It has never been easier to learn. While distance learning programmes are nothing new, advances in information technologies have made e-learning available to an unprecedented number of students.

The 2014 inaugural Financial Times ranking of online MBA programmes recognises that “online” offers a credible alternative to “residential”. Fifteen business schools from four countries are included in this ranking.

The FT ranking is based on two surveys of the business schools and their alumni who graduated in 2010. MBA programmes are assessed according to the career progression of their alumni, the school’s “idea generation” and the diversity of its students and faculty.

The ranking also includes two criteria specific to online programmes. Alumni were asked to rate how well their programme was delivered online and the level of interaction participants experienced with the academic staff.

Spain’s IE Business School takes the top spot of this new ranking with its “Global MBA Blended” programme. It came in third place for both the average salary of its alumni three years after graduation ($136,000) and the salary increase since graduation (42 per cent).

IE also took top spot for the international mobility of its participants and their international diversity.

Alumni were full of praise for their programme. Jorge Picon, a senior manager based in Canada, says: “Despite some prejudices about online programmes, it proved to be a great experience with a lot of interaction between colleagues and teachers, building strong relationships that are still active. The programme was also extremely demanding.”

However, career service was singled out as an area needing improvement.

The UK’s Warwick Business School and D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in the US complete the top podium. Centrum Católica from Peru comes in at number 15.

Compared with full-time MBAs, online MBAs offer flexibility and allow participants to fit the programme round work, family and social life.

However, “online” does not mean a quick and easy route to an MBA degree. It is recommended students study for a minimum of 15 to 20 hours a week on top of their full-time jobs.

As one graduate said: “The programme was challenging in terms of time management and was possible thanks to a flexible approach to learning and online resources”.

Selection for online and full-time students differs and the profile of participants varies significantly.

Online students are chosen primarily for their professional experience. They are expected to contribute to the programme and share their knowledge.

As a result, online students are more senior than full-time MBA students attending the top schools in the FT Global MBA rankings. One-third of online MBA respondents said they held senior manager or higher level positions before beginning their course, against 15 per cent of respondents to the FT MBA 2014 survey.

At 34, online MBA participants are about six years older when they begin than those on full-time campus-based MBAs.

Finally, online students come from a broader range of industries: only 18 per cent were in finance/banking or consultancy before they began their programme compared with 38 per cent for their full-time counterparts.

Online students want to develop their management skills. This differs markedly from their campus-based counterparts, who primarily enrol on full-time degrees in order to increase earnings.

Increasing their earnings came a distant second. Getting promoted within their company or developing strong business networks were also important, coming third and fourth.

Were they successful? Three years after graduation, 80 per cent of respondents achieved three or all four goals and 92 per cent achieved their main ambitions.

“My MBA helped me achieve a fast-track career”, says one happy alumnus. Three years after graduation, the average alumnus is a 40-year-old senior manager working in IT/telecoms on a salary of $116,000, an increase of 28 per cent since graduating.

Online MBA programmes market themselves on their worldwide reach. Some 90 per cent of IE Business School’s students reside outside Spain, while more than 50 per cent of students registered with UK schools do not live in the UK.

However, only 9 per cent of students registered with US schools reside outside the country. Seven out of nine US schools have 10 per cent or fewer international students.

Only the US-based Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University have a significant proportion of international students, 30 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively.

Most “online” programmes are not delivered completely online. They include some face-to-face learning and team working.

New York’s Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, for example, requires three on-campus residencies a year and therefore draws a larger number of students from the domestic market.

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