What Distance Learning Can't Buy

While distance learning makes it easier and faster to get an MBA, some vital aspects of a brick-and-mortar education simply can't be converted into ones and zeroes.

In every sector of the economy, it seems, people are heralding the rise of distance learning as the next Great Leap in business education. With so many corporations linking job advancement to completion of an MBA, employees are flocking to the promise of fast acquisition of those three letters via the Internet, with minimum disruption to their careers.

Business schools are equally enamored: Online learning has the potential to increase the reach and revenue of an MBA program significantly, with a minimum investment in facilities, faculty, and service infrastructure.

There's no question that in the new world of fast education, business schools that offer distance learning and "virtual degrees" will proliferate. But so, in turn, will the number of people claiming the authority to lead based on the fact that they have acquired the "MBA stamp." The result? The relevance of an MBA degree will begin to be questioned. Employers, faced with vast numbers of MBA graduates, will need to segment the pool.

In the new world of business, simply having acquired an MBA won't be enough. Increasingly, where the degree was obtained will become a critical measure of its value. Employers will come to recognize that they need to seek out graduates who have had a truly transformative learning experience — graduates who know how to deal with rapid change, with intense global competition, and with the increasing complexity of the new economy and the networked environment. Today's great business schools need to teach people to think and to lead in real time, in real teams, while learning to see the big view and to integrate a problem's multifaceted causal relationships.

Students who truly care about being part of a new generation of great leaders will not, therefore, be drawn to a pure-distance MBA education. Instead, the best students will demand from their MBA education a balanced approach, making use of the most innovative teaching methods, Web-based learning techniques, computer simulations, case studies, lectures, role-playing experiences, and team and individual projects to create a demanding, high-energy environment rooted in everyday business reality.

That's not to say that the optimum learning environment shouldn't steep students in the very latest Web technology. There's no reason why students should have to sit in the classroom to listen while their professors "broadcast" lectures when they can easily tap into the Web and get their information asynchronously by viewing it on their own time. I predict that the time spent in classrooms will become much shorter, allowing MBA students to optimize their in-class experience and spend less time away from their offices.

But pure-distance learning ignores a crucial aspect of business: the productive capacity of effective collaboration. Virtual partnerships — whereby teams come together and dissolve from project to project — are becoming an important way business is done in the new century. Succeeding today depends on the ability to be a part of and to lead diverse teams. At the best business schools, students learn from one another, drawing on a broad range of backgrounds and experiences. By the time they graduate, students will have built a lifetime network of friends and business acquaintances. That's something pure-distance learning will never be able to replicate.

The only way to win in the highly complex environment of the new economy is to obtain a versatile management education that emphasizes the ability to think across traditional management disciplines and to solve complex problems in an integrated manner. This is very different from a "quickie" MBA.

Roger Martin (martin@mgmt.utoronto.ca) is the dean of the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

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