How Should Students Network on an Online MBA?

The alumni network a big part of the selling power of an Online MBA degree. And digital interactions can be just as enriching as they are in person

The chance to build a professional network is a major draw for prospective MBA students who are building their career. Classmates and alumni networks have traditionally been invaluable resources.

For Online MBA students, the appeal of classroom sessions, group work and intense socializing remotely may seem limited. However, technological advances and changing cultural habits are making Online MBA degrees more attractive for those who want to build life-long networks.

Digital interactions can be equally or even more enriching than the in-person variety, says Birgit Newman, associate director of graduate career services, Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

Improvements in digital communication have played a big part in that. “Technologies such as Zoom, Teams and Google offer the added advantage of a visual interface, and facilitate face-to-face interaction as well as shared experiences real-time,” says Newman. “Quick visual demonstrations and collaboration across multiple applications can be offered.”

She admits that “expressions of emotions, empathy and sympathy tend to be more impactful” in real life, but these can be boosted with techniques that Kelley teaches its Online MBA students. For example, the business school’s Graduate Career Services team makes networking a key part of its coaching as well as the MBA curriculum.

The importance of virtual networking

So how should students network on an Online MBA? Newman insists that no significant distinctions exist between networking, whether you are a residential or virtual MBA student. She notes that cultural shifts have boosted the appeal of virtual networks. “Much of student networking has been moving from in-person into the virtual world of email, social networks, messaging and virtual events,” says Newman.

Traditionally, networking has arguably been less important to students in Online MBA courses, who tend to be chasing a promotion rather than a complete career shift, but this is changing. “Although a much larger percentage of students in a residential program target a job or company change upon graduation, that percentage is growing quickly within the Online MBA population,” Newman says.

Professor Markus Perkmann, academic director of the Imperial Global Online MBA, says that digital interactions can be very productive and enriching when they are focused around a common purpose. “Using the flipped classroom method, students pre-read the case study beforehand and the discussions over Zoom can feel as intimate as a discussion in class,” he says.

“Students also get to work in syndicate groups on specific assignments,” Perkmann says. “Our students use multiple digital tools to achieve this, and their feedback suggests they find this highly rewarding.”

The alumni network is a huge part of the appeal of an MBA, and is an invaluable resource, he points out. When Online MBA students finish their studies, they often become part of a university’s wider alumni network, allowing them to connect with other professionals all over the world.

While the Imperial course is taught predominantly via the online format, the Online MBA includes two residential periods on campus, where bonds are forged and solidified. “Not only is this an opportunity for the students to meet each other in real life, but also an opportunity to mingle with full-time MBA students,” says Perkmann.

Covid has made virtual networking essential

Pietro Micheli, director of the Distance Learning MBA at Warwick Business School, says the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for networking over the internet and developing the tools, skills and knowledge to do this. “These skills were already becoming vital to work in the modern business environment and something that students learn and hone on an Online MBA,” he says.

He notes that advances in technology have made remote networking much more effective. “We invest heavily in edtech every year, and have two film studios to record lectures, interviews, webinars and discussions,” Micheli says. “We are also going to companies to film on site, developing mini-documentaries to help open up networking even more for students.”

Cindy Mccauley, executive director of online masters programs at Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business, agrees the pandemic has pushed schools to improve their online learning and networking environments. “We’ve had to shift into more activities geared towards online networking,” she says.

“We are mostly using Zoom for virtual happy hours and networking sessions,” she adds. “The breakout room features allows us to mix students up into different groups to meet new people, connect with colleagues and talk about current events and classes.”

Antonella Moretto, associate dean at MIP Politecnico di Milano Graduate School of Business in Italy, agrees the pandemic has demonstrated that what really matters is building and nurturing relationships. “Whether is online or offline, it doesn’t make a huge difference anymore,” she says.

MIP leverages both in person and virtual interactions to help students nurture their professional networks. “The face-to-face weeks are key for creating a sense of belonging,” says Moretto. “We really value this human touch, and that’s why we include those on-campus activities in a digitally delivered MBA.”

The school also runs several online networking events. “We noticed that online meetings tend to reduce the distance among participants, making connections easier,” she adds. “Moreover, as some of those events are cross-class, they give Online MBA candidates the chance to connect with the [MIP] community at large.”

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