Is an Online MBA for You?
January 12, 2017
The online grad school experience is something that isn't always treated with the same respect as programs that are taught at physical campuses. And with good reason: you don't have to work very hard to find examples of unscrupulous providers who are essentially trading qualifications for cash, with little in the way of learning happening between the two ends of the exchange.
But, in recent years, many more reputable schools have begun offering their programs--or portions of them--digitally, a move that widens access and increases the ability of students to fit further education into their lives without having to put their careers on hold. And that trend seems like it's here to stay:
"While the education sector hasn't been digitally disrupted in the way that other industries have, the current trends suggest a future of increasingly technologically and sophisticated online programs."
That quote sums up much of what the video below, from the Wall Street Journal, has to say about how several top schools—including IESE and UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School—are beginning to integrate technology into their MBA programs.
While the video provides some great insight into some of the factors to consider when you're thinking about selecting an MBA program, I'd argue that it rather buries the lede here. Sure, the ability of schools to bring the intensity of a live lecture experience into the online environment is a great development. But, as someone who is a mere dozen credits away from completing a mostly-online Masters program (through Boston University), my own experience is that the major benefits of the online sections of the program are twofold: first, the ability to access the information almost entirely on my own schedule (whether that's being able to participate in live lectures, or simply having the option to re-watch or catch up on the ones I couldn't attend when my schedule didn't permit it); and, second, having the ability to work with fellow students who are distributed around the globe.
Both of those reasons are hinted at in the video, but they get a little lost in the focus on things like schools' ability to use software to figure out if the student is engaged. Don't get me wrong: that's a great development, but it's one that benefits the schools and their future students more than their current intake—the schools because they get the opportunity to refine and improve their programs, and the future students who will be the beneficiaries of that feedback.
For me, one of the major benefits—perhaps the major benefit—of having all my lectures online is that, when I'm having a bad day in terms of my ability to focus, I can walk away and resume at a time when I'm more likely to make it through without glazing over and failing to retain the information. Sure, that occasionally means that I miss out on the ability to interact during with classmates and professors during a class, but in a setting where everyone understands that schedules can be tough, I've found that reaching out to people with questions and comments after the class can be just as effective and thought-provoking.
Additionally, having the ability to connect and share ideas with students from a wide range of backgrounds cannot be overstated. In my case, to date I've worked on projects with fellow students from all over the US, as well as in Europe and the Middle East, all from the comfort of my own home. Those conversations have been invaluable in enhancing my ability to look at problems or issues from different perspectives and through different cultural lenses—something that the WSJ video again mentions, but all too briefly as one of the selling points of the digital MBA.
Having made it this far through my program, I'm a firm advocate for the online Masters experience and am excited to see where MBA programs go from here. Opening up the experience to people who have neither the time or geographical ability to be able to attend a full time, on-campus program is a great step forward, but one that creates additional selection criteria for would-be students. As such, the delivery method and platform for the program is something you should pay close attention to if you're considering taking the plunge—including how comfortable you are with the concept of working and interacting with groups of people that you may never actually meet in person. If you can get over that hurdle—and the occasional sense of isolation it brings—then a class with a digital component may well be the right choice for you.
by Phil Stott