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Online learning treads a wary path

By Ian Grayson for CNN

Studying online has become a popular method for many busy executives.


FT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Kellogg, U.S.
3. Chicago GSB, U.S.
4. Stern, NY, U.S.
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Hong Kong UST, China
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
9. London Business School, UK
10. Tanaka, Imperial College, UK
Source: Financial Times 2005



Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.

A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.

A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.


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(CNN) -- During the heady days of the dot-com boom, many academics were convinced online learning would transform executive education. The reality has been somewhat different.

In the late 1990s, the rapid rise of the Internet prompted many universities and business schools to examine its potential as a delivery mechanism for their courses.

E-learning proponents enthused over how the Internet could overcome geographic and time zone restrictions, opening up courses to any student with a connection.

By structuring courses so participants could work through modules at their own pace and at times that suited them, proponents said executive education could more readily be fitted into a hectic working schedule.

As well, people located too far from bricks-and-mortar schools would no longer be excluded from participating.

One of the most ambitious e-learning ventures is Universitas 21 Global, established as a joint venture by online education specialist Thomson Learning and Universitas 21 -- an international network of 16 universities.

Universitas 21 Global launched an online MBA course in 2003 and has about 800 students from more than 40 countries enrolled.

Course content is similar to classroom-based courses. Students are placed into groups of between 15 and 20 people and encouraged to work together electronically to solve problems and complete exercises.

Chief executive officer of Universitas 21 Global, Mukesh Aghi, told CNN that growth in enrolments has been strong, although total numbers are below initial forecasts.

"I think perhaps we were too hopeful at the start," he says. "Our plans were done at a stage when the dot-com boom was taking place. However, we have attracted around 800 students in a two-year timeframe, and I think that is exceptional."

Aghi says demand for e-learning is particularly high in developing countries such as India and China. There, many companies are facing acute shortages of qualified executives and are desperate to find ways to educate and train future corporate leaders.

"It is much easier and cheaper for them to stay in the country and use e-learning to get a globally recognized degree," he says.

Although many MBA students point to classroom interaction as a vital element of their activities, Aghi argues this can be replicated online. Students are encouraged to use e-mail, chat rooms and voice over IP (VoIP) services to communicate with each other regularly.

However, the director of the Australian-based Monash Centre for Research in International Education, Simon Marginson, does not share such enthusiasm for the e-learning model used by Universitas 21 Global and other similar institutions around the world.

"Online learning is less appealing than face-to-face education for students who have a choice," he says. "These kinds of programs rely on people working within groups and that can only really be done face-to-face."

Marginson is careful not to talk down e-learning completely, saying it can work well for the acquisition of specific skills, such as accounting, or when used in a mixed mode alongside classroom-based activities.

He points to examples such as the University of Phoenix, which has established a successful e-learning service offering short courses on a range of topics.

But when it comes to the vision of a global, online university offering MBA and other executive degree courses to thousands of people, Marginson does not believe it will happen.

"I think that, longer term, it will be possible to do a lot more on the Internet but the learning curve is a lot longer than many people originally thought."

For Aghi, much of the challenge in getting wider acceptance for his organization's model is people's mindset.

"We have to spend time explaining to people that online learning is better and more convenient that classroom learning," he says.

"Look at what happened with e-mail. Ten years ago people didn't use it but now you can't function without it, and I see online learning going in the same way."

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