The Economist has awarded Spain’s IE Business School a silver medal for its long- distance educational programs, which have been given online for 10 years. In 2001, when IE granted its first online MBA, the International Executive MBA, the quality of this degree was “as good as or better than the Executive MBA that we already grant at the IE,” says Gamaliel Martínez, executive director of the International Executive MBA program, adding that “We are going to continue to work toward improving the quality of our programs, both online and face-to-face.”


At the time it was launched, online education meant translating long-distance concepts and methodologies for the electronic environment. Although this quickly won over people, the teaching methods used online were the same methods as used elsewhere. “For example, during the 1980s, they considered it progress to record real or simulated classes so that students could later view them,” says Martínez. Beginning at the end of the 1990s, a participatory teaching method, including the utilization of the case method in an online format, was introduced.


IE’s Global MBA program currently uses forums that discuss case studies as well as videoconferences in which professors and students participate. “The next step in the process is to use virtual environments,” says Martínez. The school also has a large team of people who specialize in developing multimedia materials that “support the content of the classes, such as case studies and simulations. These materials are used in both face-to-face offline classes and online classes, and they are widely accepted by both students and professors.” Nowadays, it is possible, for example, to discuss a case study with students who are simultaneously located in four or five continents, “without suffering any appreciable communication problems.”


Despite the way online training has evolved, it’s apparent that using new technologies for educational purposes is not well-regarded in Spain. That’s the gist of the Report on Educational Technology 2004-2005, and the 2000 Report of CRUE (The Conference of Spanish University Officials). In 2004, 2.3% of all professors viewed the Internet as a “waste of time.” Only 50.57% valued the Internet as an indispensable resource; the rest saw it as helpful but not as a true resource.


“What’s more worrisome for me is that only one half of them view the Internet as an indispensable resource,” says Martínez. Traditionally, classes in Spanish universities are organized as “master classes, with sessions of exercises and problems that lead to a final examination.” In this paradigm, the Internet winds up basically interrupting the “normal development of classes.”


The main advantage of online education is that it permits the participation of students who would otherwise be unable to take part in a high-quality program because of their geographic location. “This includes some students who travel a great deal, so they cannot accommodate themselves to a rigid program that obliges them to attend classes frequently. On the other hand, online students enjoy that liberty, and in our online classes many of the professors live outside Spain and are traveling,” notes Martínez.


The Student Perspective


Italian-born Marco Marinucci took an online IE course, which he says “is an experience that keeps you busy, literally day and night. At the same time, it educates you not only because of its content but through its processes.” The fact that you are working at the same time with a group of people who are not only professionals like you but who are also racing against time “introduces you to new situations,” he adds.


He sees both tangible and intangible results. Among the tangible results, Marinucci stresses the content of the courses. “I was educated as an engineer. During 12 years of professional activity before I had my MBA, I had confronted challenges involving business planning and finance but I felt that I lacked formal training in those areas.” Although he cannot say that he has all the answers he needs for his career, “at least I am aware of what I know and of what I still need to know. [That gives me] the “confidence to know that the professional options in my career are all open now. I only have to choose.”


Marinucci cites two less tangible results. “First, there is the network of former students, my co-students in the courses, whom I respect deeply from a personal and professional viewpoint. And there is the discipline. During the course, you scratch around every second to find enough time to spend on both your professional activities and your family. Once you have finished the course, it seems as if you have a whole lot of time in your life to devote to other things,” he says. Ultimately, Marinucci created a non-profit organization which helps new European companies establish financial and strategic partnerships with Silicon Valley.


Paradoxically, people usually think that isolation is a barrier. However, “in our online formats we have discovered that the ties of friendship that are built among online students are greater than [those that exist] in face-to-face programs,” notes Martínez. Online students tend to be very demanding. And people who make such demands on themselves make more demands on the program than do ordinary students.”


