Inside the Top Distance Online MBA Program in the United States

Inside the Top Distance Online MBA Program in the United States main image

Once viewed as a second-rate qualification, the online MBA is gaining ground on its more traditional full-time counterpart. At the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in the US, 2017 applications were up by double digits when compared with 2016.

More business schools are joining Kelley in the online MBA market too, enticed by the growing number of potential students who see digital degrees as a better way to prepare for a workplace that is dominated by technology.

For students, there are numerous advantages to the online format, not least the ability to translate learning into the workplace immediately. Full-time participants have to wait potentially years before doing so, in comparison.

But what makes a good online MBA? And what should prospective students look for when weighing up programs?

One digital degree doing well is the Kelley Direct Online MBA, as it’s consistently ranked highly in the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings and placed second in the 2018 edition. The program was launched in 1999 and has continued to evolve since then.

Ramesh Venkataraman, chair of the course, says it has become increasingly important to provide ways for students to gel together. Online learning has been criticized for lacking interaction between students and staff; blended learning is a way to address that concern, he reckons.

“The human connection still makes a difference. Networking, forming lifelong bonds; it’s integral to the MBA,” he says.

Twice each year, students meet up on the business school’s Bloomington campus during ‘Kelley Connect weeks’. Aside from the chance to rub shoulders together, the MBAs complete a live case study in which they consult a real company on how to solve a strategic challenge.

In one such study, Kelley students worked remotely with a school in South Africa for underprivileged children. “Coming up with a new live case is not easy, but it’s worthwhile,” Venkataraman says.

As well as international assignments, online MBA students complete US immersions with Fortune 500 firms based, usually, in Chicago or New York City. They spend two days with the company on-site before presenting recommendations to a panel of its senior executives — teaching them coveted communication skills, analysis and more.

How technology is changing the online MBA

While many of the first generation of online courses simply recorded campus lectures and posted them online for participants to review before taking tests — known as asynchronous learning – these days, content is beamed live to online learners who debate and discuss ideas in groups together — synchronous learning.

“Online programs are for some schools all about cost and efficiency, so they go completely asynchronous. It’s a one-time cost, they record videos and only need staff to help with grading. That’s a popular model,” says Venkataraman.

As a requirement at Kelley, students spend at least one day a week interacting synchronously, (though the school uses asynchronous content that students study before coming into a live classroom to discuss what they have learned).


The technology that enables this is Zoom, a popular video-conferencing platform that lets students see and hear one another. “We replicate the case study discussions online,” Venkataraman says.

“Programs that are purely asynchronous miss the boat. The real reason students are there [at business school] is to engage with faculty and to learn from each other, which is the whole point of the MBA.”

Prospective students should also be wary of online programs whose academics do not teach for the full-time format, according to Venkataraman. He says some business schools try to “cut corners” by hiring part-time lecturers for online courses and this can “potentially reduce the quality of teaching” because they may lack the experience of full-time faculty.

“Some [schools] do it [online MBAs] as a profit-making venture,” he says, explaining that it’s cheaper to hire staff on an ad-hoc basis. “It’s critical that you have the right faculty who are well-trained and understand how to use the technology appropriately.

“These are usually people who are qualified to teach full-time MBAs, who have been through the rigorous selection process, to be hired permanently into a business school. The acid test for us is: would we let online lecturers teach our other [campus] programs?”

Online MBAs are ultimately judged on the same criteria as the campus equivalent, chiefly career outcomes. At Kelley, 43 percent of graduates in 2016/17 received a promotion while attending the program. The mean base salary for the 2016/17 graduating class was US$107,688 — 27 percent higher than their US$84,307 pre-MBA salaries.  

Venkataraman says there is a shift occurring: candidates are, increasingly, looking to switch out of their company and move into a different type of career. “About 40-50 percent of students come to Kelley with the expectation of doing that. Five years ago, most of them were looking for a promotion within their current company.”

That means online MBA programs are having to offer more career services that campus students have access to, including interview coaching, CV screening and job vacancy boards. At Kelley, the entire online cohort now get a careers coach who provides one-to-one advice sessions, for example.

It’s important to tailor support to specific goals. “For career switchers, we offer more interview prep whereas for those seeking promotions, we focus on communication; how to sell the value of the MBA to your employer in order to move up,” says Venkataraman.

In future, online MBA programs will be judged more on such support and whether they can get their graduates jobs, he says. “The pressure will build as the online population keeps shifting to new careers. We have to figure out how to bring companies to them when they are not on campus. We’re looking at new models that will be rolled out to improve access to companies.”


Lead image: Jeff Hart (Flickr)

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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