How Online MBAs Forge Real-Life Networks

Students are finding that virtual networks can be just as valuable as the real deal

Forging face-to-face networks with students and faculty has long been a big draw to campus-based MBAs. But coronavirus-mandated travel curbs and campus closures are forcing students to embrace virtual learning.

That has long been admired for its flexibility and has been considered more environmentally friendly. But students are finding that virtual networks can be just as valuable as the real deal. A confluence of advances in technology and changing cultural and working norms are boosting the appeal of Online MBAs.

The travel clampdown caused by coronavirus and closure of campuses has made online networking more important than ever. “Now that everything is virtual, networking is an even more vital part of not just the job search, but also to keeping a cadre of allies and advocates ready and willing to bat for you,” says Stephanie Gray, associate director of Graduate Career Services at Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

She says that, with the cancellation of large in-person events such as conferences, students are having to rely more on one-on-one networking, which may be a welcome change for introverts.

Online networking: Zoom, webinars, and beyond

Advances in technology have made remote networking better. The UK’s Warwick Business School has invested heavily in a virtual classroom where it runs lectures, online case discussions and other interactive learning.

Warwick has two film studios on campus to record interviews and webinars, and is developing online business games through which students can simulate what happens when they make strategic decisions as the manager of a business.

“Networking online opens up literally a world of opportunities, not only on our

platform but on social networks like LinkedIn,” says Pietro Micheli, director for the Online MBA at Warwick.

“For students who are pressed for time to attend events, it also allows them to research a contact, prepare their opening remarks and then make the initial introduction in their own time,” he says. “They are also likely to get a faster response.”

Other schools chalk up Zoom video conferencing software. The “breakout room” feature allows students to form into groups to meet new people, connect with classmates and discuss current events and courses.

However, for those with “Zoom fatigue”, a good old-fashioned phone call can be just the ticket for avoiding the pressure of keeping track of nonverbal communication and awkward silences.  

Meanwhile, the long period of lockdown restrictions has given people more confidence to use technology. The current generation of MBA students are digital natives anyway, having grown up with technology such as social media in their personal lives and more recently, collaboration tools like Slack at work.

Online networking: even better than the real thing?

There are advantages to online networking – students who may never get a chance to meet are suddenly put into a Zoom room with one another where they might make a connection. 

“While we all understand the value of networking, it can be hard to break out of our patterns to meet new people. Online networking forces students to interact in new and different ways, expanding their network along the way,” says Cindy Mccauley, executive director of online masters programs at Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business.

In fact, she argues that virtual networking can even be better than the real thing; the Tepper school can invite alumni and speakers from around the world. “We recently had an alumni panel with participants in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York,” says Mccauley. “We couldn’t do that in person without significant cost and effort.”

There are downsides though. Antonella Maria Moretto, associate dean for open programs at MIP Politecnico di Milano in Italy, says that relationships struck in person tend to be stronger and longer lasting because they are more personal. “I am not sure that remote networking is effective as a personal chat to develop these relationships in the long term,” she says.

She believes that virtual networking is simply different, not better or worse than the campus experience. “The coronavirus obliged business schools to start using remote networking,” says Moretto. “After this crisis period, I think we need to learn how to blend together face-to-face with remote networking as these two methods are complementary.”

Many Online MBA programs still require some in-person meet-ups to strengthen the bonds between students. For example, the Tepper school brings students to campus six times a year for in-person weekends for networking, professional development and courses. More of these activities have been shifted online because of coronavirus, but students are keen to resume physical meetings as soon as possible.

“There’s no question that everyone misses the casual interactions that are hard to replicate on Zoom,” says Mccauley. “Striking up a random conversation at lunch, or over a beer at happy hour, doesn’t happen as easily virtually.”

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