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Going the distance to get an MBA Add to ...

Her graduation from an Executive MBA last June was a momentous occasion for Nicola Raycraft. It was the first time she'd met many of the students she'd been studying with and professors she'd been taught by for almost three years.

Ms. Raycraft is among the newest graduates of the online EMBA at Athabasca University, the most established and largest in its field but one of a growing number of distance offerings at the MBA level in Canada and around the world. She and other advocates of the courses say they are flexible and accessible yet ultimately more demanding than traditional face-to-face versions. They also come at a cheaper price and can bring students farther ahead technologically and organizationally.

"I got more out of learning online than in a classroom," says Ms. Raycraft, 42. But it was all-consuming, requiring tremendous balance between studies, work and family. Still, it got her an executive position in her field of chain supply management.

"It spoke to the executive within me," said Ms. Raycraft, the director of procurement for Jones Packaging Inc. in London, Ont., a company with 500 employees in Canada and Europe that makes packages for the pharmaceutical and confectionary industries.

The advantages and characteristics of online MBAs vary, much as those taught in classrooms. Athabasca's EMBA is taught over 2 1/2 to three years and is delivered in groups via Lotus Notes, with either one, two or three weeks of face-to-face contact for elective courses. Royal Roads University offers an 18-month full-out MBA taught online through a "threaded discussion platform", with two residencies at its campus in Victoria, each three weeks in length, at the beginning and end. Queen's University's three 16-month EMBAs are delivered by video conference on weekends, as well as three on-campus sessions in Kingston, Ont., and a web-based component. The University of Fredericton offers online MBAs (39 months) and EMBAs (27 months), including live classes and discussion forums.

Such courses share the fact that students can typically do them anywhere, keeping up with busy jobs and lives while studying alongside experienced professionals country-wide or even world-wide.

"The environment is so incredibly rich," says Deborah Hurst, the MBA program director at Athabasca University. Based in St. Albert, Alta., the program began in 1994 as the first online MBA in the world and currently has 900 students. "It's a direct marriage between theory and practice."

The biggest advantage of "distributed learning" is that students can study on their own time by participating in classes "asynchronously," she adds. Costs of most online programs are 1/3 to 1/2 of well-known MBA schools. The University of Fredericton EMBA costs $24,500 and the Athabasca one is $44,000.

Cost was one of Ms. Raycraft's many considerations when she decided to pursue an EMBA, with the goal of moving from middle management to the executive level. Most importantly, she found traditional courses unsuited to her specialty and too far away. "I needed the flexibility to work on my MBA at my schedule."

Working online requires constant time management, Ms. Raycraft says, "it forces you into a routine." A group of students from her area got together to study and socialize - "to talk about our non-lives" - and have stayed in touch as alumni since the program finished in March.

Nikki Tilley, 34, the CEO of Tilley Endurables Western, a family-run branch of the Tilley empire in Vancouver, decided to take her online MBA from Royal Roads because there were significant residencies, which bring students and faculty together and "add depth" to the distance learning. "These are people you're going to know for life," she says.

Testament to the flexibility of the program, which she is now finishing, is the fact that she has just had a baby girl and continues to help run the business, applying what she learned in her demanding 20 to 40 hours of study a week.

"You don't get a lot of downtime, you need to be motivated and driven," she warns. "It's all on you to get it done."

Steven Glover, an associate professor in the School of Business at Royal Roads, says that pure online learning blended with some in-class time actually results in better outcomes than what he calls the "YouTube university" model, where lectures are simply recorded and broadcast, or even a traditional face-to-face MBA.

Both Ms. Raycraft and Ms. Tilley looked for reputable, accredited programs out of concern that their online MBAs be recognized in the workplace - and especially among prospective employers down the road.

Ms. Tilley says distance courses mirror "the real world" and reflect the growing corporate culture. "With today's technology, entire businesses are run remotely," she explains. "People have a better understanding for how thorough a distance program can be."

A study by Athabasca University showed that students of its online EMBA enjoyed an average increase in salary of 37 per cent from the start of the program to its finish. Some 63 per cent of students said they received raises that could be at least partially attributed to the program.

Ms. Raycraft was hired in her new job at Jones Packaging, with a 28-per-cent increase in pay, after obtaining her Athabasca MBA. She says her new boss, who has a traditional classroom MBA, had no problem with the fact that hers came online. And now that she's comfortable with working remotely, she has continued to apply the routines in her new position. "I'm a better multi-tasker, I execute a little quicker, I don't procrastinate," she explains.

Even though she didn't meet most of her classmates and teachers until graduating, she felt their presence and support every step of the way, she adds. "It's like a family."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Is an online MBA right for you? And your career?

Considering an online MBA or EMBA? Some points to keep in mind to see if it's right for you - and your future job or promotion prospects:

• Is the institution reputable, recognizable and accredited by a well-known accrediting agency? The options out there range from online courses given by traditional universities to pure "degree mills".

• Are you at or approaching an executive level? Online MBAs are oriented more toward people who can apply their own experiences to - and instantly benefit from - the teachings.

• Is there a residential component involved that fits your lifestyle, schedule and budget? A face-to-face element can be good for learning and bonding, but it requires time and commitment.

• you have the study habits and organizational skills to work independently? You can work full time, travel and get on with your life, but online programs are demanding, so motivation and self-direction are critical.

• Have you got at least 20 to 30 hours or more per week to devote to your studies? The time requirement is significant, and regular participation in discussions is even more of a must than in a classroom.

• Is there a thesis or applied project, and what kind is it? In-class MBAs often involve group projects and less rigorous independent work.

• Can you take the lead - or follow others - in extending contact with your cyberspace cohort? Just because you're not there, reach out to others. Some extra collegiality can help with studies and fosters that important life-long MBA networking.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story had an overly simplified explanation of an Athabasca University study about financial benefits of an online EMBA. This version of the story has been updated with a more precise explanation of the study.

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