Learning without frontiers

An
American MBA programme currently running in Germany has been taken up by
students from 20 other countries. Simon Kent flew out to Frankfurt’s Duke
University in search of the true meaning of international business education

The
challenge of managing an international organisation is not simply one of scale.
Dealing with problems and issues within a local territory can be hard enough,
but barriers such as language, time difference and cultural practice complicate
matters further.

As
a result of these pressures, the internationally minded manager now has an
increasing number of options for MBA programmes that not only offer skills to
operate in the market place, but provide experience of communicating in the
global business world as part of the learning process.

Duke,
the Fuqua School of Business, now offers a Cross-Continent MBA, which provides
a combination of real and virtual campus environments for its international
students.

Introduced
in November 2000, the course currently has 101 students from over a dozen
countries on the 20-month programme of study. Split between the European campus
just outside Frankfurt Airport in Germany and the US campus in Durham, North
Carolina, students learn through intensive face-to-face tutorial sessions and a
permanent web link, which offers a means of communication between student and
tutor, a discussion platform for the students themselves and access to the
school’s extensive online library.

According
to Professor Thomas Keller, Dean of Duke, the creation of the programme was a
direct response to student demand in terms of study time as much as it was a
result of international skills need or even the capabilities of technology
supported learning. “We perceived there was a need for people who had started
their careers and wanted to study for an MBA but did not want to leave their
job to do a full time course,” Keller says.

“We
were offering that possibility to some extent through a weekend-delivered
programme at the Durham campus, but the course needed to have a broader
geographical reach.”

Duke
was approached by many organisations across Germany and Eastern Europe that
felt they could benefit from an American-style MBA programme, but found
extended residential study in the US an insurmountable obstacle. “We decided
that by creating a ‘study place in space’, we could meet these demands,” says
Keller.

The
programme has not done away with travel altogether. Indeed, crucial to the
programme is an intensive residential week at one of the schools’ campuses at
the start of each of the eight terms. By positioning the session here, the
students can be introduced to the term’s topic, to the learning methods used
and meet their fellow students.

Certainly
the students on the first European programme, meeting in Frankfurt in January
for a week-long series of intensive tutorials and seminars on finance and
statistics, have found the combination of Internet and face-to-face learning
extremely effective. Aged between 28 and 35, these are Internet-literate
managers who have no problem sharing experience and knowledge over bulletin
boards or following discussions through emails.

In
general it appears that the approach actually brings the learning experience
closer to working life. Since the students are able to continue in their
organisations while taking the course, the transfer of learning to the
workplace is immediate.

“Many
of the students are engaged with doing business across the Internet with
colleagues whom they have never met,” notes Professor Keller. “Because they
meet their fellow students, the teaching environment we offer is sometimes
actually more intimate and connected than their working lives.”

At
the same time, however, there is no getting away from the fact that carrying
out both learning and work responsibilities at the same time is extremely
challenging in terms of time management.

“We
do have to spoon-feed the students to some extent,” admits Dr Ernst Maug, a
guest professor at Duke from the Department of Economics and Business
Administration, Humboldt University, Berlin.

“There
is a lot of material to be dealt with during the course and I have to give some
structure to that learning and direct students to particular sources.”

While
Maug’s direction can help to motivate students who may otherwise be daunted by
the prospect of working through a 1,000-page text book in their own time, all
those connected with the school emphasise the need for self-motivation,
discipline and time management skills among the students.

However,
this does not appear to be a problem. “The workload may be hard, but this
qualification is extremely important,” said one student.

“Hopefully
it means we will be ready and able to make the important decisions at the top
of our organisations in the future.”

Duke
is not the only supplier of internationally focused MBAs. Cranfield School of
Management has recently designed a Modular MBA which begins in July this year
similarly combining intensive campus based modules with in-company work and
remote learning.

As
with Duke, students are issued with a dedicated laptop computer on which to
learn and which will keep the student connected with faculty, tutor and fellow
students at any time and anywhere.

Sri
Srikanthan, the Modular MBA’s director notes, “The new programme is designed to
make utmost effectiveness of a combination of learning methods, in a structure
that fits with the most demanding lifestyle of an international manager, but
without compromising the quality of a Cranfield MBA.”

At
the same time, Manchester Business School, together with the Institute of
Financial Management at the University of Wales in Bangor, has developed an MBA
for financial specialists that offers twice-yearly residential workshop
sessions alongside distance learning supported through email, fax and phone
contact.

Prof
Keller believes that the use of technology in delivering education at this
level will certainly grow over the next few years as bandwidth issues become
less important and electronic communication develops further.

However,
he does not see this heralding the end of residential courses altogether.
“There will always be a place for the full-time residential programme as well
as distance learning, because each delivery method addresses a different need
among managers,” he says.

“Technology
use is simply making the education environment richer so managers have more
choice in how they learn,” Keller says.

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