E-Learning is moving up the agenda for nearly every employer, university or college. The government has proved to be a major champion of making the UK a leading player in "virtual" distance learning.
Opinion remains divided, however, on the benefits and long-term potential of e-learning and on which subjects best lend themselves to this approach.
The marketplace for higher education through distance learning has been estimated at $300 billion worldwide and is growing all the time.
As knowledge management and knowledge sharing increasingly integrate across business, the higher education market is likely to become more global. The way e-commerce has been taken up at business schools reflects this phenomenon.
There is much talk about the threat that e-universities may pose to the old established universities. But many of these do not yet appear to be particularly concerned. The general feeling seems to be that cyberspace is no competition to the 'real' on campus experience. Henley Management College already has a track record in distance learning. Henley MBA content is now available online to all students. Assignments are submitted electronically and several of Henley's MBA electives are also offered solely on the internet.
"The shift towards e-learning and the development of real-time electronic activities, such as web seminars, helps us to get closer to our roots," says professor Ian Turner, the director of graduate business studies, at Henley. "E-learning enables us to operate across traditional country barriers and connect our students in different time zones around the world."
Also, Cranfield School of Management has been at the forefront in incorporating appropriate technological advancements into its MBA programmes. However, professor Chris Edwards, head of information systems at Cranfield, argues that "e-classrooms are a good support for executive development but cannot replicate the benefits and experience of face-to-face interaction with peers and faculty. Nevertheless, Edwards believes that cyberspace offers a huge potential market for global education and it is one that will not be ignored by many universities.
Professor Leo Murray, a director of the school says: "In future I think the MBA will take the form of many different models. The bottom end of the market will be entirely distance learning MBAs. At the top end there will be MBAs akin to Cranfield's new Modular MBA, which has a mixture of presence and distance. There will also be a greater focus on running modules with partners in different parts of the world."
Despite the slower-than-hoped-for expansion in the UK of fast internet access, most business schools acknowledge e-learning's potential. This development, which has seen course material and casepacks provided in an electronic format is providing much improved access to information to MBA students - especially those who are undertaking a part-time programme and have to work to some degree at a distance.
It has enabled them to have live discussions with their peers - using microphones or web cameras on their PCs or to have a tutorial with a member of faculty from a distance.
The internet revolution is having a major impact on courses offered by business schools. This demand is being fueled by students, some of whom have taken up careers in e-commerce and internet start-ups. As a result, business schools are developing e-business programmes.
One of Europe’s first MBA programmes specialising in electronic business has been created by City University Business School. The course is aimed at those who need to understand and exploit the new information technologies. Another example is Manchester Business School where e-commerce has been integrated into every course on the MBA programme.
According to global supplier of e-learning solutions, Wide Learning, who work with business schools, there are certain elements of tutor-led training that can be replicated on line, using an effective mix of the interactive and streaming technologies that are currently available.
In general, training basics are well-suited to on-line treatment, and this enables the professors and lecturers to add the value where it counts with face to face teaching of more complex issues.
Jan Hagen, solutions sales manager at Wide Learning, says: "Certain elements of tutor led training can undoubtedly be replicated online, using the virtual classroom technology that is currently available. In general, training basics can be covered on line, and it is the professors and lecturers who add the value with face-to-face learning.”
He adds however: "Business schools with concrete strategies and deliverables in place are in the minority. While most establishments recognise both the need and the benefits, the lead times are often under-estimated.
"Many aim to put the whole solution in place rather than adopt a phased approach and therefore are still in the development phase of these big projects which are expensive and complex to integrate."
The questions of whether the traditional model of a business school - a place where you go to learn about business will soon look as dated as an advertisement for a shorthand typist will run for some time yet.
The combination of the trend towards lifelong learning and the conviction of both employers and educators that learning is a lifelong investment in up-dating skills and learning new ones mean that it is inevitable that our models of higher education will become far more flexible.
But if employees are supposed to be learning all the time, companies certainly do not want them away from their posts all the time.
It is this desire that has been the driving force behind innovations such as distance learning, corporate universities and, especially, virtual business schools.
Indeed Marie Fimrite, UK operations director of global career consultancy Drake Beam Morin, notes: “Increasingly, organisations are empowering employees to take more responsibility for their own personal development.
"Business education is just one area where e-learning is being used as a flexible training and development tool," she says. "In a marketplace where skills are for sale, e-learning can be a useful way to re-fresh and up-date knowledge.
"But, in the end learning takes time and it's still up to the individual to make the necessary investment."
There will always be a market for conventional full-time residential degrees but e-learning will increasingly become a viable option for some students.
British universities are in a strong position to exploit the global delivery of quality education by electronic means. It is likely that business schools will be at the forefront in future developments.
However, in the late 1980s an explosion in the number of MBA providers gave rise to concerns about quality. It will be equally essential that mechanisms are developed to ensure that high standards are maintained in the development of e-learning.