What is the Future of the Online MBA?

Business schools are creating unique learning pathways that enable students to move fluidly between numerous degree formats.

Course administrators say the coronavirus crisis has thrown a long-term trend into sharp relief: the greater desire for flexibility in business education. Prospective students are increasingly demanding the choice to switch between different modes of learning, whether that’s online or offline, full-time or part-time, or some blend of these options.

“COVID-19 has really emphasized the need for flexibility between the modes,” says Maurizio Floris, director for the MBAX programs at Sydney’s UNSW Business School. “Not only have there been restrictions on how many people can be in the classroom, but people also want the flexibility to change jobs. They’re not sure, or at least not confident, that for the next three to four years, one particular study mode is going to be right for them.”

For more and more prospective students, the flexibility of choosing what works for them right now, but also being able to change in the future, is increasingly important. In response to such demands, business schools are not standing still. They are answering the market’s call by launching entirely new degree program offerings.  

More flexibility

The boundaries between degree formats are blurring, so much so that some administrators say prospective students no longer have to make binary choices between delivery modes. Traditionally, the full-time, online and part-time MBA degrees were distinct and separate products. Now, schools are creating unique learning pathways that enable students to move fluidly between numerous degree formats.

UNSW Business School is a case in point. The school offers two online and two face-to-face modes, and MBA students can switch formats. For example, for those students studying part-time, “some will choose 100 percent online, others will prefer face-to-face, but the majority of our students mix and match”, says Floris.

“Our students are busy working professionals who need to be able to fit their studies around their other commitments — and they don’t want to be in a position where there is a trade-off between quality and flexibility,” he says.

UNSW is not the only business school creating these innovative learning pathways. The Tepper School of Business, in the US, offers the Part-Time Flex (Online) MBA, which offers a similar degree of flexibility to participants. After students complete the core courses, they can tailor the degree with on-campus or online electives at the times that suit them best. In addition, these students can switch to the school’s full-time MBA program.

“Our Part-Time Flex students would prefer to keep working while earning their MBA, but they don’t want to miss out on the in-person experience entirely,” says Cindy McCauley, executive director of online masters programs at Tepper. “As such, a hybrid approach works perfectly for them.”

She adds: “We often see our candidates choosing between our program and full-time programs, not necessarily other online programs, which illustrates this new market that falls somewhere in the middle.”

It works at Tepper because the programs are identical with the same admissions standards and curriculum. “We think students want this kind of flexibility, but it works only when the online program mirrors the campus program and creates the opportunity for a seamless transition,” says  McCauley. “Many schools have lower admission standards and entirely different faculty and coursework for their online program, making it difficult to allow the fluidity students want.”

Something for everybody

Nick Barniville, director of the EdTech Lab at ESMT Berlin, also sees these new flexible pathways as a growth area for business education. “I see online students having more on-campus opportunities to mix with offline programs in the future,” he says. “However, given the cohort-based nature of in-person programs, I don’t expect that schools or candidates will be interested in a completely liquid environment.”

And, as Online MBA programs converge with full-time and part-time formats, could there be a risk of product cannibalization? UNSW’s Floris thinks not. “There is space for a variety of MBA program experiences,” he says. “We’ve seen demand growing or remaining consistently strong for online, part-time, and full-time MBA programs.”

In addition, students who want an Online MBA tend to have a very different profile to those who want to undertake a full-time MBA, says Floris. “For part-time students that can’t take a year out of the workforce to complete a full-time MBA, we provide an omni-channel model that allows students to select the mode of study that suits them best.”

Looking ahead, he believes that more business schools will deliver Online MBAs because of COVID-19. In addition, more business schools have moved into hybrid delivery, when you have both online and face-to-face students in the same class. “That can be tempting, but it’s deceptively difficult to make work as it requires a high level of support and non-obvious technical and facilitator capability,” says Floris.

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