In a Locked-Down World, Online MBAs Create a Sense of Community

The coronavirus pandemic has added fresh pressure, forcing business schools to increase support

Many applicants are attracted to Online MBAs because they are flexible, allowing students to continue working while studying, typically with asynchronous courses that they can take when it’s convenient, from anywhere in the world, alongside live sessions and in-person meetings.

However, these programs are by no means easy, as students have to juggle their study with work and family commitments. The coronavirus pandemic has added fresh pressure, forcing business schools to increase support.  

Liesl Riddle, associate dean of graduate programs at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, DC, says that home-schooling during lockdown has been particularly challenging for working parents, alongside balancing full-time jobs amid increased economic uncertainty and fears of infection. Some students have suffered “trauma from loss and grief”, she says.

Broadband networks have also been stretched, causing minor service difficulties such as jerky Zoom calls which can disrupt the flow of learning in synchronous sessions. “Finding a quiet space for focused work is an incredible challenge for many of our students, which can affect their productivity,” says Riddle.

What helps them push through the hard times is the business school community, and the capacity to talk with advisors, professors and peers, she says. “Being heard is cathartic, and often it comes with understanding and good advice.”

Pietro Micheli, director of the Online MBA at Warwick Business School, says that resilience and adaptability are key for Online MBA students, who are typically driven individuals. “Working and studying from home can be mentally exhausting and students need to build in some time away from the screen, making sure they pursue hobbies and other interests,” he says.

Warwick in the UK has also built flexibility into the program. “Students can apply for extensions to deadlines if there are extenuating circumstances,” says Micheli. “Students can defer individual modules or even temporarily withdraw from the program.”

He says that working on your own is a particular hurdle for online students, so Warwick has introduced wellbeing initiatives to support students who feel isolated in lockdown. This includes video consultations with therapists, if necessary.

Challenges for Online MBA students

Danielle Wang, director of online programs for the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, says that a significant and ongoing challenge for online students is accessing the breadth of resources that are typically available to their counterparts taking on-campus courses. This includes taking advantage of networking events and career-coaching services.

Successful online students have common attributes, she says. “Drive to succeed and self-management are particularly important.” Also critical are time management skills, given that students complete the majority of their coursework at their own pace. “They need to be constantly vigilant about setting and meeting weekly learning goals, including staying ahead of coursework deadlines,” says Wang.

She also notes the pandemic has crystallized some of the benefits of remote study, including the ability to adjust to unexpected work demands, job changes or relocations.

David Roman, director of the Online MBA at EADA Business School in Barcelona, agrees there are advantages, such as no more commute and business travel, freeing up time for participants to dive into their studies. “With the increase in telework, participants in general have more flexibility to be able to follow our synchronous sessions smoothly,” he says. “The fact that work trips, meetings and conventions have decreased also facilitates availability.”

Roman adds that the pandemic has vindicated the decision to study for an MBA online for many students.

More flexibility equals better networking

The increased flexibility in the business world has also enabled many business schools to draw more executive guest speakers, who provide learning and networking opportunities for the students. “Our team identified creative ways for students to learn about new countries and cultures, as well as meet business professionals, interact with policymakers, and work on client projects in countries outside of the United States, all while students remained in their home offices,” says Riddle at George Washington University.

Despite the added pandemic pressures, Warwick’s Micheli believes that an Online MBA is definitely still worth the significant investment of time, money and effort. “An MBA is even more important now as individuals want to differentiate themselves from others,” he says. “It gives you transferable skills which will be particularly important during the recession as companies reposition or re-invent themselves.”

He adds that the pandemic reflects the new world of remote work, with executives having to lead teams virtually. “It has become normal practice in the pandemic, so these skills will be crucial in future as the office becomes less of a feature in people’s lives.”

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