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Online vs traditional

E-learning has created a revolution in education, but it might not be everyone’s cup of tea

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Andrew Likierman is Dean, London Business School
GN Focus

Have you considered an online MBA? Many in the GCC, as in the rest of the world, will have been mulling over this route to improving their management skills. Technology is having as profound an effect on learning as it is in every other field, and an increasing number of courses from an increasing number of providers are available online. So the idea that you can learn without going beyond your own front door obviously has attractions. What are the advantages and disadvantages of online management education compared to a more conventional learning environment?


Let’s look at the pluses first. For those who don’t have the right programmes nearby and prefer not to — or can’t — travel, this route can create a path towards what would not otherwise be available. Online is particularly good for more technical courses, where material can be studied without the need for discussion with others studying the same subject or for personal attention from a tutor. This may also be a good way of learning for those who are worried about keeping up in a class and want the opportunity to go over material several times. Finally there’s the cost, which is likely to be a lot cheaper than personal attention from professors and tutors.

Now the disadvantages, with a focus on degree programmes (the disadvantages for short courses are less significant, though the same considerations apply). A big minus is missing out on the educational experience of being with a group of people learning together. It’s a lot easier to be motivated to learn knowing that others are having the same problems. The sheer excitement of a class getting right into the heart of a problem and coming up with solutions is hard to reproduce on the internet. And talking outside the class to fellow students can be as valuable as formal learning.

Being in a different social and cultural environment is also a huge advantage. We have people flying into Dubai from many different countries and on our degree programmes as a whole we currently have students of more than 100 nationalities. It’s a big bonus to learning to have such a wide spread of people in the room.

An advantage of face-to-face learning for degree programmes is the opportunity for friendships, often lifelong ones, which arise from people who have had the common experience of learning together. It’s always a pleasure for me to find groups of people in touch with each other ten, 20 and 40 years after graduating, and these friendships are valuable sources of support, advice and contacts.

Assessment is always an issue in education, and online learning is no exception. It’s often difficult to make sure quality standards are kept up and good business schools are cautious about putting their names on qualifications that they have not supervised themselves. So while more programmes may be available online, I’m not anticipating the world’s leading schools giving degrees unless they can be sure of the quality of the work and of the individual.

Learning at a distance certainly isn’t new. There have been correspondence courses for well over a century and the issues are much the same. In practice, it’s not a question of choosing either to work only online or only in person. Technology is becoming an increasing element in more traditional programmes and courses are now often a mix of online and face-to-face.

Evaluate options

So how should you decide? First, be very clear in your own mind about why you want to do a particular programme and what you want to get out of it. Then look at the options available in terms of whether what you want is best done in person or not. At the moment I would study online only for courses that are short and largely technical. If you are looking for a degree programme, I would suggest doing it in person. And if you want to carry the name of the more prestigious schools, doing it online isn’t an option.

— The author is Dean, London Business School