Online MBA programs have ballooned in popularity, in part thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced business schools to invest more in online delivery. The quality of online teaching varies significantly, though, both in terms of the technology that students use to interact with professors and classmates, and the availably of networking events. Not to mention the cost variations.
“Part of the increase is related to students preferring online alternatives, but it’s also due to the countercyclical nature of MBA programs, as they provide skills that are essential for students to face a more challenging job market,” says Paulo Prochno, assistant dean for online programs at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business.
He says that “synchronous” live sessions are essential to a good Online MBA. “An MBA program is about learning new skills, but it’s also about increasing self-awareness, learning how to collaborate more effectively, exchanging knowledge with peers and building a professional network.”
His students meet virtually twice a week to attend lively synchronous sessions. Most faculty use breakout rooms for small-group discussions, “allowing students to have an experience similar to being in a face-to-face environment”.
Even online, you learn by doing
Course interactivity is crucial. SMU Cox School of Business strives to provide online students with as many experiential learning opportunities as possible. “Students learn more by doing than just reading, hearing a lecture and taking a test,” says David Jacobson, executive director of online education. “We prioritize engagement in every element of the course.”
All of the online classes at SMU are held in real-time. “There are simulations, group problem solving, debates, break-out sessions and other tools to ensure that the live sessions are packed with hands-on learning experiences,” says Jacobson.
Another important aspect is having relevant classes, with students applying what they learn immediately in the workplace.
The caliber of the faculty must also be factored into choice of program. Chioma Isiadinso, founder and chief executive of admissions agency Expartus, says prospective students should look out for a combination of academic rigor and practical expertise. “To be taught by faculty who share those real experiences with their students is significantly valuable.”
She adds that selectivity in admissions is important. “Applicants should research what the admissions criteria are. Programs that have fewer barriers are likely to admit lower-caliber students, which in turn impacts the quality of the class engagement.”
Post-Online MBA career opportunities
Applicants should also consider career opportunities after the Online MBA. “The impact of the degree on the careers of alumni is a great way to gauge whether the investment is worth it,” says Isiadinso.
Networking opportunities are important in landing jobs. At SMU Cox, online students have the opportunity to network through the two required “immersions”. These four-day-long trips bring students together to consult with companies and nonprofits on complex business issues. During the immersion, students have the opportunity to build their network with fellow students, faculty, staff, corporate partners and guest speakers.
“Networking is an essential part of the SMU Cox Online MBA and opportunities to expand our students’ networks are built into the program in numerous ways,” says Jillian Melton, director of Online MBA admissions. She adds that students can take part in a mentorship program as well as student-led clubs, all online.
Back at Maryland’s Smith School, regional networking events are held regularly. In addition, there are on-campus residencies, which are designed to build and strengthen relationships among students and faculty. However, Prochno says that networking events are moving online in the wider business world. “Our online students participate in virtual job fairs and mock interviews through our Office of Career Services.”
As such, like Maryland’s Smith School, SMU Cox is enjoying an increase in interest for its Online MBA. “Students value the flexibility to take classes from anywhere as they work to improve their business skills, gain valuable leadership and management knowledge and experience, and improve their analytical mindset to solve complex problems,” says Melton.
“All of these skills are needed now more than ever in this rapidly changing world. In the future, business leaders who are adept at navigating complex landscapes and challenges, will be in high demand in the job market.”