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A Class Apart - FT looks at the virtual MBA

October 24, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
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Each Sunday evening, Scott Pearman joins the six other members of his executive MBA team to discuss their course assignments. Before getting down to work, they typically spend a few minutes chatting about their families and favourite ice hockey teams.

All are enrolled at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. But Mr Pearman lives 1,700km away in Bermuda, where he is chief operating officer of the hospitals board, and his team-mates are scattered across Canada from Fort McMurray, centre of the Alberta oil sands, to the prairie city of Winnipeg.

With the help of sophisticated video-conferencing technology, they form a "desktop learning team", holding their weekly meetings and receiving about half of their course instruction online.

About 15 of the 84 students enrolled in Queen's EMBA this year are members of online teams such as Pearman's. The rest come together in person every second week in corporate boardrooms around the country, but take part in the same online classes as the desktop teams. Classes meet every second week, for almost the full day on Friday, continuing on Saturday morning.

"The reality is that the technology that we're seeing factored into everyday living will have to be factored into education," says Elspeth Murray, an associate dean at Queen's, citing students' ever-growing familiarity with social media, smartphones and tablets.

Many business schools post teaching materials online. Some allow recruiters to use their video-conferencing facilities for job interviews with students. But few have gone as far as Queen's in bringing the classroom into far-away homes and offices.

Madrid's IE Business School, Cornell University's Johnson school, Duke University's Fuqua school and the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler school are among others that offer some form of distance learning. Cornell leases Queen's technology, developed by Polycom, a California-based supplier of video-conferencing equipment.

Doug Shackelford, an associate dean at Kenan-Flagler, says, "We believe there's a tremendous market out there for people who have a great job and don't want to leave it, or who live in a place where there's not a top-tier [business] education within driving distance."

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