Once shunned by some students, the Online MBA is now one the stars of business education, with the coronavirus pandemic helping to drive a 43.5 percent increase in applications for digitally delivered MBAs last year, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.
However, almost all the top Online MBAs included in rankings tables are offered by business schools in North America and Europe, with traditionally very few options available in the Asia Pacific region.
But the global picture is starting to change, with some Asian institutions now seeing the big opportunity in the online degree marketplace. HKUST Business School in Hong Kong announced earlier this year the launch of a fully Online MBA, the first of its kind on the Asian continent among the top-25 business schools ranked by the Financial Times.
Designed for working professionals in Asia who want flexibility in their schedule or geographical mobility, the new Online MBA allows participants to continue their studies without compromising their career, family or personal priorities. Greater flexibility is provided by the 50/50 split between self-paced online study and live virtual classes.
“The virtual classroom brings forward a new generation of education, which allows students from anywhere in the world to connect and immerse in a highly interactive session similar to that in a physical classroom,” says Tai Yuan Chen, associate dean and MBA program director at HKUST.
He cites the increasing global demand for Online MBAs as the main catalyst for HKUST’s move into digital business education. The pandemic has changed the traditional perception of online learning, he says. “The latest virtual learning technologies can provide a more seamless learning experience comparable to an in-person classroom.”
By targeting Asian professionals, Chen says HKUST has overcome one of the main barriers faced by Asian institutions looking to enter the online marketplace: “Due to time-zone differences, it is difficult for Asia-based professionals to join online classes and work with classmates from different regions. Our Digital MBA is designed with the needs and schedule of professionals in Asia in mind.”
Online MBAs in the Asia Pacific region
In the wider Asia Pacific region, a number of business schools in Australia run highly ranked Online MBA programs but course options have been quite limited. Macquarie Business School in Sydney has offered an Online MBA since 2018 on the Coursera online learning platform.
It features a ‘stackable’ model that allows students to earn certificates as they go through the program and start learning before even submitting a formal application. This will be particularly relevant for those with a non-traditional background who want to get up to speed on the basics of business.
Steve Jaynes, interim director of the program at Macquarie, says the value proposition of an Online MBA remains the flexibility for students, strengthened by the increasingly rich and interactive digital technologies that are enhancing the quality of the learning experience. “Study and course progression can be undertaken from any location and at times tailored to student professional and personal commitments,” he says.
A number of other business schools in the Asia Pacific region are now offering Online MBA programs, including the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) in Sydney and University of Otago Business School in New Zealand. Edinburgh Business School, of the UK, runs an Online MBA in Malaysia, while Renmin University Of China offers a blended MBA in Beijing.
Why aren’t more Asia Pacific business schools offering Online MBAs?
Explaining the low uptake among business schools in Asia Pacific, Jaynes says a number of institutions in Australia have focused on face-to-face classes, given the value of building and fostering networks and connections in a physical setting.
This is a sentiment echoed by Katelyn Rosa Stephenson, admissions director of MBA Link, a consultancy in Singapore, which helps prospective students secure places at leading Asian business schools.
“The majority of our clients are looking for a transformative MBA experience,” she says. “This involves not only building knowledge and earning an advanced degree through a formal classroom experience, but interacting in-person with the community and having the opportunity to build relationships.”
While this could happen in a virtual environment, she says that many clients feel a more traditional setting makes it more likely to occur: “Students want the informal interactions between classes, and to be able to have them face-to-face as much as possible.”
In addition, many MBA Link clients want the career service opportunities that tend to be more readily available through a traditional, in-person MBA experience.
A post-Covid embrace of Online MBAs?
That said, business schools in Asia Pacific do expect a future shift driven by Covid towards digital education. “The pandemic has challenged the operation of the [traditional] model and following Covid I would expect to see a further shift to hybrid modes, harnessing the best of digital education technologies together with face-to-face delivery,” says Jaynes at Macquarie.
He also points out that lockdowns have made virtual communication skills and digital leadership more important to businesses. “Student use of digital technologies in learning and communication aligns with the digital transformation ongoing in business, providing another value point for employer recruitment,” he adds.
Chen also believes that more Asian institutions could follow HKUST’s lead and launch Online MBAs in the near future. “The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed universities around the world to focus more on virtual learning,” he says.
“In the past, most online degrees were distance learning options offered by lesser-known institutions. But with more top global universities rushing to join the trend, the recognition and quality of online degrees are being greatly elevated.”