Distance Online MBA
Distance online MBA education has come a long way in recent years, both in terms of the quality of provision and the format’s reputation. Advances in learning technology, increased connectivity and the entrance of bigger and bigger players into the market all add up to mean that an online program can no longer be considered a poor relation to its full-time equivalents.
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The distance online MBA is a part-time MBA format, and one that is largely undertaken by students who wish to remain in their current role while they study. Employer-funded candidates will make up a certain proportion of each class. However, the majority of students will be self-funded candidates who have taken the initiative to pursue an MBA, but who cannot afford to forego their salary or to relocate – or simply do not wish to.
Yet, this is where the real appeal of an MBA online becomes apparent. While traditionally, a part-time MBA candidate would be limited to schools in their local area, they can now choose to study at any one of a solid selection of highly-respected international business schools, enjoying the benefits of the school’s network, access to world-class faculty and – of course – the ability to put a prestigious, globally-recognized school on their résumé.
Technological advances have, of course, allowed for great progress and innovation in delivery. As recently as 15 years ago, schools would still have had to largely send out physical copies of textbooks and contact would have been relatively slow paced. Today, the paradigm is very different. Video content, podcasts, e-books, instantaneous 24 hour contact, social media and apps – all second nature to the digital native – mean that the experience today is a very different proposition, with a combination of freely available and bespoke platforms utilized. Indeed, much of the technology that once would have been associated solely with online provision is now also used in full-time MBA provision.
Partially as a consequence of the huge leaps made in provision (other factors are also at play – see ‘career benefits’), the distance online MBA has grown hugely in popularity. QS applicant research shows that as many as 18.3% of applicants consider online MBA study, and 8.7% distance learning (respondents are, however, not limited to choosing just one format, so there is overlap here). This represents a huge increase on the 4.4% who were open to studying by distance in 2008.
The distance online MBA, it seems, is due to play a key role in the future of both the full-time and the part-time MBA, as a more and more diverse applicant pool seeks high-quality MBA provision.
A key differentiator between the ‘diploma mill’ model of low-quality online provision and the distinctly more credible programs on offer from the reputable schools in question here is a face-to-face component.
One of the factors considered for the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings (see our ranking of the world’s top 25 distance online MBA programs here) is whether or not the programs require students to attend campus, thereby allowing them to interact with faculty and their fellow students in person.
The vast majority of courses which meet the stringent criteria required for inclusion in the online MBA rankings include such an element. Even a small amount of contact makes it considerably easier to put a face and a personality to one’s fellow students and will certainly go a long way to improving the quality of interaction. As well as face-to-face interaction, the rankings also take into account how large a part group work plays in the program and in assessment.
What else makes a top program, beyond interaction? The center point of the online MBA rankings, as with all QS MBA rankings exercises is employability – measured through the credence given to programs by actively-hiring MBA employers around the world. While many distance online candidates will remain in their current roles, employers still provide a solid benchmark by which one can measure the quality of a program – for obvious reasons.
Then, we look to a school’s commitment to their online program(s), to ensure that it is not simply an afterthought, but a valid inclusion to their provision. So, the faculty/student ratio is obviously key, as is the proportion of faculty who are also involved with the school’s full-time program, thus ensuring that students on distance online programs enjoy a similar quality of teaching. Regular classes to which attendance is compulsory are looked upon favorably, in that they give the program shape and afford regular interaction with faculty. Completion rates stand as a good indication of how well students are guided and progress through the program.
Of course, MBAs are also about the quality of your peers – so the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings also look at the MBA cohort makeup – work experience, GMAT scores, previous degrees and the ever-important question of diversity.
And finally, we look at reputational issues (reputations in business education tend to be there for a reason). We look at this through the competitiveness of entry – naturally the quality of a program into which one can simply walk from the street must be called into question. In addition to this, the age of the program is taken into account. An online program that’s been around for a while can only have survived if it has something to offer in the increasingly cutthroat world of business schools.
See the full methodology here.
In terms of career benefits and outcomes, we have to consider that there are some key differences between your typical distance online student and a full-time MBA student. The former is likely to remain in their current role while they study – an average of 29% of students on programs closely considered for the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings are company sponsored.
Generally, they will have more experience than full-time candidates; nine years’ work experience on average for programs in the rankings – much higher than you will find on most full-time programs (see more average figures here). Indeed, at some schools, online provision is not too far removed from executive MBAs, and there is no shortage of crossover programs available.
Part of the reason for the growth seen in the online sector is the diversification of the MBA market as a whole – in particular, a growing appetite among lower to middle-income managers looking for a lower-cost option. While in terms of tuition fees, the amount you can save by opting for an online MBA varies a good deal; many top schools charge amounts that can by no means be considered a ‘cheap option’, but the opportunity cost will be significantly lowered by virtue of being to stay in work while studying.
To the online student profile outlined above, we can also add those who fit the profile of a traditional full-time MBA candidate, but who may still be feeling risk averse at a time when the shadow of the turbulence witnessed at the end of the last decade still looms large.
A globalization of the MBA market has also contributed to the online MBA’s rising popularity, with prospective students in areas of the emerging world where quality provision is harder to come by being given the option to study with a globally-recognized name – something that just would not have been open to them before.
In all cases, the career benefits are fairly straightforward – those who previously may not have been able to, can now enjoy the advanced business education of an MBA.
They will gain the same rounded overview of the business and gain skills across the same range of functions and verticals. They’ll tackle the same challenges and cases and be given opportunities to participate in projects. There will be no difference in the difficulty – a distance online program is certainly not an easy option. At the end of the day, online candidates are still equally able to write on their résumé that they have gained an MBA, and possess the business expertise which is consonant for graduates of any other format. Indeed, the self-motivation and drive required to undertake this format of learning can serve to emphasize the drive possessed of its graduates.
They will now also be able to enjoy the global and diverse MBA network that comes with the degree – not just those with whom they studied, but the larger school’s network, which will not be stratified by degree type.
Of course, one does lose out on some of the face-to-face aspects of an MBA, which are undeniably important. However, with the inexorable march of globalization showing no signs of slowing, being able to work with people all over the world, in and at the head of virtual teams, is as valuable a skill as any. This may be particularly appealing to those working in the online space, given that skills needed here demonstrate an engagement with, and alertness, to the digital world.
Finally, as with any other format of part-time MBA education, distance online MBA candidates will be able to apply the skills directly and instantly in the workplace, passing on the benefits to their team members along the way. Schools often report high percentages of students gaining promotions while enrolled on the course.