The Rise of the Digital MBA Degree

Why is the online MBA becoming increasingly popular?

A decade or so ago, the main way to earn an MBA degree was to decamp to a business school campus for one or two years, put your career on pause and forgo a salary. Today however, an MBA program can be taken whenever and from wherever it suits you. Technology has fundamentally reshaped the way business schools deliver education, with many establishing courses that are delivered entirely, or in-part, online. 

While the full-time format remains the most popular, the online MBA is growing in appeal. In 2016, the majority of online MBA programs (57%) increased their application volumes, up from 50% in 2015, according to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council.

The growth in applications reflects growing student interest in the online education format, with a broad array of options rising to prominence in recent years, from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to fully-fledged digital degrees. What is driving that trend? 

One reason for the growth in online MBA applications is the fact that plenty of managers are too time-poor to pursue a traditional, campus-based MBA, and do not want to lose career momentum. They see an online MBA as a way to develop professionally — without making the many sacrifices a full-time degree demands.

“The average age of a student in our online MBA is 35, by which time they have extremely progressive careers, and they don’t want to give them up,” says David Lefevre, director of the Edtech Lab at Imperial College Business School in London.

But it is no easy feat to balance a full-time job, a rigorous academic curriculum and perhaps a family too. At Warwick Business School, the 1,600 students on the 24-month online MBA are required to attend live webinars twice a week, but can tailor the rest of the curriculum to their needs.

“We do have some people who say, ‘I’m managing my own company I can’t go at the same speed as everyone else’. So we let them take our ‘half speed’ option and complete the program in four years instead of the usual two,” says Vikki Abusidualghoul, assistant dean.

More people are also more willing to apply to online programs because they have become more credible. “As more faculty and students are involved in teaching and learning online, the credibility of online courses will continue to grow,” says Anne Trumbore, director of Wharton Online, delivered by The Wharton School.

Another benefit to online programs is that they can better replicate the nature of management today, with executives expected to organize global teams from a distance using technology. “At a multinational, working across geographies is very normal, and they have software which enables them to do that,” says Lefevre at Imperial College. “For those people, online study is perfectly natural. They can’t imagine why a course would ever have to be face-to-face.” 

One challenge for business schools is providing the same level of interactivity as a campus degree. Many online MBAs still use pre-recorded lectures, which do not offer the live discussion upon which business education thrives. Some virtual learning environments also lag behind others, further limiting interaction between students and instructors. 

However, advances in technology have made remote study more like the campus experience. At IE Business School in Spain, for instance, the WOW Room features 48 high-definition TV screens, which connect up to 60 MBA students from around the world. “In a pilot involving 100 professors and over 1,000 students, we found that running a case study in the online environment, is as natural as running one in a traditional classroom,” says Martin Boehm, the dean of IE. 

Other schools are also using more sophisticated technology. University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School recently opened the Hub for International Virtual Education (HIVE), a high-tech conference facility with 27 high-definition screens that form a U-shape in a seminar room. HIVE uses robotics, facial recognition technology and 4D projections to create a more immersive learning experience. The software monitors the level of attentiveness in each individual, which it judges and scores based on their facial expressions and engagement with the class. 

“Technology enables us to become more responsive and interactive in a shorter time frame,” says Abusidualghoul at Warwick.

Another challenge faced by the digital pioneers is providing the same level of networking in online courses as in campus-based ones. The ability to rub shoulders with students from a wide variety of backgrounds is one of the main selling points of an MBA. 

Schools have strived to improve the networking afforded by online courses. Other than improving technology, some are “blending” their MBA programs to feature both digital and real-world elements. “We form strong bonds among our students by bringing them to a campus for a week,” says Imperial College’s Lefevre.

Most schools say that online learning will not replace the traditional, campus MBA anytime soon. But they agree that it may one day become the most popular method of studying. “While the Oxford experience is an integral part of our approach, the methods by which we teach and learn are changing,” says Peter Tufano, dean of the Saïd Business School. 

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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