The Rich Experience of Sophisticated Online Education. Santiago Iñiguez, Dean of Instituto de Empresa
Yesterday, the Financial Times published an extremely interesting survey on the latest developments of on-line management education. The figures reported show that distance learning is thriving across the board and that many business schools –over 65%- that used to offer only face-to-face programmes are already running online courses

Tuesday, 21 March 2006

Traditionally, distance learning was the domain of big education providers that played on scale, had a high volume of students and based most of their offerings on self-learning modules. However, the development of new technologies and the entrance of schools that have a leading role in conventional classroom-based learning are not only altering the boundaries of this educational segment but also the very nature of the learning process.

Many people believe that on-line programmes can not entirely match the human experience and vividness of face-to-face education. In addition, on-line education is often associated with cheap, low-quality and massive programmes. Are those two intuitions right? Is on-line education a second or third class education? I do not believe it should be so.

Since childhood, humans are normally trained to use senses as an important vehicle for learning. Sight, hearing, smell, touch and even taste are employed from the early stages of education to develop conventional behaviours and to associate names with qualities, and actions with effects. As the learner progresses, though, using the senses becomes less pivotal for learning, which is rather based on the exercise of other intellectual faculties such reflection, introspection or analysis. The need of "animal feedback", if you allow me the _expression, that attaches decisiveness to exercising the senses for learning, becomes much less relevant and gives room to more abstract forms of acquiring knowledge and developing intellectual skills. Antoine de Saint Exupéry summarized this idea brilliantly in his masterpiece "Le Petit Prince",(The Little Prince) when the fox tells the protagonist that "what is essential is invisible to the eyes". This sentence of profound and multiple meanings may be fully applicable to learning and particularly to on-line education.

Indeed, senses are not so decisive for learning, and being physically in the same room with your classmates throughout a whole year may not necessarily be the most productive learning experience. When I meet participants in our blended programmes –those that combine intense on-line periods with some face-to-face sessions- I notice that they know their fellow students very intensely and they also show a superlative degree of enthusiasm about the experience. Let me clarify that I do not refer to conventional distance learning offerings where the student may feel anonymous. I am talking about delivering a comparable or even a better learning experience than the traditional classroom session. This includes rigour in the process of selecting students –normally absent in big distance learning universities-, employing the school’s full-time faculty and offering equivalent support and services to participants.

My impression is that students of sophisticated online programmes are methodologically forced to interact with their classmates, more than in face-to-face programmes. Yesterday, one of our participants in the Global Communities MBA who lives in Shanghai told me that when you work on-line you need to get known by the others because otherwise you don’t "exist". This requires an effort that people who come to a conventional class and just sit may not need to take. In addition, in high quality online programmes everybody has a chance to an equal slot of participation, which is not the case in classroom sessions where time is limited.

Indeed, emotions in good online programmes are the closest thing to how many multinationals manage communication and decision-making nowadays and they may provide experiences at least as intense as in face-to-face offerings.

I believe that online programmes represent a very important part of the future of management education. It seems that I am not alone. According to a piece of news published in Joystick, Patrick Harker, Dean at Wharton, recently said that the virtual worlds are the future of MBA education.

Tags(clickable): Education, MBA, Business School, eLearning, Shanghai


I am very leery of online MBA programs because of the numerous poor quality programs mentioned in this post. It is unfortunate that these poor performers have tainted perception of the online MBA as a whole because there are some excellent programs out there. I believe that the key as you mentioned is a Rich Experience.

The need to foster a Rich Experience is also very important in remote collaboration in the business world. Students who have the experience in a program that provides a robust platform for online collaboration which include live video conferencing, forums, blogs etc have an advantage over those who have only participated in face-to-face instruction. They will be better prepared for managing a company or project with remote stakeholders.

This post also pointed out the concept of equal participation. I think this concept is also a large advantage over a traditional face-to-face program in that students can thoroughly explore a topic in the asynchronous communications modules such as forums and blogs. Traditional face-to-face programs may want to consider incorporating some of these mediums as well.

Conversely students who only have contact with faculty and peers through the virtual world are also at a disadvantage because of the strong bonds that can be built outside the classroom over a glass of wine or un café.

Blended programs with a strong focus on quality instruction, networking and robust communications platforms have my vote.

Posted by: Zach Owens | Wednesday, 22 March 2006 at 03:14 AM