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You’ve seen the advertisements on websites, billboards and newspapers selling top-notch business degrees fully online. The allure of attaining a graduate degree for a fraction of the price of a full time programme while still being able to earn an income is a powerful one for professionals.

Why then would students fork out tens of thousands of dirhams, take precious time off work and possibly lose an income to attend a full time programme?

As the higher education sector is flooded with graduate degree options, Gulf News asks the experts how online degrees measure up to traditional face-to-face degrees.

Blended learning
‘Online’ is an old notion that refers to asynchronous education, where the student signs in, learns content and submits information, and it is a passive conveying of information, said Dr Greg Jones, vice-president and provost for Global Strategy and Programmes at Duke University.

“That’s a weak model for anything than just the basic conveying of information. But what I would say is that web-based learning is now often synchronous — you’re interacting with people in real time and that can be quite significant and actually a better optimisation of learning,” he said at Duke University’s Dubai campus.

“Web-based learning works best as a supplement to face-to-face, not as an alternative.”

The university takes a blended learning approach with some of its business programmes where students based in Dubai attend short, intensive sessions at Duke’s campuses around the world followed by a period of distance learning from home through online classroom sessions and assignments. Many top business schools in Dubai use this model allowing professionals to enjoy the best of what online and face-to-face learning have to offer.

Duke University incorporates online learning in its programmes but Jones emphasises the importance of face-to-face contact that students need. “What we do with global executive learning is that there’s face-to-face contact and the development of those relationships really matter.”

Business schools are incorporating online learning but traditional full time programmes are still very popular with students. Dr Arnold Longboy, Director of Executive Education and Recruitment, Europe at The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business said online components could help “but if it’s 70 per cent online I would be opposed to that.”

“A lot of our students choose our programme because it’s more traditional and the number of applications continue to increase – this shows what we offer is still in demand,” he said.

A graduate business degree is more than just the qualification says Dr Roy Batchelor, Director of the Cass Business School’s Executive MBA programme in Dubai. “Apart from picking up skills and current thinking about marketing and so on, part of the MBA experience is working alongside people like yourself from different backgrounds and different sectors.”

Uses of online learning
Professor Alain Senteni, Dean of School of e-Education at Hamdan Bin Mohammad e-University (HBMeU) in Dubai says that online learning helps people prepare for the 21st century society, which will comprise “digital natives”.

Despite the HBMeU being primarily an online institution, it still incorporates the face-to-face component in some of its programmes.

“The problem is that our current digital natives are still young — about 15 years old – but people who are decision makers are not digital in nature. There is a need for a change in mindset.”

He says the way to make this happen is the blended approach by using technology to enhance what already exists. “Traditional learning is based on spoon-feeding and this is not what’s needed in the present time.”

Senteni said the university was working on building credibility for online education in the region. “I think credibility and providing evidence that it’s as good as face-to-face is major issue.”
He explained that e-universities use blended learning and they are not allowed to be fully online. Students have a combination of face-to-face classes in the beginning of their programmes and then virtual classes which are not physically constrained.

Jones pointed out that very shy people and women students, especially in the region, are less likely to speak in public and are far more likely to ask questions and make comments in a web-based setting.

Online learning also allows for more engaged learning when students are in the classroom. When students can access lectures and other content online as part of their homework they are more likely to engage in more lively discussions than passively listen to a lecturer he said.

“It’s important that we recognise that there are all kinds of ways that technology can enhance learning but we have to move away from viewing it as either online or face-to-face. I don’t think there’s any substitute but at some point we also have to think about what constitutes a class.”

Jones added that it is a myth to think that those students who are based in the same city are interacting with faculty for any more time than in web-based learning. “We now have video conferencing and tele presence. This is an extraordinary way to interact and you can interact in three or four setting simultaneously.”

Longboy said that there are certain topics that lend themselves to online learning such as computer training, finance or accounting.

Commenting on how online degrees and universities are perceived by employers Senteni said employers don’t see a major difference and in fact many traditional universities are trying to move toward online content and support.

“One of the criteria employers look at is to see how technically proficient they are and online learning is a real advantage.”

Perceptions of quality also need to be addressed. “Quality assurance is what they [employers] want and online programmes need to be quality assured. We need a systematic and serious quality assurance process to make sure online degrees are meeting the same standards or even better standards than traditional universities. I agree that we want to avoid degree mills,” Senteni said.

Longboy said employers are more open to degree holders from top rated schools. If it was less well known then there is scepticism.

Mohammad Sabunchi is a recent graduate of Cass Business School Dubai’s Executive MBA programme and has noticed that online learning is being offered by several business schools these days.

“I would say I prefer the sit down learning with the online as a support facility. It really works well in executive education,” the managing director for an IT consultancy firm said.

Sabunchi pointed out that online learning has improved significantly in the case of video conferencing where students still have the element of the classroom situation.

“At Cass Business School I was impressed with the structure of the programme which combined an online facility and face to face. It worked perfectly for those at a managerial level and who were busy with life and work.”

Tim Travers, a current Cass Business School EMBA student, also prefers a combination of face to face and online learning. “You couldn’t do these classes without online support — the networking is enhanced by a strong online support coupled with regular workshops and fairly regular social events held by the business school,” he said.