Executive vs. Distance Learning MBA

I was recently asked why I had chosen a distance learning MBA course instead of an executive MBA, so thought I would share my decision-making process here. For those who aren’t aware, there are three main approaches to studying for an MBA:

  • Full-time – usually lasting one year, this wasn’t an option I considered as I didn’t want to (and couldn’t financially afford to) give up work
  • Executive – usually lasting three years, this involves attending University either on a weekly basis (eg. weekend, specific evenings every week), or in regular study blocks (eg. 4-5 days every 6-8 weeks)
  • Distance Learning – usually lasting three years (but can be extended to five), this involves studying from home, attending online seminars on a regular basis (eg. weekly), and then for some Universities, visiting the campus once or twice a year for lectures, group exercises, networking, and other activities

Below I have summarised the advantages and disadvantages that I identified for the executive and distance-learning MBA approaches.

Executive MBA


  • In-person – given that the lectures are delivered using the traditional in-person format, this provides lots of opportunities for discussion and debate, both with the lecturer, and also with other students
  • Fixed-time – as the classes are scheduled for a specific time, they can be entered into my diary at the start of the course, and other commitments can be planned around these
  • Social – the in-person nature of the course will make it easy to network and build relationships with other students


  • Time commitment – as an executive MBA has a fixed time commitment, this will require allocating a specific time/day every week to study (in addition to work commitments), or taking time out of work on a regular basis (which either consumes most/all of an annual leave allowance, or needs sponsorship from your employer)

Distance-Learning MBA


  • Flexibility – as most of the content is delivered through textbooks or online resources, you are able to develop a schedule around your personal and work commitments, and can adjust this as needed to respond to unplanned events or ‘busy periods’
  • Cohort diversity – as students are not required to visit the campus regularly, this encourages a much larger cohort with students from many different industries, countries and cultures
  • Self-paced – the on-demand nature of the content delivery means that difficult topics can be repeated or reviewed at your own pace (and easier topics can be reviewed quickly), whereas in-person lectures require you to learn at the speed that the lecturer is covering the topics


  • Isolation – although technology combined with occasional physical meetings can reduce this, the lack of in-person contact with other students can make it difficult to stay motivated, engage in discussions on topics, and get support in your studies when needed
  • Self-discipline – although an on-demand approach to studying offers flexibility, it also means that students must be disciplined enough to allocate time to study, otherwise there is a strong possibility that they will drop behind on the content

My choice – Distance Learning MBA

I was comfortable that both approaches would meet my objectives for studying for an MBA, so my decision was based on which would give me the best experience and allow me to manage the impact on my personal and work life.

Warwick Business SchoolOriginally I intended to pursue an executive MBA, but when I considered the amount of time to be taken out of work, combined with a planned role change at work which would increase the amount of travel and time away from home, I decided that the distance learning option would be most suitable. I was also interested in hearing the viewpoints of a large, diverse group of students – which has already proven valuable after only one month of study. I was not overly concerned with the disadvantages of this mode of studying, as I currently work from home for a large proportion of my week, so am used to working in a ‘virtual’ manner and collaborating with colleagues using technology. In addition, the Warwick MBA provides a number of opportunities to reduce any isolation, ranging from small-numbered study groups through to the ‘Warwick Week‘, which is a bi-annual in-person meeting where all students meet in Warwick for lectures, group exercises and networking.

If you want to know more about the different approaches to studying for an MBA at Warwick, please click here.

I hope this has been interesting to read – and for anyone making a similar decision now, please feel free to ask any questions below.

8 thoughts on “Executive vs. Distance Learning MBA”

  1. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the blog. I work in the telecom sector in a vendor pre-sales role and am about to make a similar decision (DL format) very soon so could you please let me know your feedback about the program selection. WBS DL MBA with any other DL offering?


  2. Hi Shamyl,

    I considered a number of different business schools for my DL MBA, based on criteria including the content (ie. choice of both core and elective modules), the reputation of the school, the learning format (including onsite workshops), and finally cost. I am very pleased with my decision to study at Warwick – the content is exactly what I hoped for, and the style of learning suits me perfectly. I am also really looking forward to the Warwick Week (see link above), as this will be an opportunity to meet in-person all the great people that I have met virtually. Finally, Warwick Business School has recently ranked fourth in the UK, which should strengthen the value of my MBA at the end of the course.


    I hope this helps, please post back if you have any further questions.



  3. Matt,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I personally think some of the factors you touched on, particularly self-discipline, isolation and time-commitment, are extremely important to consider and often over-looked by prospective MBA students.

    I recently began a part-time MBA program, which allowed me the flexibility to work full-time while earning my degree. I like the fact that I get personal interaction with fellow classmates, but the time-commitment is demanding and has required quite an adjustment on my part.

    I’m very interested in reading more about your experiences and am looking forward to your next posts.



  4. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your blog post, this is exactly the scenario I am trying to weigh up now.

    It has helped me, I think for me I am fearful of distance learning as my best learning method is classroom based as I enjoy engaging in debate and building rapport. I appreciate you are good at this virtually, I can do it but I always prefer face to face.

    Going to keep weighing my options up, but thanks for your post, it was insightful. Coincidentally I spent the last 5 years doing operations manager for a Cisco Gold Partner…. 🙂


  5. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your blog !
    It is very clear and useful !

    I am thinking of applying to the WBS MBA (DL or executive). I can do both, I work in France and there are direct flights to Birmingham from my area. Do you have information about the student diversity (nationalities and living areas) for both DL and executive ? Are the ressources (study material) the same for DL MBA and Executive MBA ?
    And other question : how long do you study per week ?

    I was thinking first applying for the executive MBA but with your blog and the quality of your posts, I am now interesting with the DL MBA !



    1. Hello Nathalie,

      Unfortunately I don’t have any information for comparison about the student diversity – although I can confirm that the distance learning course had a whole range of people from different professions, experience levels, countries, and cultures.

      I believe the module objectives & content are similar, but the materials are different – the DL modules are all delivered via online content, whereas the executive models are in-person via presentations, discussions, etc.

      On average I studied 15-20 hours/week – have a look here for more details – http://mattcooling.com/2012/03/12/managing-study-time-for-a-distance-learning-mba/.

      Hope this is useful,

      Regards, Matt


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