I can remember the first time I got involved in working with a distance-learning MBA course, many years ago. At the time, each student received the usual weighty pack of books and teaching notes. Assignments had to be completed and attached to a cover note made of four sheets of carbon paper (remember that?) and sent out in the post. How times have changed. Now that the Internet has made communication faster and more reliable, this has opened up a vast array of opportunities for students to communicate more effectively with faculty and, perhaps more importantly, with each other.
No matter how good the content of the course you intend to embark upon, one of the most significant aspects of completing the MBA is the opportunity to develop team-working skills and networking opportunities with your peers. Full-time students benefit immediately from making new friendships and business acquaintances when they are studying. However, many distance-learning students report to us that their own part-time study has allowed existing work relationships and networks to be maintained. The importance of networking does depend on individual needs, such as whether or not you are using the MBA to switch careers. The ability to maintain existing social networks also provides the opportunity to help the learning process, such as teaming up with people you work with who may be studying a different MBA at the same time.
If networking and team-working are important elements of an MBA, can they be achieved when you are a distance-learning student? When you are considering a distance-learning MBA there are a number of questions that you might want to ask of each course on your short-list:
1. What opportunities are there to meet up with fellow students?
Distance-learning students are usually allocated into study groups of typically 10-12 people. If you live in a major city, it is possible that your group will comprise of people nearest to you, opening the possibility of meeting up fairly regularly. Distance-learning programs can have a more diverse range of students. Good team-building creates team diversity and distance-learning study can exploit this advantage easily.
Most courses will offer some opportunity to meet your peers at weekend seminars or, in some cases, longer asummer schoolsa. These seminars are your best opportunity to network and develop your own less formal study groups with people you really want to work with. Some universities provide classes in locations away from their own campus, in places that are more convenient for the student population.
Along with meeting fellow distance-learning students, you might want to ask whether you can network with students from other learning delivery modes. Check whether or not you will be allowed to study some courses with full-time students or on intensive modular weeks. Courses vary tremendously in how flexible they are when allowing students to mix together and network.
2. If I live remotely, can I still work with other students?
The obvious advantage of full time study is the scheduled time for formal learning in lectures and syndicate groups. However, we must add that full-time students often emphasize the value of their additional akitchen conversationsa, where they informally discuss the work they are doing. Their close proximity facilitates a deeper understanding of the course materials through ad hoc help. Distance-learning courses need to replicate these situations as much as possible.
All distance-learning courses should offer some opportunity for group based self-help when studying. These days the most effective way to achieve this is via an Internet-based study group. For example, at Warwick we have message boards and discussion boards for every subject and assignment. This allows students to work with each other when trying to understand the more complex aspects of say, financial accounting or when finishing one of their assignments. We encourage students to post questions on topics they are struggling with: aI donat understand figure 3.2 in the textbook. Can a non-academic explain it to me?a This allows the informal learning to occur.
In most cases there will also be acafA and sociala areas of the websites, where students can arrange meetings, develop business relationships or just talk about sport.
3. Will there be team-based activity?
One of the highlights of a full-time course is the intensive syndicate team work, working on games and case study presentations. From personal experience, I know how valuable the dynamic, competitive syndicate team environment can be. Increasingly, technology is allowing team-based activity on distance-learning courses, often in real time. Many universities have developed web-based games and business simulations that are managed in teams. Similarly, courses can often require students who are located in different parts of the world to compile joint reports, mainly using message boards and email as primary means of communication.
My experience of observing this process and marking the resulting assignments shows that such exercises provide extremely valuable practice in team-working and team-building. These sorts of exercises rely on each person accepting responsibility for specific parts of the overall task and delivering on-time, to the quality demanded by their peers. Despite the restrictions of the technology, the same team dynamics issues and tensions occur as in the normal classroom environment. One downside of such real time working is the need to match everyoneas timing. If you are in a different time zone to everyone else, you may find yourself having to rise at 3am for a marketing simulation!
4. Are there further developments to the team-based learning experience forthcoming?
In the future, software will allow students to participate in lectures in real time as if they were present in class. Your computer screen, in the future, will show both the teaching faculty and all the participants who have logged in for the same session. This will further enhance the learning experience and allow students to network with their classmates as they learn. We are currently trialing such software and hope to have it available as soon as it is robust enough.
It should be no surprise that study via distance-learning is the real growth area for MBA courses at present. Increasing awareness of the benefits of MBA study in high-growth economies has meant that demand remains very robust Students are fortunate that approaches to delivery have kept pace with technology to a good extent and team-based working and networking are now easier on courses than they ever have been. If you like to work with others as you study, you will find plenty of opportunity to do so if you carefully examine each provider to see which ones offer the right options. You should also remember that the networking continues once you graduate through alumni networks. In most cases, all students share the same networking opportunities and often continue to be part of the extended MBA community.