitments, or a professional life that does not permit much flexibility in terms of time off or periods of absence, but still needs a solid education of business fundamentals and general management skills, then perhaps distance learning is better suited to them. However, if this same person has the ability to travel and to distance themselves from daily professional obligations, and is looking for quality time with like-minded individuals, then I believe that a traditional learning module in which they are fully immersed in an all-encompassing experience is a better option.

"The real magic often happens on site"

Even with technological innovations improving access to distance learning, there is certainly still merit to classroom learning formats. I think that people tend to forget that EMBAs are not simply about the academics. Several business schools have solid, if not exceptional, curricula these days. Participants expect that, but do not necessarily give it much thought when looking back at their experiences. They want time to reflect on their professional lives and, do not forget, that for many, if not most, this is the time for change. They want to bounce ideas off others and they want to be reassured that they have made the right choice. While they will certainly get fantastic insights from participatory webinars, acquire valuable learnings from flipped classrooms and grow through interactive distance-based seminars, giving them the knowledge that they need in the process; the real magic often happens on site.

Coffee breaks, lunches, social events and cocktails are key opportunities for putting learnings into perspective. These informal events are vital ‘off-the-record’ networking opportunities that allow participants to share, not necessarily only with each other, but teaching faculty and program delivery staff as well. Whether it is waiting in the buffet line at lunch, sharing a drink later that evening at the hotel bar, meeting the next morning for an impromptu pre-dawn jog or spontaneous yoga session, you can bet they are learning from each other. They realise they are not alone. Such informal intimate moments really do count. You cannot achieve this level of networking easily without residencies. So, don't underestimate the power of the coffee break!

Career activities are also a valuable portion of a traditional learning format. There is a growing proportion of participants undertaking EMBAs who are in period of professional transition and are thinking of taking their next step. They are wondering whether it is the right time to make a move. Perhaps they have lost their previous jobs and are using the EMBA as a means of refocusing themselves. Career-related activities can be undertaken online, certainly, but we are seeing that participants benefit significantly from peer coaching or peer-to-peer sessions that help them put their future plans into focus. Quite often, simply being away from home and in a safe environment with others in similar situations is sufficient for them to step back and think about what they want. Sometimes it is getting away from the daily grind that is required to help them gain perspective about what is right for them and which direction to take. 

International classroom-learning modules are also valuable and a key part of the learning experience. At HEC Paris, we call them majors. They are thematic or industry-specific specializations that take place around the world. We offer a choice of up to eight of these majors, which participants undertake in different global cities. Although most of our participants come from different backgrounds and are already seasoned international business travelers, we believe that it is necessary to provide opportunities for increased international exposure. The majors bring together a wider mix of participants from across programs and the opportunity for more extensive networking opportunities that they would not have obtained from remaining at home and covering the same material.  

"Our obligation is to create these intimate moments of exchange"

But that’s not to say there’s no merit to distance learning at all. Our obligation is to create these intimate moments of exchange, but that is where the value of technology and distance learning also comes in. That is the whole basis for the flipped classroom. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater either. Academics are a must. The content must be delivered. Faculty instructors have a responsibility to deliver business fundamentals, key theories, contemporary strategies and future trends. These, however, can be delivered differently and now we have the capacity to do so. 

A lot can be delivered online. New ways of capturing participants' attention are emerging every day. Digital disruption and distance learning is the way of the future without a doubt, but we need to be smart about it. Creating the right mix and making the right decisions about what to put online will take much thought.

What’s needed are participants arriving for traditional learning modules having already acquired a certain amount of knowledge and familiarity with a certain subject and who are now ready and able to start putting them into practice. Interactive activities, whether simulation exercises or case study analyses debated in small groups, are increasingly permissible if the basics have been covered before arriving in class through digital environments. Anything that gets the participant out of the amphitheater and into breakout rooms or smaller focus groups will help generate debate, get them talking or sharing about personal experience and ultimately enable them to learn from each other. These then spill over into informal non-academic activities.

The debate between in-class sessions and digital learning is likely to heat up as the capacity to deliver business education at a distance becomes easier. Less time may be needed in classroom-learning formats, but distance learning will allow the time spent on site to become more impactful. 

Matthew Gibb is director of the executive MBA program at HEC Paris business school, managing six international EMBA tracks in five world cities (Jouy-en-Josas (on campus) Paris, Doha, Shanghai, Beijing).

