Online MBA Degrees Come of Age

Online programs have been validated by changing perceptions triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic

The perceived value of an Online MBA has been strengthened by the Covid-19 pandemic, which made many people far more familiar with socializing, working and learning in a virtual environment.

ESMT Berlin launched its first fully online program last year in response to these trends. “The pandemic accelerated the adoption and acceptance of online education, boosting truly digital programs,” says Rebecca Loades, director of career accelerator programs at the German business school. “Mindsets were shifted as it became more accepted and normal for students to be studying completely online.”

She insists that the distinction between full-time or Online MBA formats has also been substantially weakened in the pandemic. “When students graduate from either, they will have an ESMT MBA degree. Plain and simple,” says Loades.

That means that when a recruiter looks at their CV, they will simply see someone who has achieved their MBA part-time. The skills required of students that study online – organization, comfort with technology, collaboration, communication, and self-motivation – have become highly valued by employers as how we work has changed.

“The past year has demonstrated that successfully managing global virtual teams and thriving in a multi-modal work environment requires these skills,” Loades says.

Stigma around Online MBAs clearing

The first Online MBA programs were launched decades ago but did not immediately receive full acceptance by everyone in the business education marketplace. Yet the stigma of online business degrees has been erased as more top business schools have offered purely digital programs for working professionals.

“This stigma is lessening, and a strong factor is the reputation of the institution which grants the degree and its accreditation,” says Neta Moye, assistant dean and executive director of career services for the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in the US.

The Smith School is accredited by AACSB International, a leading accrediting agency for master’s degree programs in business administration. And like Loades, Moye says that students receive the same MBA degree and diploma from the institution regardless of the format.

Moreover, in the current red-hot job market, employers are reaching out to career centers at business schools not just for traditional full-time MBA hiring intakes, but for all openings where MBA skills are sought.

“If an employer is posting a ‘just in time’ job with us, they want access to students in all our programs and do not differentiate,” says Moye. “We consider this a great thing. Our talent bench is deep, and employers appreciate that right now.”

The Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) in Sydney has been in the online market longer than most, and it fully expects to see an explosion of competing Online MBA programs across the whole spectrum of business schools in the coming years.

“The stigma or concerns came from online business degrees that were delivered by lesser business schools,” says Maurizio Floris, director of the MBAX online programs at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) in Sydney. “However, what we are seeing now is that more top business schools are entering this market around the world.”

In some cases, schools are first launching online specialized masters programs to build deeper capability. “Once the confidence is there and they feel the risk to the brand of their flagship MBA programs has dissipated, they will also deliver Online MBAs,” Floris says.

For many previous sceptics, he says Covid has transformed their perception of the potential and value of an Online MBA. “The pandemic has demonstrated that a lot more is possible than they thought. While from a social perspective, more deliberate effort is required to build connections with fellow students, the actual learning is as strong online as it is face-to-face.”

Further work to do

What has held online learning back in the past has been resistance from students but also resistance from faculty who had not grown up being exposed to online learning and who had developed deep skills facilitating learning in a face-to-face environment.

“Having to move classes online, for many institutions and courses, within record time [during Covid], made resistance irrelevant as there was no time for or interest in listening to reasons why it couldn’t be done,” says Floris.

Yet there is further work still to do on raising the profile of online business degrees. “The biggest challenge isn’t about changing employer perceptions of online education; it’s about helping them recognize the value that that having employees with a quality MBA degree can bring to organizations of all kinds, from social enterprises and NGOs, through to SMEs and multinationals,” says Loades at ESMT. “After all, a major driver for any student to study for an MBA to increase their employability and increase career options.”

Floris agrees that schools must emphasize the advantages of online learning for the individual, too, which include the assurance the disruptions that life may throw at you are likely easier to manage if you study online than if you study face-to-face. “This is in addition to the time that is saved on travel to and from campus,” he adds.

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