Digital Degrees

As technology transforms the style, sub-
stance and business of higher education, many are predicting the virtual university is just around the corner.
Local evidence is mounting that our academic institutions are positioning themselves for the world of cyber learning.
The University of Auckland recently launched itself as an e-university by becoming part of Universitas 21, global association of l8 universities in 10 countries. This will enable students around the world to swap lecture halls for television, satellite or the Internet.
And not to be left behind, the Auckland University of Technology has also signed up with about dozen universities worldwide to offer another distance learning programme – which it hopes to launch in October.
One of the immediate impacts of technology for MBA courses is competition.
“Competition will increase quite dramatically with the evolution of e-delivery,” says University of Waikato MBA director Ed Weymes. He points to the formation of virtual universities like Cardean, new partnership of Columbia Business School, the University of Chicago, Stamford University, and London School of Economics.
This is probably the tip of the academic iceberg, which means access to MBA courses will be lot easier for people.
With the branding that goes along with these international names, New Zealand people will have to balance the kudos of the prestigious brand on the web, versus the local knowledge that they’ll get from studying at local universities. “That’s going to be, I think, an interesting challenge.”
Does this mean New Zealand MBA courses will start looking around for prestigious overseas partnerships?
“Well, if you put that idea with another trend in New Zealand at the moment, that is the outflow of corporates which we’re seeing Ñ and I think it’s trend that will increase, Ñ it means that those of us who are involved in management education will have to think about what happens with senior management no longer based here, and when decisions are made outside New Zealand whether it’s Australia, or the west coast of the United States or Singapore. So, yes I think it’s up to us to start looking at those partnerships and who we might link with.
“That’s the challenge we’re being faced with today. What we have here are the prestigious schools of the US and the UK joining forces in powerful way.
“In microsense the value chain has gone and we’ve got more of value web with its links having brand identity. That’s where we start to create appropriate niches in the market.
“As MBA providers we have to look carefully at where we extract value from that value web and what are the implications of linking all our brand identities together to create something very powerful and attract the top corporates.”

Weymes, however, does have some misgivings. “At the University of Waikato e-delivery will never replace the classroom because heaven forbid that we get to the virtual world where we sit at our monitors all day to teach and learn.”
But it will revolutionise the way they teach he believes.
“For instance it will effectively do away with the big l00-200 seat lecture theatres and one-way stuff we do in classrooms. And it will allow us to make better use of the classroom for discussing material and providing for local flavour.
“I think there’s still the opportunity for us to take the course material and provide strong local content.”
While there’s growing choice of MBAs globally for anyone who wants distance learning and individual study, Weymes is confident that the Kiwi courses will continue to remain attractive to locals.
Doing an offshore programme won’t necessarily provide local content which is important for local people, he believes.
“People want material that’s relevant to their environment. They say ?what’s the point, it’s not relevant’. So we take that material and relate it to our environment.
“That’s still one of the strengths of our courses.” Weymes, however, is not discounting that the writing might be on the wall for some universities to look at alliances.
Waikato University also teaches an MBA programme out of the Fletcher Challenge conference centre in Auckland.
Manukau Institute of Technology’s MBA is totally online, and is joint venture with the Australian-based Southern Cross University.
The course started two years ago, and MBA director Andy Godfrey says students are attracted by its international aspect and the flexibility it offers.
“There are so many time pressures on people today, they want learning that fits in with their lifestyle,” says Godfrey.
“So the kind of supported learning we provide fits in with their work life and their family life and the time pressures that they have to juggle. With most students living around the two hour away mark, it’s not such long drive for the monthly weekend workshops.
“In between that, the supported distance learning programme offers teleconferencing, and of course everyone is linked to email.”
Flexibility is the key, and then there’s the international aspect of students who move between here and Sydney.
“They’re delighted because they can transfer their studies Ñ whether it’s in Hong Kong or Australia, they can still do the course online.”
Managing the teaching side of online delivery has its own challenges. “You do have to watch few things, for instance, you have to be careful not to push unnecessary material out to students where all you’re doing is simply transferring the cost Ñ ie students have to print it out, and they end up paying for lot of stuff online. You always have to watch that the learning is as interactive as it can be.”
Although students are online, those who live reasonably close are encouraged to form their own study or support groups Ñ however it’s not mandatory Ñ “that’s the way they like it, we encourage them to network, but don’t force them into groups.
“One of the biggest tools for us is email Ñ we have 130 students in the current MBA cohort and everyone has email.
“So in terms of going online, email communication is extremely important. However, as everyone knows, the danger of email today is being blitzed by volume.
“We try and control it because we’ve had lot of comments from people saying they don’t want 58 emails, but emails do fit in with student life style Ñ to optimise their time.”

Increasing global demand
One of the specialists in distance learning is Henley Management College which is based in the UK.
Professor Ray Wild, the principal, says the demand for MBA education is increasing Ñ especially in the developing countries.
“There’s significant growth in particular parts of the world, especially the developing world where business is growing and the competitive situation is increasing,” he says.
“The most recent and vivid example is in South Africa where four to five years ago there were three MBA programmes and now there are 42. You could say there’s now an over provision,” he adds.
“With economic growth, industrialisation and particularly internationalisation there’s huge demand for executive education,” he says.
Besides that, it is well-documented that there are shortages of top executives he says, pointing to recent European survey of recruitment consultants, which highlighted the situation.
“They’re having great trouble finding managers for the ?new economy’, and management consultants are desperate to find consultants. So there’s lot of evidence that this business will grow.”

Strategic alliances
Henley already operates in over 30 countries around the world through series of joint ventures and partnerships.
It’s this aspect that is the most challenging, Wild says.
“Running our programmes locally in 30 countries worldwide, we’re dependent in most cases on some form of joint venture and strategic alliance, alth

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