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Duke's pricey online B-school program is winning raves from students and rivals

It's a weekend morning in September, and a group of students in Duke University's Global Executive MBA program are putting together a cost-accounting project. None of them, however, is anywhere near Duke's verdant Durham (N.C.) campus. William Davie, an executive at Schlumberger Oilfield Services, joins the discussion from his London office. John Mendel, a regional sales manager for Ford Motor Co., logs on from his Anaheim (Calif.) home--just as his son asks him for some help in the garage. Meanwhile, Lucent Technologies sales executive Julius Jou and Leo Burnett group account director Alain Groenendaal share a spreadsheet from Hong Kong and Sao Paulo, respectively.

Welcome to the front lines of the latest battle in executive education. Although business schools have long talked about making it easier for executives to get an MBA without having to leave their jobs and homes, no top-tier school has developed a first-class electronic MBA program. But now, in part because of the Internet, Duke's Fuqua School of Business is offering an online MBA with as polished a pedigree as its traditional degree.

That has made Duke's 19-month-old GEMBA program the talk of its B-school rivals. While most schools have incorporated the Internet and other technology into their educational offerings, few come close to matching the arsenal of cutting-edge applications Duke provides. If the Duke program succeeds, many elite universities--which have long linked the quality of their executive education to their ivy-covered campuses and personal time spent with professors--could be forced to rethink how they teach. ''You have schools stuck in the '60s, and then you have schools such as Duke that are thinking ahead,'' says Ann Bakey, partners program manager at Hewlett-Packard Co., which plans to send some employees to GEMBA.

What makes it so different? GEMBA students ''attend'' CD-ROM video lectures in which the professor appears to be actively teaching onscreen. They can also download supplemental video and audio programs to include new information. If anyone is having trouble with the lecture, for example, the professor can send out extra interactive study aids. Students discuss lectures and work together using computer bulletin boards, E-mail, and live chats. Many spend as much as 30 hours per week logged on. ''What has been fascinating is how much you can accomplish online,'' says Ford's Mendel. ''The people who don't think this will have a big impact on the way we learn, I would liken to the makers of buggy whips.''

Of course, face time with the profs and other students hasn't disappeared completely. Along with a three-week and a two-week visit to Duke's campus at the beginning and the end of the program, there are two-week mandatory trips to Eastern Europe, China, and South America for onsite classes and meetings with local business owners. Here the 39 students build personal ties that sustain them back home. ''We're all very, very close friends,'' says Janet Morgan, president of new-media and management consultant Media Minds Group.

ON THE BEAM. Even without residency on campus, the program is far from cheap. GEMBA students cough up $82,500 in tuition. Along with the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, it's the costliest executive MBA program in BUSINESS WEEK's survey. That includes computers and network access--but not airfare. Although employers sponsor most of the students, few complain. The cost of losing key execs would be much higher, says Emily DeMattia, Ford's organizational and personal planning manager for vehicle divisions and staff. Ford sponsors two GEMBA students.

The concept of long-distance education is hardly a new one. Several schools, such as the University of Michigan, use videoconferencing to beam lecturers through a satellite. A few other institutions, including Ohio University, Purdue University, and the University of Florida, offer their students the chance to earn online MBAs. But GEMBA's technological sophistication has won raves for the program, even from its rivals. ''It's state-of-the-art,'' says Robert M. Fulmer, a management professor at the College of William & Mary. ''I don't know of any other program out there that's as innovative.''

Still, most schools are taking a wait-and-see approach rather than rushing to follow Duke's lead. Many of them think that students will suffer from the lack of regular face-to-face meetings with their professors and peers. ''We don't yet feel that the technology is at the point where you can replicate what you get on campus,'' says Howard Kaufold, director of Wharton's EMBA program. ''But we're looking at it.'' Blair Sheppard, senior associate dean at Fuqua, says that other institutions are simply jealous. ''By the time they figure it out,'' he grins, ''they won't be able to catch us.'' In the month since the second class began, Duke has received more than 400 GEMBA-related inquiries. Sheppard may just have a point.

By Thomas Bartlett in Durham, N.C.

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Updated Oct. 9, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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