Inside Online MBA Programs

With the advance of technology, Online MBAs are gaining popularity amongst professionals needing the flexibility of a blended or distance-learning program.

Glen Menezes had been thinking about an MBA for about five years before he actually decided to pursue one—but there was always too much going on at work. 

“I was working 60, 70-hour weeks as a director at a digital advertising agency, so taking time out to do an MBA was never really a viable option,” he says.

He’d considered an Online MBA several times, but “realistically, it didn’t have the same clout,” he recalls. “It just didn’t seem to have the same standing as a traditional MBA.”

And he thought that until he began looking into the Online MBA at Imperial College London just over two years ago. He did a lot of research, compared programs, and was finally convinced by the format of the course, its professors, as well as the location. “I came to realize that really, this was the only way forward for me.” 

Burgeoning roster of online MBA programs

Unwilling to give up their work-life balance, many young professionals like Menezes have opted for Online MBA programs.

Indeed, in the past few years, Online MBA programs have become more prevalent, and accepted. In 2014, the Financial Times published its first ranking of Online MBA programs, signaling that there were enough good programs out there to warrant an actual ranking. And in 2017, the Princeton Review for the first time ever ranked Online MBAs—a clear indication of the growth in viable and respected programs. 

In the US, the top three rated programs in that Princeton Review ranking are The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Indiana University’s Bloomington Kelley School of Business, and Temple University’s Fox School of Business Management.

In Europe, IE Business School, Warwick Business School, Durham University Business School and Imperial College are also top-ranked programs that have garnered some accolades for their Online MBAs. These programs are also are ranked in the Financial Times’ current Online MBA Ranking.

See a list of Online MBA programs

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in enrollment, and this year in particular,” says Julie Hodges, associate dean for MBA Programs at Durham. She says that the typical profile of an Online MBA student is someone currently working full time, usually at the middle to senior management level. Durham’s program also allows a blended approach, where students can attend classes on campus; roughly 20 percent choose to do it entirely online, Hodges notes.

Imperial College also launched its online course in January 2015 after a long road of research and consideration about how to enter the online market. It had offered a distance learning program in the past, but decided to own its own technology going forward, instead of using third-party software suppliers. 

“For us, the technology was a big game-changer,” says Paolo Taticchi, director of the Weekend MBA and Global Online MBA at Imperial. “Virtual learning environments are typically used to support face-to-face on-campus programs; they were not really designed for the delivery of online modules. So the classic problem you have is the aesthetics of that learning experience—the engagement is very low. So we put a lot of resources into developing the expertise and capacity in house, just devoted to the business school.”

How Online MBAs work

Different Online MBA programs provide a spectrum of interfaces and learning options. At Imperial, the course offers options like video learning, live lectures, quizzes, and case study analysis activities. The approach is that every module is a combination of ten stages, with each stage comprising eight to ten different activities. Modules are tailored to the topic matter, Taticchi notes; certain courses might have more online simulation or case studies, while others will offer more traditional lectures and quizzes. 

“We also work with a teaching assistant to review the material, or speak with professors themselves during live lectures, face-to-face,” Menezes adds. “That’s always really nice.”

The interface at Imperial’s Online MBA program is designed to mimic current-day social media networks like Facebook; for instance, students who sign in to modules can see what other classmates are online, and are able to start chats or video calls. Live feedback tools have also upped engagement; students can vote on certain case analysis questions in class, for instance, and instantly see live infographics about which way the class voted on that particular issue. And the school’s technology also processes a massive amount of data about student usage behavior during modules, allowing the tech team to further tailor the program as it develops. 

Durham relies mostly on Blackboard, one of the most prominent educational software platforms. There are live classes, webinars, group online activities, forums, and case study analyses. Assignments can also vary—from individual written analyses to reflective journals and group presentations. One of the key things Durham has tried to advance is student engagement online, which can always be challenging in distance-learning programs. One tactic to improve engagement, for example, has been to make lecture videos shorter.

“We’ve learned that students don’t want to sit down and watch 30- to 40-minute videos; they like shorter input,” Hodges says. “That way they’re really focused on the learning. We’ve learned from that. It’s all about how we can better facilitate student engagement.”

The value of Online MBAs

There’s traditionally been a stigma associated with online degrees, particularly in the business school space, where, especially for MBAs, branding and pedigree are often prized as the ultimate value. But those in the space—and students alike—are saying that views are changing. 

“I’m not 100 percent convinced the stigma is gone, but I think once people understand the work that’s involved, the technology that’s available, and the learning process that students go through, they could realize that there’s actually a lot of benefits to an online degree that aren’t there in a full-time MBA,” says Menezes, who is currently working at a financial asset firm called Caridon that works with private equity to provide social housing in London.

Taticchi says that the value of an MBA has changed radically in last 15 years; today, it’s more about the learning experience rather than a stamp on a CV that could allow you to net a promotion, he says. 

“If you think about it, a good Online MBA program simulates the way we work today—globalized teamwork, where you can be working on some marketing project with someone based in New York and Dubai,” he adds. “Managing all the challenges of that group work, simply from a time distance perspective—that is something that mirrors today’s job market, and can better prep you than an on campus program ever could.”

Figuring out time management is the top piece of advice Menezes says he’d give prospective online MBA students. “What students really need to think about is their time management—what you’ll need to shift around to get your 20 to 25 hours per week,” he says. “Because you really need to be dedicated to it.”


 

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