Marinucci wanted to work at the same time that he was doing his long-distance program. “I really liked the international focus [of my job],” he said. In fact, it was based in Europe and in Spain. But Marinucci was also aware that he wanted to find another job. “At the very end of the first semester of the class, I joined Google in California. It has been a great educational experience to begin a new job of this sort while you are studying every night,” he adds. Since he has always had to travel a great deal during his career, his only viable option was “to take the school with me on all my trips.” He ended up living two parallel lives full-time. “One was as a professional and the other was as a student. You have to be clear about the fact that the two aspects of your life are going to totally conflict; your social life and your dreams [of a career]. You have to tell your friends, ‘We’ll see each other again in 13 months.’ I learned how to sleep no more than five hours a night.”


For his part, Thierry Amarger decided to study for an MBA when he was working in São Paulo, Brazil, on an international assignment. “I was traveling a lot to Europe, and around South America,” says Amarger. He looked at various factors when he went searching for an MBA program. “The program needed to be for just half a day, so I could continue my professional life and manage the frequent trips I was making, and also take care of my family life,” he notes. In addition, it had to be a flexible program that permitted him “to relocate my studies.” Above all, it had to be part of an international university ranked among the top 10 in the world for executive education.


“This program enables people to meet several times during the week and make comments. These comments are frequently strengthened by students’ own experiences and by research made earlier on the Internet about a specific topic,” he points out. Amarger says he was astonished by the way these kinds of programs could create lasting friendships. ”The communication is intense, and it is facilitated by such technology as videoconferences, video calls, chat sessions and e-mail. All these things create solidarity and team spirit.” He also believes that, because of the nature of the program, those classes that are actually attended by students in person are “extremely intense” and are probably even more rewarding than in a traditional executive MBA program.


Amarger currently works for Nokia, where he manages the company’s account with the Telefónica group in Latin America. Among other things, his online MBA has enabled him to gain a much deeper understanding of the way corporations function.


More Online Education


IE is in the process of perfecting participatory methods of online learning. “When it comes to technology, we use forums, video conferences and chat rooms; the top tools that are within the reach of almost everyone. However, when it comes to content, it has taken us years to reach this point,” says Martínez.   Using multimedia materials enables them to incorporate information that “we would not be able to provide on paper, such as interviews, film clips and simulations… This is very probably the most advanced kind of content now, and it really is used.”


The next step will be “using virtual reality environments, which is something we’re already working on. For the moment, they are viewed more as games than as teaching environments but people are demonstrating that these tools have enormous possibilities for online teaching. There’s still a long way to go. This is a very young discipline, and we are learning from both our work and by using our intuition,” says Martínez.


Deep Growth


In many cases, online programs have the advantage of adding to the student’s own experience, and permitting him or her to put into practice the knowledge acquired from the very first moment. Many companies are aware of that fact, and highly value it. “We’ve been just as successful building skills in our courses as they do in traditional classes,” says Martínez. This sector is experiencing strong growth but people need to realize that they need to make a sizable investment in it [for it to work]. That’s because online teaching has to be “entertaining,” just like face-to-face teaching. Companies that implement online courses need to provide the necessary support for their students so that “they don’t feel abandoned — as if they have no one to share their knowledge with.” This can be done through forums, chat and so forth.


The average online MBA student is a lot like the student who takes a conventional executive MBA course. However, they are often people who also have jobs that have “a strong international component.” In many cases, they are “people who cannot – or could not – put their careers on pause for a year so that they could get a conventional MBA,” adds Martínez. One fact that makes this clear: In one particular class, about 80% of the students were expatriates.


Nowadays, Marinucci works at Google in what is known as ‘strategic partnership development’ in the area of ‘content acquisition.’ “It is a very strategic activity because these projects can change an entire industry.” His day-to-day focus is on being “an agent who supports change and educates markets in 22 countries,” he adds. “We live in a world where geographical distance is becoming less and less important. This is at the heart of the [online MBA] program.” Asked to rate his program on a scale of 1 to 10, he gives a grade of “outstanding,” but also adds: “I believe there is always room to improve. Perhaps that’s an approach that I learned at Google.”