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FM Edition:

King Canute famously failed to hold back the waves when he had his throne placed on the beach and ordered the sea to retreat.

Are traditionalists doomed to similar failure in trying to hold back the technological tide that threatens to wash away the time-honoured, classroom-based MBA?

The 11th-century English king was not the dunce history has made him out to be. The beach exercise was his idea, to prove to fawning courtiers that he was not the all-powerful being they claimed.

Some 21st-century educationists feel a similar sense of helplessness in the face of uncontrollable powers.

The Internet has had a profound impact on business education. Once, MBA students were required to spend days, weeks, even months in the classroom. Now, thanks to online access, they can find most of the relevant information online using computers, tablets and smartphones. They don’t need to be on the same continent as the lecturer, never mind in the same room.

But is there a danger this wave of online teaching could go too far? Business leaders, after all, deal with real people, not virtual ones. Without personal, face-to-face interaction, can MBAs provide the holistic experience that students need?

It’s not straightforward, says Stellenbosch University Business School director Piet Naudé. To people who have grown up in a technological environment, "virtual can be more real that reality".

In any case, asks school MBA head Martin Butler, what is virtual? "Virtual technology is still dealing with real people using different platforms. Speaking to someone over the telephone, writing a letter, typing an e-mail or using video-conferencing technology does not make the recipient virtual," he says.

There is no denying there are major benefits from online education. It opens the doors to more people, usually at lower cost because there are fewer overheads. As long as there is a signal, people in the most remote places in the world can participate.

Segran Nair, MBA head at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, points to a US study showing many part-time MBAs believe their studies will eventually go fully online.

International experience shows that people want more flexibility. Demand for full-time MBAs is waning. Business schools are becoming more inventive in the way they package their programmes. In SA, for example, students have a choice of full-time, online, weekend, evening and block-release study, or a blend of most of these options.

Many of the world’s top schools offer online programmes alongside their traditional ones. The advent of Moocs — massive open online courses — allows them to offer content for free and charge only when students take exams or seek accreditation.

Regenesys Business School is an SA leader in this space, so it’s no surprise that dean Penny Law is a firm believer in online education. She admits it may not be for everyone, but says the advantages are overwhelming. Forget the argument that old-style classroom interaction is beneficial, she says: it may actually be restricting.

For a start, how do you define a classroom? Is it a physical space occupied by 100 physical bodies, or a virtual space occupied by 1,000? "I know some people like close contact with classmates and lecturers, but in a virtual situation they have synchronous contact with peers from all over the world," says Law.

So while Regent Business School director Ahmed Shaikh believes issues such as culture, race and diversity can best be addressed in a classroom of diverse participants, Law says a virtual classroom can be even more effective. "Students interact and learn to work with people in Asia and Africa and North America. They learn how to solve unfamiliar problems. It encourages critical thinking because they work with such diverse people. Traditional classrooms are more parochial."

Rhodes Business School dean Owen Skae isn’t convinced. Many lecturers prefer the sense of engagement they encounter in a real classroom, he says. "They can sense the mood of the students — something that’s not possible online or if their lecture is televised and beamed into multiple classrooms.

"They miss the immediate student feedback."

And while Skae acknowledges that online learning offers access, he wonders: "Do we go for thousands of students and be happy that half of them pass? Or do we work with smaller numbers, in person, and know that we will have a higher success rate? We have to find a middle road."

Nair says that while it’s tempting to stick to tried-and-tested educational methods, "we must respond to the way society is moving".

Zaheer Hamid, of the Management College of Southern Africa, says: "The challenge for all of us is that, with the rate of technological change, we are creating graduates for a world that doesn’t exist yet. The supply of online education will grow, but the ideal MBA must have balance. All one-dimensional online [learning] doesn’t work but neither does all face-to-face."

Nicola Kleyn, dean of the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, agrees. She says that by using online technology to learn subject matter, students can be better prepared for the classroom, which should be a place for discussion.

"Why waste time learning facts in class if you can do it beforehand?" Kleyn asks. "Managed properly, a lot of learning on an MBA programme is done away from the classroom."

Wits Business School academic head Chris van der Hoven says: "Do what you can online beforehand. Don’t arrive undercooked, you’ll slow the others and risk their wrath."

University of the Free State Business School head Helena van Zyl is among those who believe that personal interaction is a crucial part of an MBA programme.

Kleyn would agree. "An MBA should be very social," she says. "If you don’t have strong engagement with your cohort, you lose something. There’s no substitute for being together and getting to know each other."

Shaikh adds: "When you peel away all the elements, MBA education is about human development. That means people sitting with people. Everything else exists to augment that."

Butler says that, at his school, "being on campus to be exposed to the culture and values and also meet in person those with whom you will collaborate is nonnegotiable".

But for introverts who struggle to voice their opinions in a classroom situation, online learning can be an outlet. Nair says: "Different people are motivated differently and engage differently."

Skae dismisses the idea that distance and online MBAs are an easy option for business schools. While it’s true that they can eliminate the need for some physical infrastructure, administration increases. "If you do it properly, the extra 1,000 MBA students you may attract online will all need supervisors, particularly when their research dissertations arrive. This kind of learning is very resource intensive," he says. "Online learning is not as simple as some people imagine. Yes, it’s accessible, but you have to be very self-motivated to keep going."

Theuns Pelser, dean of the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Graduate School of Business & Leadership, observes: "Learning online is like buying a home gym rather than going to Virgin Active. You’ve got the same equipment but you never use the home stuff. Going to gym creates commitment and atmosphere. There’s a lot to be said for online learning but it’s a supplement, not a replacement for the real thing."

Such is the shift towards online learning that even the UK-based international accreditation body, the Association of MBAs (Amba), has modified its expectations. The North-West University School of Business & Governance, under its previous guise of Potchefstroom Business School, was the first "junior" SA school to win Amba approval three years ago. It is currently undergoing reaccreditation.

Director Tommy du Plessis says rules requiring programmes to include at least 500 hours of classroom teaching now allow for 350 of those to be synchronous. "That means the lecturer can be here in the Potchefstroom classroom but the lecture is broadcast simultaneously to students on our campuses in Mahikeng and Vanderbijlpark. However, the lecture must be interactive in all three centres and each must have its own facilitator."

The other 150 hours of lectures, he says, can be recorded and viewed by students later. "It’s captured, banked and watched whenever necessary."

Wits is considering a project that would take this further, radiating a Southern African MBA programme from its Johannesburg headquarters. Students would use common study centres in each country and combine into study syndicates.

There’s nothing wrong with such a synchronous environment, says Butler. "This is the same experience that is becoming common in the business environment."