Sharon Hodgson says demand for both Ivey Business School programmes is strong
Sharon Hodgson says demand for both Ivey Business School programmes is strong © Charlie Bibby/Financial Times

Technology, such as high-definition video walls, has transformed how business schools deliver many of their courses. For their part, most MBA students now expect to complete at least some of their course online. But as business education programmes capitalise on the digital revolution, the boundaries between executive and online MBAs are becoming blurred.

Both courses are MBAs so their core content is broadly similar, but the main difference between the two is where the teaching takes place. In the strictest sense, online MBAs are taught digitally wherever a student is based, while executive MBA (EMBA) students learn in person on campus.

Yet many of the more successful online MBAs, such as the global online MBA from London’s Imperial College Business School, include options for on-campus teaching and networking. Likewise, some executive MBA providers are blending in online options to offer students greater flexibility.

In some cases, whole classes, such as accountancy and mathematics, are available online for students to complete at their own pace.

This has not only created an identity clash for programmes but, in the competitive business education market, it also raises the question of whether courses will cannibalise each other, splitting demand from students across multiple, similar courses often offered by the same institution.

This year, Western University’s Ivey Business School launched a 12-month accelerated MBA, a part-time, part-online course where teaching is through online and in-person classes. The format is similar to Ivey’s EMBA programme: students on the accelerated course attend classes three days a month at Ivey’s classrooms in central Toronto, spend a week at Ivey’s campus in London, Ontario, and go on an overseas study trip.

Indeed, one of the main differences between the courses is the proportion of online teaching. Just 40 per cent of the accelerated course is delivered digitally, enabling students to work at their own pace, whereas the EMBA has no online elements.

The first cohort for the accelerated MBA will start in January, and the school says it has received hundreds of applications. But there is no sign yet of cannibalisation of EMBA demand, according to Sharon Hodgson, Ivey’s dean. “So far, our new programme recruitment [for the accelerated MBA] is strong and each cohort of our EMBA programme continues to be wait-listed,” she says. She suggests this is because the courses appeal to students at different stages in their careers. “Ivey’s EMBA is a great fit for maximising impact at the senior leadership stage, having an average of 15 years’ experience, while Ivey’s new accelerated MBA is a great fit for career acceleration, earlier in the leadership journey.”

Imperial College Business School’s online MBA has on-campus options
Imperial College Business School’s online MBA has on-campus options

The Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales in Sydney launched MBAX, a part-time online degree, in 2015. This runs alongside an established EMBA programme, which makes use of online teaching for core and elective courses if the students opt to study that way.

While there is a “very strong overlap” between the two programmes, according to Nick Wailes, AGSM deputy dean, he says the courses offer different opportunities for learning. “For those looking for a broad generalist programme and who enjoy the strong cohort experience [meeting face to face with other students], the EMBA works well, whereas the MBAX aims to couple the breadth of an MBA with the ability to specialise in a particular area such as technology, change, finance and social impact.”

Unlike Ivey’s students, the EMBA and MBAX cohorts are demographically similar. The average age of both is 37 with an average professional experience of at least 10 years. The MBAX is more diverse, however: the percentage of women enrolled on it is much higher, at 44 per cent versus 36 per cent on the EMBA. Furthermore, the EMBA intake is almost entirely from Australia, while the MBAX’s online format draws in students from around the world.

Wailes thinks the two courses therefore complement one another, even strengthening the case for coming to AGSM as students sometimes start in one programme before transitioning to another. “Essentially, we want to give students choice and the ability to match the programme to their needs,” he says.

Having both programmes also encourages a wider range of people to obtain a business education because there is greater choice. The biggest change occurring on EMBA courses, according to Wailes, is the growth in enrolment of entrepreneurs and small business owners, rather than executives in large established companies. “This increased diversity is a huge asset to in-class discussions and the overall learning experience,” he says, noting that the core of any MBA is the wealth of debate between students on case studies and management challenges.

Andrew Crisp, founder of London-based education research company CarringtonCrisp, sees no reason why online MBAs would subsume their executive counterparts at the moment. “If there is relatively little time on campus, an EMBA can be attractive to students wherever they come from, as they are prepared to travel for three- or four one-week blocks of study on a particular campus,” Crisp says. If an EMBA includes study at multiple locations, this may be even more attractive, he adds, as a student can spend those three- or four-week blocks in different parts of the world and gain added value from face-to-face study time.

There is also a local or regional market in many parts of the world where weekend or even evening study on campus is attractive, says Crisp. “Whether that decline as online learning technologies improve further remains to be seen,” he adds.

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp © Anna Gordon/Financial Times

Hodgson, a former senior executive at IBM, believes not only that EMBAs and online MBAs can coexist but that the ability of technology to enable more types of part-time MBA programmes can expand the business education market as a whole. It is becoming increasingly difficult for professionals to leave work to pursue a full-time MBA, she adds. “Because of the flexibility that an online component affords, we expect it will expand the accessibility of the MBA and broaden candidate appeal, both from a demographic and a geographic perspective.”

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