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It's a common scenario taught at business schools: A company gets successful then loses its innovative edge and gets overtaken by new pretenders with fresh ideas and little to lose. Think Kodak, Motorola and Yahoo.

Now it seems business schools are paying attention to their own lessons, as a number of prestigious ones are moving to deal with challenges posed by a new generation of innovators in their own backyard. And the location of this new battlefield? Online.

Once the poor relation of the campus-based equivalent, specialist online universities are one of the success stories of business education as more and more students choose to pursue a distance MBA from the comfort of their home, or the window seat of a plane. The University of Phoenix now boasts over 455,000 students around the globe, while home-grown options such as Athabasca University's online Executive MBA are among the largest in the country.

Until now, professionals in isolated parts of the country who still wanted to acquire an MBA of genuinely international stature, have faced a frustrating lack of choice. However, a new breed of MBA programs from prestigious business schools are now entering the market, applying stricter entrance criteria and using a blended methodology of face-to-face learning and online modules. They allow Canadian executives to study where they want, when they want, and to receive a degree of equal standing to the full-time variety.

The Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, for instance, is a top-ranked school that took the plunge with the launch this year of MBA@UNC, using technology to provide 24/7 access to interactive course content, face-to-face sessions with professors in an online classroom, and weekend residencies. The online curriculum is based on the curriculum delivered in UNC Kenan-Flagler's other MBA programs, and designed to prepare students to lead at the next levels of their career.

One of Europe's leading business schools, Madrid-based IE, has partnered with Brown University in the U.S. to offer an Executive MBA that combines management studies with the liberal arts, and gives students a deeper knowledge of the global business environment. Admission to this online program, which launches in March, 2011, is highly selective, focusing on applicants with strong leadership potential and an average of 10 years' work experience. The 15-month program includes 7-week-long residencies in Rhode Island and Madrid, with online program components that allow participants from anywhere in the world and with any working timetable or travelling requirements to attend.

In addition to online forum discussions, participants work with a variety of digital distance learning tools, from video conferencing and instant messenger to online documents and VOIP, to overcome geographical and time constraints. Perhaps surprisingly, the schools feel that this virtual connectedness builds stronger communities among students, professors, and program staff than in most face-to-face programs.

For IE's Professor Pablo Martin de Holan, himself a Canadian citizen and formerly at McGill University, the program will teach students how to see the world in a different way. "The idea here is that we're going to teach you something that will allow you to reinvent yourself all the time, to rediscover yourself and, in so doing, it will teach you how to change your world."

The wider perspectives that Brown University brings to the Executive MBA - drawing from the humanities, social sciences, engineering and life sciences - is likely to resonate with Canadians. Ontario has one of the school's largest alumni populations, reflecting the region's liberal business mindset and commitment to issues of social and environmental sustainability on an international level.

It was the desire to gain a global business perspective and learn how different cultures interact that convinced Ottawa-based Shawn Griffin to apply to the OneMBA program, a partnership of five leading business schools from four continents - Asia's Chinese University of Hong Kong, Europe's Rotterdam School of Management, Latin America's Fundacao Getulio Vargas, and North America's Tecnologico de Monterrey EGADE and University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler.

Following a career in hi-tech with Nortel and Mitel that included doing business in Europe, Mr. Griffin looked at Canadian MBA programs to help his consultancy venture, Odyssey 57. But the promise of a daily online learning platform from his home in Canada mixed with study modules in Mexico, Brazil, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, convinced him that he had far more to gain from the insider view of local business environments.

"The international nature of the course made the difference," he explains. "I get to see different attitudes to time, the importance of profit, individual accountability; things that all matter if you are dealing with different cultures. It is the failure to understand such things that leads to conflict, and, in my case, I'm actually living it."

To co-ordinate a global class of 100 students in different time zones, OneMBA relies on a virtual learning platform that includes tools such as Skype and Blackboard, a software that provides a Google Groups-type experience. "The biggest issue we deal with is time zones. You need good technology to co-ordinate conference calls or have an asynchronous conversation with fellow students in Asia. You can see who is online and have a quick exchange as if you were in a virtual hallway. And I can bring my own business challenges into the international arena and then immediately apply the knowledge and perspective of others to my daily work."

The program costs $45,000 (U.S.) in Mexico and $96,000 in the U.S., which does not come cheap when compared with specialist online universities. Mr. Griffin is taking the Mexico program, and knows that, at the end of the program, he will have an internationally accredited degree and an enviable network of global managers that will last throughout his career. Not a bad outcome from the comfort of his armchair.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's note: This is a corrected version of the story, which has the corrected spelling of IE's Professor Pablo Martin de Holan. The spelling of Shawn Griffin's name has also been corrected.