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Rise of online degrees is changing face of learning

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I am not sure about the demand for them, but online MBA programmes are in increased supply. Recent studies show that they may also be losing some of the stigma they had in the marketplace.

A study conducted by academics from Walden University and the American Public University System reportedly found that half of the employers surveyed paid little attention to whether a job applicant or a staff member up for promotion got his MBA degree online or in a traditional classroom. Walden is an online degree provider, by the way.

The increased presence of online MBA courses should perhaps not come as a surprise at a time when more universities are putting their popular courses online for free, on sites such as facultyproject.org Courses on business strategy and entrepreneurship can easily be taken at no cost in the virtual environment.

Busy executives may prefer to study online than attend intensive classes at weekends at a fixed location.

Two years ago, the Bradford University School of Management (BUSM) saw a 150 per cent increase in people in this region doing its MBA purely online. The number has since been on the rise, says Linda de-Lay, the Hong Kong-based regional director of RDI Management Learning Asia-Pacific, a provider of a number of UK distance-learning courses. Employers regard someone who finishes a distance-learning course, which nowadays often cover a number of online modules, a more committed person.

However, De-Lay emphasises the importance of pastoral care and student support, including face-to-face tutorials and the provision of audio recordings of lectures at home universities.

The pre-eminence of social media today provides another boost to online learning. Young people are likely to be more strongly attached to their tablet than books.

Dr Sarah Dixon, dean of the BUSM, is expecting an explosion of study materials available for download. After a recent graduation ceremony in Hong Kong, she said: "We have been surveying our students on what they prefer to do. A lot of them like the concept of the book but as apps and the iPad develop, they can annotate on the iPad and start to have notes in the same way as you have on your books."

Dixon dismisses concerns about the lack of human interaction, saying that now online learners can easily build learning communities when they want. How big or cohesive that community will be is open to question, of course. It will help if the universities involved organise alumni or face-to-face student activities regularly. It's always good to make learning more fun than simply sitting in front of the computer.

Linda Yeung

SCMP Education Editor

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