Ask Carla Priddon about the biggest achievement of her professional life and she will tell you it was when she became chief executive of The Way Youth Zone, a charity for young people in Wolverhampton, UK, at the age of 33. But after two years in the job, Ms Priddon was ready for a new challenge.

She found it in a distance-learning MBA at Warwick University. Since starting the course last year, Ms Priddon has been designing a new performance management framework for The Way, while keeping up the long hours needed to lead the organisation.

“[This is] something I wouldn’t have known where to start with before my MBA,” Ms Priddon says. “The flexibility of the online platform means I can work at any time, including on my mobile phone.”

Digitally delivered MBAs have helped transform the business education landscape since the first one was introduced by Aspen University in Denver in 1987, when the course was sent to students on CDs. Pietro Micheli, course director of Warwick’s distance learning MBA, thinks they have contributed to a more diverse student demographic.

“In the past, people doing MBAs might want to go from middle management in an oil and gas company to a more senior position,” he says. “Now we get people from NGOs, people from the medical profession, and people with PhDs in science who work in pharma companies.”

Flexibility: studying online allows Carla Priddon to fit MBA coursework around her job as head of a youth charity

Online courses appeal to students who want to pursue a degree at their own pace, rather than in a pressured classroom environment, according to Professor Linda Enghagen, associate dean of graduate and professional programmes at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts. “There is no pressure to be the first to raise your hand in response to a professor’s question,” Prof Endhagen says. “Students can take their time to formulate their thoughts and responses.”

But for many students, online courses have a major downside: limited networking. John Byrne, editor of the MBA news and ranking website Poets & Quants, says that students of online courses can miss out on the opportunities that come from campuses inviting employers in to speak to students, and the “real bonding” that occurs on a residential, full-time programme. “Students who have just graduated from an online programme believe they are getting a network out of it, but I sense that those connections will be more ephemeral,” he says.

The relative weight students attach to flexibility and networking may depend on their time of life. Jon Burroughs had been an emergency physician in New Hampshire for 30 years by the time he decided to study for the online MBA at the University of Massachusetts in 2006. He graduated in 2008 and, four years later, started the Burroughs Healthcare Consulting Network at the age of 62.

“When you’re a certain age in life, survival is more important than networking,” he says. “I had three jobs [in healthcare] at the time [of my MBA] and I was putting my kids through college. I would see patients in the emergency department and come back and work on finance. It was the only way I could fit it into my life.”

Some online courses offer face-to-face time. Dimitrios Dimitriou graduated from the online MBA at Durham University in 2019. “From first-hand experience, the online MBA offered by [Durham] presents candidates with the best of both worlds,” he says.

Warwick’s distance learning course, which tops this year’s FT ranking of online MBAs, uses a blended approach, in which 25 per cent of the course takes place in person. The online content is divided between material that can be picked up from the portal at any time, including videos and online tests, and components that are done with classmates in real time, including question-and-answer sessions and other exercises.

“The technology is evolving in dramatic steps,” Prof Micheli says. “The big change will be when you can put [the technology] on and be in the room with others. We haven’t got there yet, but we will.”