The market for online business courses is booming, says Tony Tysome, but the best maintain the personal touch.
When students enrol on Warwick University Business School's 15-year-old distance-learning MBA, they would do well to invest in a larger and sturdier letterbox.
Their letterbox will have to cope with 20kg of printed learning material during the course. Multiply that by 1,800 students on the programme, and the result is 36 tonnes of printed notes and information thudding onto doormats in 80 countries across the world.
Given the expenditure and inconvenience this involves, it would not be surprising to find the school's heads exclaiming: "Thank God for e-learning!" The worldwide web is capable of delivering more learning material than you can fit in a conventional library, at a very low cost. Add to this Warwick's decision to launch an online course in e-business for its distance MBA students from March next year, and it might seem the days of studying from printed text are numbered.
Not so, says Ray Irving, assistant manager for learning resources development at the school. Warwick's venture into the burgeoning e-MBA market is no more likely to result in paperless learning than the e-business revolution was to bring about the paperless office, he says.
"We will never get away from printed text delivery - nor would we want to since it is still the ultimate delivery mechanism."
A similar outlook is beginning to emerge among other prestigious UK business schools on other aspects of learning, as they respond to the dotcom/e-business/e-MBA hype fuelling growth in business education worldwide. Many are rejecting the idea that online learning is an acceptable substitute for more traditional teaching methods and face-to-face contact.
Instead, recruitment campaigns are being built around the message that high-quality teaching, learning materials and support are what really count, and that the internet is simply a tool that enhances these by offering superior communication, access to information and flexibility. A business student might make a worthwhile dissertation out of studying the array of "unique selling propositions" dreamed up by schools competing for a slice of this market for online learning with traditional values.
Warwick Business School lays claim to the quality turf on the grounds that its use of online learning will never mean reducing the amount of face-to-face contact with tutors and other students, or expanding the course much beyond current levels.
Stuart Sutherland, project officer for learning resources development at the school, says: "There has been a great deal of talk about online MBAs, but I don't think it would satisfy the students if you said all the learning material was coming down the pipes. Even though you can hear your tutor over the web, we are not going to tinker with the amount of face-to-face time."
Warwick's treatment of e-learning gives students what they want, he says - the chance to work with students from across the globe, allowing for international comparisons to be made and for students to receive peer as well as tutor support on tap.
"Rather than the course being a fixed body of knowledge, it's more a case of getting the world's managers to talk about the issues as they impact upon experience.
"We are using the technology to give people what they need, which is feedback and reassurance. If someone sends us an essay, they can have it marked in four hours. It has revolutionised the way things are handled."
The business school chiefs at Warwick may feel confident about the popularity of their programme, but there is also a sense of paranoia that other big names out there might be trying to carve out a piece of the same action. Each school is seeking an approach to e-learning that it can claim as its own.
Yet, inevitably, much of the marketing is about spinning a reinvented wheel.
Sutherland comments: "The whole thing has become skewed by other people's marketing and the kind of press others are able to generate. Most of them are just putting an 'e' in front of a course title. It's a PR war."
Entering the fray with its own e-MBA next year is Cambridge University's Judge Institute of Management. The institute proudly proclaims that the content of this programme, starting in July 2001, is the same as that of its full-time MBA. It is a two-year course with four modules of six months each, starting with two or three-week residentials. So what is different about it? The answer, from e-MBA programme director Stefan Scholtes, sounds familiar.
He says: "Our approach is different. We do not see the virtue of the internet as being access to a database, but as a communication device. One of the things we need to do when we teach an MBA is to engage people.
"Because they may know more than the teachers do, you have to get them to debate. All you are doing is moderating that debate. That is not possible with the more traditional distance-learning style, which is more isolated."
The Judge Institute has teamed up with FT Knowledge to achieve the technical expertise needed to build the communication systems and database to run the programme. It plans to train staff as "learning advisers" to coordinate "virtual" teams of students who will conduct their research and debate their findings on the web.
Paul Quintas, professor of knowledge management at the Open Business School, finds nothing unique in any of the newcomers' offerings. He says:
"All our students use online facilities to keep in touch with tutors and other students, and we have been doing that for about ten years. That is part of our main distance-learning programme, which is still heavily text-based, as well as providing face-to-face sessions. In the main, the internet provides another line of communication, as well as the ability to download materials and assignments.
"There are various pedagogical models around now underpinning this: anything from just using the resources on the web to a more supportive approach. I think the key thing with distance learning is the amount of support students get. That can mean the difference between completion rates of next to nothing, to much higher ones like ours, at 90 per cent," says Quintas The Open Business School has added "virtual tutorials" to its repertoire, using video-conferencing to re-create face-to-face tutorials and seminars online. The fact that students are using e-facilities is also built into the content of the programme. Under a section called "managing knowledge", they are encouraged to think about how managers validate and use information on the web, and how they should manage their time to cope with the flood of data arriving from the internet.
Despite all the technical backup available, Quintas says, students who invest in their own business education still want to buy brand names. This is why web-based programme providers have an uphill task to build their reputation.
Scholtes agrees, but the worry for the established names is that the popularity of e-learning courses could threaten existing conventional full-time programmes. This could mean institutions building marketing campaigns designed not only to tackle the opposition, but also to prevent scoring an own goal.
"We have had a high level of interest in our e-MBA, from students and companies," Scholtes says. "But we are worried that too much interest could lead to cannibalisation of our full-time MBA. We may have to market the e-MBA more to companies than students to prevent that from happening."