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The Virtual MBA
Technology reinvents distance learning

The City University of Hong Kong has seen the future. Earlier this year, the school launched its Interactive MBA - iMBA - program. "We do not label it a distance-learning course," says Richard Ho, dean of the faculty of business. "It is real learning using different modes of technology." Offered in partnership with Hong Kong's dominant phone company, Cable and Wireless HKT, iMBA delivers Internet-based lectures and tutorials through a broadband network. The huge bandwidth allows visual imaging, which means students can "attend" a live class through their computer. Additional course materials are broadcast on cable TV through Cable and Wireless's iTV network.

The experiment is being replicated elsewhere. Japan's Waseda University is trying out a "Smart Campus" MBA course with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and another interactive program with economist Kenichi Ohmae on SkyPerfecTV. Monash Mount Eliza Business School is developing online MBA courses in Australia. In the U.S., Duke University's business school offers an online MBA program, but requires students to spend five weeks on campus and two weeks each in Germany, Brazil and China.

This hybrid approach is probably the way to go. The University of Adelaide's Graduate School of Management offers web-based materials and Internet chat facilities to students in its two MBA programs in Singapore - in addition to face-to-face contact. "An effective MBA should provide an opportunity for learning through sharing experiences," says Australia-based course coordinator Laubie Li. He says a 1999 study suggests that considerable face-to-face contact is needed before "virtual teams" of MBA students can function effectively.

Correspondence schools are tapping the Net too. "It would be simple to put our courses online, but it will take us time to build really interactive elements so that the Web enhances our program," says Danny Ip, dean of the Open University of Hong Kong's business school. And expensive - the university will spend more than $18 million to upgrade multimedia facilities and create an electronic library, although officials say fees will be kept affordable. It may only be a matter of time before a school offers a pure cyber MBA program - in which you learn to run a virtual-reality company while interacting with computer-generated rivals like Microsoft's Bill Gates.

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