The reputation of the online MBA program has come a long way in the past decade. While once upon a time, an online MBA program would be considered the domain of the mediocre student, today the reality is very different, with top business schools moving to offer online formats that offer a credible alternative MBA experience for students.
The course content, MBA admission requirements and networking opportunities on these online programs largely correspond to a traditional program. While online learning cannot by definition be identical to its on-campus equivalent, today’s online student cannot be said to have had an inferior MBA experience.
“Top business schools make their online program as much like their on-campus program as possible – with the same MBA entry requirements, same courses, and most of the same faculty. I think the serious MBA students appreciate the rigor of this approach to online courses,” states Larry Chasteen, director of the online MBA program at the Naveen Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Ashok Soni, executive associate dean of academic programs for the Kelley School of Business, confirms Chasteen’s statement. “[Our program] is modeled after our full-time MBA program, using the same framework for developing professional capabilities in such areas as consulting and investment management. The same faculty teach on both programs, the online students have access to the same career counselors and coaches, recruiting companies, and they go to the same countries for their global experiences and undertake very similar projects.” Finally, he adds, they have the same access to the school’s alumni network.
The online student: A differing demographic
The key differentiator is that the students taking these programs are those who could not commit to a full-time on-campus program. “An online MBA allows students who cannot attend a campus the opportunity to study at the school of their choice, while keeping their current job, staying with their family, and saving on relocation expenses,” says Rebecca Henriksen, vice president of enrollment and student services management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Those who work on the road also benefit from this, she adds.
Allan Scott, MBA director at Aberdeen Business School, echoes this, adding some demographic detail: “The academic MBA experience is equivalent. However, personal learning is difficult for online students who need to balance family, work and study. The level of discipline needed is extremely high for an online student. The average age is 39 and generally the students have been working since they left university when they were 22. The average experience is between 15-17 years.”
The obvious advantage of remaining in work while engaging in online learning is that principles learnt in the classroom can be applied instantly in the workplace by the online student. These students, Scott adds, tend to see the online MBA as an extension of their job.
Communication in online learning
One of the most pertinent issues relating to online learning is the question of communication. How can you match the crucial MBA experience of working collaboratively in a face-to-face environment?
Luckily, in the second decade of the 21st century, commonly-available technology allows this to be significantly less of an issue than it may have been in the days of the correspondence course.
“We use a variety of methods to facilitate student communications with each other and with professors,” explains Soni. “Class sessions use Adobe Connect, a web conferencing platform for meetings and webinars. Students also have access to this for team work, group discussions and online meetings.” This is supplemented by a learning management system (Angel) into which two interaction tools are built, ‘Team Builder’ and the ‘Kelley Discussion Forum’, which allow the exchange of files and class discussions; the latter is the tool through which students participate in cases.
At Aberdeen Business School, online student interaction is designed to mirror the on-campus approach, with students forming small study groups at the outset. “We have tried many approaches over the last 14 years and this is the approach that works best for the online MBA students,” says Scott. “Students are asked to interact with one another through Skype but to post their work to a discussion forum for sharing with the wider student population and for review by the tutor.” The use of Skype is an example of the school’s use of commercially available tools for communication. “The learning curve for adoption is very low. The approach is to use the tools the students are already using in business practice.”
Conversely, for many students, using these tools will also prepare them for the realities of the 21st century business world, Henriksen adds. “Distance learning allows students to learn using the same technologies that global companies use to conduct business worldwide, which is helpful in preparing them for global roles.”
Face-to-face communication still part of the MBA experience
Of course, while technology plays an important role in the world of business, face-to-face interaction is a still an important part of the MBA experience. Online MBA programs at top schools therefore tend to contain an element of this. “All MBA students at Aberdeen Business School (online, executive, part-time, full-time) attend our leadership week. This takes place in the second year of their studies,” Scott reveals. He adds that online students are invited to join various career development and guest speaker events. “The face-to-face experiences are critical for affiliation to the school, networking and the high level of industry engagement. We will not be phasing these out. We have increased the opportunity of face-to-face interaction each year.”
It is the same story at Kelley, says Soni: “The Kelley Online Program has two week-long in-residences where students interact with their fellow students and with the faculty. These in-residences are an integral part of the Kelley program and will continue for the foreseeable future. There are also optional week-long global trips and the opportunity to participate in the Washington Campus Program.”
Meanwhile at Thunderbird, which offers various global opportunities for face-to-face interaction, the program is lock-step, which means students progress together through the course at a set pace, and graduate together on-campus at the end of the course – the shared experience, of course, fostering camaraderie.
With the MBA admission requirements of online courses at top business schools largely the same as for on-campus offerings, online students can be confident they are working with classmates who are at their level. And with full-time faculty, who keep dedicated office hours, students can also be confident of enjoying the benefit of the world-class faculty at the school at which they are studying.
Online MBA outcomes
The outcomes for online students must be measured slightly differently to on-campus students, given that they tend to remain in their jobs while studying. However, this does mean that there are not tangible positive outcomes.
“On graduation, Kelley Online graduates end up with an average of 30% increase in salary. Approximately 70% received a promotion while in the program. Clearly, the program carries a certain cachet,” says Soni. Most students at Aberdeen Business School, says Scott, also enjoy a promotion while enrolled on the course.
Those who wish to move role will be glad to hear that in Chasteen’s opinion, the image problem of the online MBA is becoming a thing of the past. “Concerning cachet with employers, I think as there is more publicity and information published about online programs, employers will view them as the same. Today’s top online programs are not just ‘diploma mills’ as some online programs may have been in the past.”
With the increased cachet of online learning comes an increase in popularity. Applications to the online program at Kelley, says Soni, are increasing at a rate of 15% per year.
“The online MBA market is mature and complicated,” concludes Scott. “It is gaining traction in a number of areas as we see students switching from full-time to online. The global job market is competitive, and online degrees offer affordable access to high quality learning in areas of the world where there are very limited options.”