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MBA applications: Join the classroom that never closes

The Telegraph
Juggling a career with mba study is no mean feat, but distance learning can help, says Helena Pozniak


Mobile technology has transformed learning. But while it’s easier than ever to combine face-to-face teaching with online study, this type of blended learning is no easy option. Students often continue in full-time executive roles while grappling with the weighty demands of a masters curriculum during evenings and weekends.

“Distance and blended learning is really only appropriate for experienced business professionals,” says Alick Kitchin, joint head of school at Edinburgh Business School (EBS), Heriot-Watt University, which is the largest provider of online MBAs in the world.

Like many distance and blended learning providers, EBS caters for mature students — the average age is 34. Younger candidates might lack the experience to put their learning in context, explains Kitchin.

But his students don’t battle alone; many debate with peers and question tutors online. Some attend intensive courses on campus in Edinburgh or Dubai. About half of them choose to join classes led by one of EBS’s 30 international partners, and some opt to study entirely alone.

The benefit of juggling a career and an MBA is that one complements the other.

“In a blended/distance-learning environment, students can put into practice what they are learning in their day jobs with immediate effect,” explains Kitchin. “This adds value but crucially makes the learning real and effective.”

Major Mike James, 37, is halfway through his MBA at Henley Business School and plans to complete it in 2015. Shortly after beginning the programme he was deployed by the Army to Afghanistan and returned this year.

“It was hard when I was deployed to Afghanistan with six weeks’ notice — I’d had a set routine in the UK and needed to start all over again. Out there the days are long; you work seven days a week and I could only study late when the temperature cooled.

"My biggest problem was trying to find somewhere quiet in the heat where I could put a wet towel around my head and concentrate without the interruption of helicopters, emails or phone calls.

“Most of the time I studied in a tent that was tucked away. Internet access classified ‘unrestricted’ was limited and downloads were slow, so I had to work around that. I learned the importance of good time management early on — that’s critical.

“My peer group is exceptional and varied, comprising all types of consultants and senior managers from the public and private sectors, as well as current and former members of the Armed Forces. They are my first point of contact if I have a question, and they’re of a standard I can learn from. We meet online regularly, and occasionally face to face — it’s empowering.

“It had long been my plan to do an MBA, and studying this way is affordable. Before starting you need to look at your personal and financial support, your ability and, crucially, the time you have available. You need to plan; it’s a massive investment in yourself. But I’ve ideas for a second career that wouldn’t have occurred to me before I began my MBA.”

Irene Bader, 35, completed an MBA with the Open University (OU) in 2011. Six months before finishing she was promoted to become first female general manager of Japanese machine tool company DMG Mori Seiki.

“You can’t plan three years in advance and I wasn’t going to turn down promotion even though I was studying. I was based in Munich and travelling a lot to Japan and Asia, so I studied on planes and in hotels. I needed flexibility and a business school with good accreditation — the OU fitted the bill.

“With this kind of study self-discipline is critical but I found you can’t plan too much in advance; you don’t know what you’ll be doing. All the resources are online, which makes it easy — all you need is an iPad when you’re travelling. Study does get more intense around exam time and you need to allow for that.

"The most difficult thing was to find a balance between work, study and private life, and I think my private life lost out.

“It’s really good to meet your peers. I attended [OU] centres in Munich and Frankfurt and I used the online forums to exchange questions with students and tutors so I never felt alone. The personal bonds weren’t the same as if I’d studied on campus but there was always someone to ask.

“It’s definitely given me a more holistic approach to business. I think you have to accept that it’s not possible to give everything 100 per cent — you have to be flexible and, sometimes, just get it done.”

Alan Marshall, 35, group managing editor at the Press Association, studied for an MBA with the Open University from 2007 to 2012. During that time he completed a work secondment in India.

“This was my first return to study since 1999 and it took a while to get up to speed — my study routine was inefficient at first. The start of my course coincided with going to India and I began to realise the benefits of distance learning.

"Even in a different time zone I was able to connect with the other students and get support from my tutor.

“Back in the UK it was harder to balance office and study workloads. Probably most difficult was doubling up courses to complete my MBA ahead of the London Olympics, at which I was scheduled to be working.

"Something that helped me was operating in study “sprints” — I realised I couldn’t work and study 100 per cent of the time, so I factored in a weekend off or a lighter reading schedule for a whole week. This helped me to stay motivated; there’s nothing worse than setting a schedule that even a full-time student couldn’t stick to.

“My course involved regular debates with other OU students and these really helped to cement understanding. Tutor groups are great when preparing for exams, from sharing revision tips to moral support.

"Tutors played a crucial role in adding layers of understanding and stimulating discussion in the forums. Until I began, I hadn’t appreciated how work and study in parallel flowed into each other — with real-world projects informing many of the course assignments.”

Wei Wei Weber-Tan, 40, studied in five different countries while taking her MBA with Edinburgh Business School between 2009 and 2013. Currently based in the Netherlands, she plans to move to Dubai in January 2014.

“I began studying when I was posted to Shanghai, but work meant I had to defer study a couple of times. I could plan in advance when to take an exam as the school schedules them in more than 400 centres around the world; the only time I missed one was due to a German train strike.

“I worked weekends but often I was too exhausted to study in the evenings. But when exams come around, no matter how tired you are you must dedicate time. The school offers all kinds of online interaction with peers and tutors, but, ultimately, he study is up to you. I didn’t take advantage of the chance to meet other students, but I did see them at exam time.

“The hardest thing was juggling work, travel and study. I quit my job when my husband moved to the Netherlands and then I could study full time. That was much more efficient; I salute those who juggle family and working life. My husband has been supportive — he’s done an MBA himself so knows how demanding it can be.

“I have a scientific background, and found certain areas challenging, so I would sometimes ask my colleagues to help explain. With the combination of course tutors, peers and colleagues, you can usually work things out.

"Some people jump into an MBA, but you have to know how you are going to manage your time, and a great deal depends on your support network.”

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