The Power of the Online MBA

A whole host of schools are rolling out Online MBA programs this fall – but do the advantages of online outweigh the disadvantages?

Dan Bursch, director of the online MBA at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, says he once had a student attend class from 10 different countries. He’s also had students complete the program from an oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Another student attended class when she was in labor in the delivery room.

The ability to attend class from anywhere is just one of the myriad of reasons that more and more MBA programs are rolling out online programs alongside their traditional MBA offerings. This fall, the University of Miami's School of Business Administration, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Kansas School of Business, the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, and William and Mary's Mason School of Business will all pioneer new online-only MBA programs, targeting learners who don't have the time, resources or desire to drop everything to pursue a full-time or in-person program.

And the trend isn’t just limited to American business schools. Newcastle University in the United Kingdom announced in 2014 that it plans to roll out a new online MBA program. New Zealand's University of Otago said in 2014 that it would launch an online MBA in 2015, while Australia's AGSM business school announced the same earlier this year.

John Matsusaka, the Charles F. Sexton Chair in American Enterprise at USC's Marshall School, says he and his colleagues read the writing on the wall when they decided to start an online MBA program at the school.

“We saw the way students live today,” Matsusaka says. “They buy everything over the Internet. They network over the Internet. They watch movies over the Internet. They find their spouses over the Internet.”

Balancing work and study with an Online MBA

For Jennifer Mull, a corporate real estate analyst from St. Louis who wants to transition to a career as a corporate lawyer, the decision to pursue an Online MBA was simple: she didn't want to give up her life.

“It's very daunting to stop working full-time for two years, especially after establishing a home and going down the path of a family,” says Mull, who also cheers for the St. Louis Rams full-time.

Mull, who is currently enrolled in UNC’s Online MBA program, says the advantages of the program are beyond what she ever dreamed. Most schools that offer an online program hold weekly discussion sessions between professors and students, where the instructor and all students have webcams and microphones that allow them to hear and see each other. For Mull, that online model encourages better communication than the traditional classroom model, since webcams allow her and other students to see each other's faces, instead of just the back of heads as they look at the professor.

But what about these programs' reputations? Does an online MBA provide the same level of education as an in-person program, and is it perceived as well in the job marketplace? Officials say the educational quality of these programs is only getting better, thanks to technological innovations.

“When online programs first started, schools took the program and put it online,” says Pam Suzadail, program director at William and Mary.

“As technology has evolved and gotten better, collaboration tools have gotten better. Faculty have taken ideas and they use the technology to deliver something special.”

As for how these programs are perceived in the marketplace, Sandra Chrystal, Vice Dean for Online Learning at USC - Marshall, says the reputation of the overall program is more important than whether the program is online or in-person.

“The Kelley School [at Indiana University] has a wonderful online MBA and a wonderful residential program, so I don't think anyone's going to be concerned about the difference in quality,” Chrystal says.

“If you know you have a school with quality education historically, they're going to have quality education online too.”

Some officials say that one disadvantage of online programs is that they don't allow students to build friendships, business relationships and networks.

“That's the one thing that you can't completely replicate: interpersonal relationships with the other students, and that capacity to effectively network and enjoy the nuances of one another's company, and the diversity of personalities in the classroom as they move through,” says Dee Steinle, Administrative Director of Masters Programs at the University of Kansas’ School of Business.

For that reason, some officials have designed their new programs specifically to encourage networking.

“We're requiring them to come to campus for three days, meet each other, meet students, touch the bricks and mortar,” says William & Mary’s Suzadail.

But Jennifer Mull has a different perspective: she’s found that online classes actually help students network, instead of hurting. She says since online classes aren't tied to a specific location, she's able to meet people from all over the country in her program, instead of only people in St. Louis.

In-class MBA vs. Online MBA: different strokes for different folks

USC’s Matsusaka points out that different learners might be drawn to different kinds of classes, with some students favoring online programs and others needing face-to-face time.

“If you study how people learn, if you're the type of student who really learns from face-to-face interaction, then being in the classroom is probably going to enhance your learning. But if you want to read the materials first and reflect on them, then online is probably better,” Matsusaka says.

And if you are the type of student who thrives in an online environment, then you're in luck. The average salaries of graduates who attended top-ranked online programs from schools like IE Business School and Bradford University School of Management increased by over 40 percent over their pre-program salaries, according to the current Online MBA ranking from the Financial Times.

In any case, most officials agree that online MBA programs are here to stay, and are only getting more popular.

Bursch says that UNC launched their online MBA in 2011, with a 19-student cohort. Since then, he's seen more than 1000 students finish the program—and he thinks more and more schools are going to jump into the online arena in the coming years.

“Now that you're seeing top 20 schools doing online MBAs, it's going to continue to take a grip and evolve, and I think it won't be long before you see half of those top 20 business schools with online MBA programs,” Bursch says.

“I think that's right around the corner.”

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