Especially for a younger generation, the prospect of a more flexible and affordable alternative to a full-time master's is certainly appealing. Carrington Crisp's Tommorrow's Masters Survey 2022 reveals 58% of candidates are now more inclined to study most or all of their master's degree online.
However, understandably, when making such an investment there remains the concern for many over whether an online program offers the same value as an in-person master's degree—especially in regards to networking and return on investment (ROI).
So are online masters degrees worth your time?
Online masters degrees | What can you expect?
Online masters degrees encompass a broad range of programs delivered on a variety of topics and formats. These range from the generalist to the specialist, from the pre-experience to the post-experience.
There are online Masters in Management, like the Online MSc in Business & Management at Aston Business School or Thunderbird School of Global Management’s Online Master’s in Applied Leadership & Management (MALM). There are online Masters in Finance, like the Online MS in Finance at Kelley School of Business and the Online MSc in Financial Management at Edinburgh Business School. There are online Masters in Business Analytics, at schools like Imperial College Business School and Columbia Business School.
When it comes to delivery, learning can be described as either synchronous or asynchronous.
Synchronous programs are where learning is done in a live, instant setting. This may be, for instance, through Zoom seminars or virtual classrooms. Asynchronous programs, meanwhile, are completed at your own pace at your time of choosing. These may range from interactive case studies, lecture recordings, as well as group work outside of scheduled hours.
Few schools definitively opt for synchronous or asynchronous—the majority will choose a hybrid of the two. Some programs even offer in-person components too, inviting students to campus for seminars or orientation weeks.
Since business schools were forced to quickly adapt and move online during the pandemic, there has been a surge in the EdTech innovations at business schools. This means many master's programs are offering more unique forms of learning such as gamification, more engaging and interactive virtual content, or even campuses in the Metaverse.
Online masters degrees | What are the benefits
There are four main benefits of online masters degrees.
1. Flexibility and accessibility
Flexibility and accessibility both drive online education in general, and it’s no different for online masters degrees. The Tomorrow’s Masters study finds that costs (both tuition fees and living costs) and having to move to a new location are among the biggest factors for putting off masters students.
An online masters will allow you to choose when and where you are studying, as well as how you complete your studies. Crucially, they can be completed alongside a full-time job, rather than instead of it.
Thunderbird dean Sanjeev Khagram (pictured right) sees this as a key differentiator for their target candidates.
“It matches the lifestyles of working professionals. Most masters students are working professionals, so it's ordinarily a huge tradeoff to leave your career for one or two years,” Sanjeev says.
Online masters degrees tend to allow you to choose a more specialized masters degree, which is well-suited to candidates not looking for generalist education but rather to strengthen an area of expertise. This is clear through the breadth of programs, from traditional masters topics on management, finance, and business analytics, to nicher areas such as strategic marketing (at Imperial).
Specialization is also related to customization, which is another big factor for online masters candidates. Students can customize and design their degrees around their own needs.
Many schools offer access to online masters courses, through massive open online course (MOOC) platforms like Coursera, which students can take either independently, or redeem as credits to count towards a masters. These ‘stackable’ options are attractive for students looking to brush up on specific subjects before opting into the master’s program.
Sanjeev believes popularity for these types of courses may reflect a shift away from broader programs like the MBA, and towards specialized masters. Thunderbird actually stopped offering a full-time MBA some years ago. “The future is full customization,” he says.
There can be a significant difference between the cost of full-time and online masters degrees. At Thunderbird, this is clearest, where the MALM program costs half of their flagship Master of Global Management. This is similar at Aston, where their Online MSc in Business & Management is half the price of the full time version of the same program.
Some schools charge tuition per credit hour, such as at Kelley.
Imperial has deliberately made the cost of its online masters degrees exactly the same as their full-time counterparts, in a bid to demonstrate students will get the same experience, and that price shouldn't factor into your decision.
Plus, studying your master's degree online also means you won't have any additional costs for accommodation or travel. You'll also be able to work whilst you study, if you choose to, which can further help to offset the cost of the program.
Online masters degrees | Are they the same as full-time?
While online masters offer the same world class education, it’s hard to ignore the differences in online delivery.
Sitting in a physical classroom has many benefits, from the instant access to faculty to the ability to build relationships with the class around you. This “experiential element”, however, is not lost in online programs, insists Leila Guerra, vice dean of education at Imperial.
“You may have less access to the campus, but you still have the same networking and collaboration opportunities, pastoral care, and access to faculty,” she says.
Online learning isn’t just sitting in front of a YouTube video. Leila explains how the educational technology (edtech) team at Imperial has designed a multi-faceted online experience to integrate interaction inside and outside the classroom.
The career benefits do not diminish either. Sanjeev points to T-Bird Connect, the platform that students from all Thunderbird programs get access to, which as well as connecting students and alumni, has a dynamic career marketplace allowing online students access to job opportunities as they come about.
Studying alongside a full time job may help you apply what you’re learning in real time, which could have a huge impact on your progression. Guilhem Loisel-McFadden, a student on the Online Masters in Strategic Marketing at Imperial, had just received a job offer when he decided to enrol in the masters. “I could gain practical work experience while gaining new knowledge and skills.”
Studying an online program may even be a career differentiator. “Businesses place a high value on transferable skills such as time management and project management that students develop as they balance work, studies and personal commitments,” explains Gemma Robertson, Imperial’s director of employer relations.
Some argue that online masters degrees fail to fully replicate a full-time campus experience. Yet post-pandemic, online has become the default, and few would argue that online programs cannot offer a rich business education, often at a fraction of the cost.
Hybrid is increasingly the preferred option, allowing students a full flexible experience in which they can choose to be in-person or online (synchronously or asynchronously). Online masters degrees are clearly driving this change, offering flexible, specialist programs, with opportunities to customize or ‘stack’ courses.
As the line blurs between programs that are in-person and online, online masters degrees will likely be considered with greater weight by both the industry and by employers. For prospective online masters degree candidates, this is great news.