The case for distance learning: Sophie Gay Anger, SKEMA Business School

Why investing in online courses is indispensable

Sophie Gay Anger; SKEMA Business SchoolSKEMA Business School has developed full digital courses in the past and plans to keep investing in the creation of full digital or online pedagogic activities in the future. MOOCs are offered to our students but also to the general public, and we use online courses in all our programs. Of course, blended and face-to-face courses still represent the major part of learning activities, but since its creation (in 2009), SKEMA has been a strong advocate of curriculum digitalization. Having 7,500 students on six different campuses in the world and organizing seminars, workshops and courses for cohorts across these campuses meant that digitalization was, from the start, an obvious solution. Online/distance learning allows participants to join regardless of their time zone and other academic activities.

Online learning: Bringing much more than flexibility and global access

As we got involved in the creation and running of these online courses and seminars, we came to realize that MOOCs brought much more to the learning experience than flexibility. In particular, we could individualise learning paths and feedback in ways that are both simple and comfortable for the participant. More importantly, online courses generate a significant change in perception about class involvement: ‘Publish’, ‘review’ and ‘share’ are words that replace ‘submit’, ‘answer’ or ‘turn in’. The capacity for online activity to develop autonomy and self-discipline is often discussed but the benefits, in terms of attitude, go well beyond that. The traditional relationship to the lecturer/professor is shifted to the community, adding value to the input of participants and creating a more global learning dynamic. At the same time, a deeper feeling of ownership is created. Peer review, guided by an expert, is one of the most interesting tools used. Of course, it develops critical thinking, but also what we could call collaborative knowledge and skill-acquisition strategies. Distance learning often reconciles the participants with performance evaluation, but it also induces a sense of responsibility and ownership in younger audiences.

A way to develop key competencies for global managers

In terms of acquisition of competencies, online and distance learning also plays a key role at SKEMA because we consider that long-distance team communication and multicultural management skills are a ‘must’ in a global business environment. So, being part of a multinational and multi-campus team, participating in an online class, structuring group activities, collaborating and publishing a complex deliverable that is assessed by peers while managing one’s own agenda prepares the participants to deal with such situations. Being able to convince and motivate at a distance and asynchronously is not easy and it requires training. We believe that online learning is a pertinent tool. This is also why we frequently use individual or group video assignments. Students can see professors building a scenario, illustrating an argument, being clear and concise, as well as making contact and establishing a connection with their audience.

The lecturers’ perspective

Difficulties encountered by faculty when facilitating online classes are often discussed. The number of participants, their expectations in terms of access to experts in the subject field, the tremendous investment of time and energy… But there is also very positive feedback, particularly when audiences are ‘mature’ online learners – something which is not a question of age, but of their capacity to be self-directed learners and use digital communication tools. Top faculty are often attracted to online activity, not only because it demonstrates their expertise but also because it brings new challenges and teaching experiences. The number and diversity of participants in MOOCs are, of course, greatly appreciated and contribute to enriching the exchanges which are conducted in a peer-to-peer context rather than a student-professor one. New ideas and suggestions from participants also participate in the evolution of the course.

A fantastic laboratory

Online learning activities also contribute significantly to the pedagogical dynamic of a higher education institution. We have developed tools and practices at SKEMA that are now in use in many blended courses or in associated face-to-face activities. For example, the use of social networks, blogs, live quizzes and peer reviewing have spread as a natural complement to face-to-face lectures. It enables us to push the students towards a ‘continuous learning’ attitude, where all activities are an opportunity to make links and reflect on a topic of study.

Still scratching the surface

Digital learning is still in its infancy. Up until now, the use of digital tools is aimed mainly at improving current practices; involving more participants, simplifying logistics, increasing the frequency and rapidity of feedback – I could cite many more. A large proportion of online courses and MOOCs are traditional in essence. But, we are convinced that we are still at the point where we’re discovering how the learning experience can be enhanced by the digital revolution. What will machine learning bring in terms of tailor-made explanations, feedback and coaching? What can evolutions in gamification and virtual reality provide in terms of a life-like experience?  

Sophie Gay Anger is deputy director of SKEMA Business School’s master’s in management program and director of its Knowledge Centre. She holds an MBA and PhD in finance from Université Laval in Canada.  

Written by Mike Grill

Mike's remit covers content, SEO and blogger outreach. Outside of his work for TopMBA.com, he is an assistant coach for MLU outfit, the Portland Stags.

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