Are Online MBA Programs Closing the Quality Gap?

More distance learning programs are upgrading technology and using residencies to match up with on-campus programs

For many years, the field of distance education had a bad rap: students had to plod through correspondence books, or watch poorly-made DVDs, often with very little support, to receive a diploma in the mail. The depth of learning and the quality of the education was not comparable with class-based programs. But many students tolerated the process because they didn’t have the time or the schedule to be able to do otherwise.

Indeed, for professionals with busy schedules, the flexibility of an online MBA program is a huge selling point, because the programs are necessarily designed to fit between work and family obligations. But some students worry that in gaining flexibility, they might lose out on other b-school experiences, such as face-to-face interaction.

Today’s online MBA programs, however, are trying to avoid this sacrifice altogether. They combine emerging web and video technologies with short on-campus residencies that allow students to pursue an MBA in ways that are beginning to approximate, and in some cases, exceed an in-class experience.

A proven component of most distance learning MBA programs is online discussion forums, which students usually access through a standard web browser. According to Brian McCarthy, an adjunct professor at Portland State University, these forums are essentially “online versions of classrooms,” where students and professors can engage in discussions about course content.

Discussion forums are often described as “asynchronous,” meaning that students don’t have to participate at any given time, but can post whenever they can fit it in to their schedules. McCarthy says that this flexibility is the main value of discussion forums.

“This is not live chat, so you could post during your lunch hour, or even at 11pm,” he says.

Ash Soni, associate dean at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, says the flexibility of the forums used in his school's Online MBA often generate more substantive discussions than those that happen in class, especially when it comes to a staple of business school curriculum: case studies.

“A regular class in an MBA program is about an hour,” says Soni, “which means that a case discussion has to be concluded within that time – whereas in an online forum we may give students two to three days to post their comments and have a discussion.”

Likewise, Soni finds that some students are more comfortable communicating in an online arena than a classroom setting.

“Many students, especially international students, are a little shy about talking in front of a lot of people,” says Soni.

But MBA programs are also about building “soft skills” and confidence, so more online MBA programs are supplementing online learning with short on-campus residencies that focus on subjects like leadership, negotiation, and teamwork. Others programs allow students to take study trips abroad – a giant step out of the virtual world.

An emerging trend in some distance learning MBA programs is the use of live videoconferencing to conduct virtual classes online.

For example, IE Business School's Global MBA online program uses a videoconferencing platform called Adobe Connect to host weekly classes, where professors can integrate a live video presentation with other collaborative elements, such as graphs, PowerPoint presentations, and polls. Students can ask questions, collaboratively work on spreadsheets, and even virtually raise their hands if something is unclear. At IE, all virtual class sessions are recorded, so students can go back and replay the entire class if necessary.

According to Eric Richards, who teaches on Kelley Direct’s Online MBA program, the uses of videoconferencing to enrich the learning experience don’t stop with virtual classes.

“I keep a laptop computer on my desk all the time,” Richards says, “so if a student emails me a tough question, or if there's a discussion session forum that's engaged in a real debate, I can swing around and put together a ten-minute talk on Adobe Connect.”

“I’ll put it online, and then all the students can see it to help them clarify the points.”

Virtual pints in an Online MBA

At IE, some students have been finding innovative ways to use videoconferencing to replicate some of the in-person business school experiences that they don’t get in a distance learning program.

“We've heard from a lot of students that they have virtual cafés, or they say, ‘why don't we meet in our group and have a virtual beer?,” says Sufiyan Javeed Sait, associate director of IE’s Global MBA program.

“So, everybody connects, opens up a can, and has a beer together, outside of class hours.

This kind of interaction, says Sait, is not only fulfills students' cravings for peer contact, but it's also a reality of today's interconnected and globalized business world.

“I usually tell my students halfway through the program, when their energy levels are going down and crave more face-to-face time, ‘do you think a California-based company with a subsidiary company in Tokyo or in India has the luxury of organizing face-to-face meetings?’”

“You have to be effective using the means that are provided,” adds Sait. “This is how meetings are evolving in the future.”

How do you choose an Online MBA? Here aresome other matters to consider when choosing an Online MBA program:

  • Make sure your computer meets the technical requirements of the program you are interested in.
  • Contact school tech support to see if you need any additional equipment, such as a microphone or a webcam.
  • Many programs, especially those featuring live videoconferencing, require a high-speed internet connection.
  • Some schools are beginning to introduce smartphone, iPad, and other tablet functionality and apps to engage class materials.

Photo: Overton2012 / Creative Commons

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