Online MBAs Retain Edge over Digital Alternatives

For those looking to get ahead in business, the virtual study options have never been wider

The coronavirus pandemic has ignited a thirst for knowledge among the global workforce, with many professionals looking to upgrade their credentials during the economic uncertainty. For those looking to get ahead in business especially, the study options have never been wider.

Business schools have increasingly launched new Online MBA programs that are delivered through the internet at times convenient to students, with some live sessions and periodic residential visits.

The convenience and flexibility of online learning has proved to be a big draw for students, who have been signing up to Online MBAs in their droves. But these degree programs are not the only game in town, far from it.

Many options

The pandemic has given new life to online education platforms such as Coursera, 2U, Udacity and FutureLearn, which offer increasingly popular and lower cost alternatives to degree programs such as Online MBAs.

“Students in search of online education have plenty of great options, from bootcamps and short courses to more traditional degree programs,” says George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business in Houston, Texas.

He believes that competition has been good for the marketplace, benefitting students the most. “If anything, Online MBAs have been forced to evolve and improve with the advent of these more specific alternatives,” says Andrews. “Each of these are chances to develop new skills or build on existing ones, which is why we view the alternative online programs as collaborators.”

Rice’s Online MBA program was launched in partnership with 2U, an American educational technology company that contracts with universities to offer online degree programs.

These upstart platforms emerged several years ago with grand ambitions to democratize access to higher education through bite-sized learning known as massive open online courses, or Moocs.

The courses proved to be wildly popular, but they suffered from high dropout rates and the platforms pivoted into full degree programs and vocational training instead, often striking partnerships with universities and business schools.

How Online MBAs are democratizing education

Gies College of Business, of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, launched its Online MBA with Coursera, an online course provider founded in 2012 by Stanford University professors.

Brooke Elliott, associate dean at Gies, says the partnership has been “immensely beneficial” as it enables the business school to share its content with a global audience — content that can be accessed anywhere at any time.

“Our mission to democratize education means providing training to everyone, including those pursuing Moocs,” she says. “Those open courses can be stacked into the degree, or not — we have paths for every learner.”

Elliott says the online model has proved itself: “Not only have we seen more comfort with online modality over the past 18 months as a result of the pandemic, but our students are achieving their goals and career outcomes as a result of the online delivery. I expect this market to continue to grow.”

In fact, Gies made the decision to discontinue its residential MBA program and invest heavily in the online space because of the opportunity it offers students. But other schools insist that face-to-face learning will always have a firm place in business education.

“It doesn’t need to be either online or in-person teaching: we use a combination in our online program,” says Brad Staats, associate dean of MBA programs at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  “The issue is the best format for the student — in terms of how they want to learn, their professional goals and personal priorities.”

UNC’s Online MBA attracts people who have jobs in organizations where they want to advance, and those who don’t want to uproot their family to relocate. In addition, they want to keep earning their salaries while they earn their MBA.

The program was founded in partnership with 2U, which is seen within UNC as a mutually beneficial arrangement. “We can focus on the curriculum, crafting exceptional experiential learning and networking experiences, and offer customized and high-touch career coaching and leadership programming,” says Staats.

However, he recognizes the need to remain relevant in a more crowded marketplace. “We continue to innovate every year, offering more electives, more experiential learning, more opportunity to develop strong relationships with classmates and faculty, more career support and coaching,” he says.

What differentiates UNC from the newer online rivals, he reckons, is faculty who are skilled at curricula design and teaching in an online format, along with almost 2,500 graduates who have formed strong bonds with each other as well as the other Kenan-Flagler alumni worldwide.

It’s a similar story at other academic institutions which insist that their teaching and research, alumni networks and career outcomes remain hard to beat.

“Twenty years ago, it would be impossible to get such an intensive MBA experience while continuing to advance as a working professional,” says Andrews at Rice Business. “Today, our online students are acquiring new skills in the classroom and then directly applying them to their jobs the very next day.”

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