Having just left his job at a US consulting company, Charles Reynolds faced a tough decision: either get an MBA or pursue business opportunities overseas.
He decided to do both, enrolling in Warwick Business School's distance learning MBA program while trying to grow an English-teaching business in Hong Kong.
“I opted for a distance learning program that would allow me the opportunity to spread my studies out if business was fruitful in Hong Kong,” says Reynolds.
Reynolds is one of a growing number of people choosing the flexibility of distance learning, or online, programs over traditional campus-based ones. And many are finding that – though different than the traditional classroom experience – distance learning can be a favorable alternative.
But can distance learning programs provide the same level of education as face-to-face ones?
Bert Valencia, director for Global MBA Programs at Thunderbird School of Management, was so concerned about this that he compared the grades of online students with those in Thunderbird’s traditional full-time program.
“I found no significant difference between the two,” he says. “So, is learning going on? I think it's definitely going on, despite some misconceptions.”
There are certainly a lot of misconceptions about distance learning. According to Rachel Killian of Warwick Business School, many people simply don't know how much distance learning programs have evolved in the past few years.
“The old view of people who study by distance learning is that they sit alone in a room with just their books,and they never talk to anybody,” says Kilian.
“That's just so out of date now.”
The Warwick distance learning MBA program, which saw its first intake in 1986, is one of the oldest, and the program certainly has changed from those first years. Now, according to Killian, classes take place in virtual space, where faculty teach directly to students, and students, through webcams, can engage in discussion.
Students enrolled in the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration Internet MBA programs receive lectures, complete with video and Power Point slides, in the form of downloadable content that they can watch on iPod Touches, which the school provides. According to Alex Sevilla, the director of Warrington’s MBA programs, this is valuable because it allows students to experience and absorb the lectures as many times as they need.
“Not only do you have it that one time when you listen to it and watch it for the first time,” says Sevilla, “but you have it for the rest of your career.”
According to Andrew Atzert, director of Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey MBA Online Program, technology has not just made distance learning methods comparable to being in a classroom; it has actually enhanced the learning experience.
“In a paradoxical way, online can be more interactive,” says Atzert.
He explains that in face-to-face classes, participation can be uneven and dominated by the most talkative students, so “if you're the kind of person who processes and doesn't immediately jump into a discussion, classrooms are challenging.”
In contrast, with distance-based learning programs like Carey’s, much of the interaction takes place online in discussion boards, where students and faculty can ask questions and engage in dialogue. In theory, students can read a submission, think about it, and come back when they’re ready to respond.
“Some students may not think of the best thing to say while they're sitting in class,” says Atzert. “They may not think of it until they go out into the parking lot, or later on when they've thought about it a little more.”
According to Thunderbird’s Bert Valencia, this kind of “asynchronous” learning can provide flexibility for students who are working or otherwise have busy schedules. For Charles Reynolds, who started the Warwick MBA program in 2006, this flexibility has allowed him to work at his own pace while he focuses on his business. In fact, since the business is doing so well, he doesn’t anticipate finishing his MBA until 2011 or 2012.
The agenda isn’t quite the same in an Online MBA
People like Reynolds who do distance learning MBAs are more likely to be what Bert Valencia calls "career climbers - individuals who are working in a job situation that they enjoy and where their companies appreciate them.”
These students are not necessarily looking to get new jobs or huge salary increases, but rather to excel in the company they are already in, or re-tool with new skills.
Warwick’s Rachel Killian agrees. “The agenda isn't quite the same,” she says of distance learning MBA students, compared to their full-time counterparts.“The distance learning MBA students tend to be people who often come from a specialist background, and they just need something to increase their chances of promotion or just boost their career a little bit,” says Kilian.
“Do people get better jobs after doing their MBA?” she asks, “Well, yes, many of them, but not all of them - that's not the reason why everybody does it.”
Andrew Atzert says that W.P. Carey’s online program is, like many other such programs, designed for the working professional. As such, expectations might differ.
“For mid-level people,” he says, “the fact that they got their MBA from a really good school that has an online program versus a school that has a good face-to-face may not make much of a difference.”
For this type of student, online learning can provide experiences that, compared to learning in a classroom, are more analogous to their day-to-day working environments.
“In the real world,” Atzert says, “global businesses do projects that are distributed all the time.”
“And so we ask people to do in our program what they will do in their jobs.”
Practical matters to consider when choosing a distance learning program:
- The quality of the programs can vary drastically. Check if the particular program you are looking at is accredited by a reputable accreditation organization.
- Programs can offer a wide variety of methods for delivering content, be it podcasts, live satellite feeds, or discussion boards.
- Some programs require short on-campus residences at the beginning or end of each semester.
- Make sure that if your program requires you to install software, that your computer is up-to-spec.
Photo: RogDel / Creative Commons (cropped)