Top-ranking schools such as Spain’s IE Business School and Warwick Business School in the UK have taught online MBA programs alongside their traditional full-time MBAs – with much success.
“The development of the social web is enabling levels of interaction, engagement and collaborative working online that we couldn’t have imagined even five years ago – and we are only at the start of that revolution,” says Simon Nelson, chief executive of Future Learn, the online course provider.
Now, top schools in the United States, such as Kenan-Flagler at the University of North Carolina, which has an online-based MBA@UNC program, are backing the online mode of delivery.
Business schools announce a new online MBA program on an almost weekly basis. Imperial College Business School will launch a new online MBA in January 2015, and Baylor University in Texas will be teaching its MBA program online from May this year.
Most rely on technology platforms that are developed by outside companies. Italy’s MIP Politecnico di Milano, for example, developed an exclusive platform with Microsoft in 2013. Their Flex EMBA is set to launch later this year.
Imperial’s new online-based Global MBA will use a similar technology through their new online learning platform, The Hub. State-of-the-art technology has allows business schools to improve the standard of online programs. Imperial’s Dean, Professor G. Anandalingam, agrees.
“We will have students from at least three different time-zones who will study together, despite the fact that they are not in the same place. We think this will allow students to have a fantastic experience,” says the Dean.
He thinks the program will prove popular across the globe because of the flexibility. But with fees of £30,000, which is close to the traditional EMBA they run in London, this may be considered a premium program. “But we know that most people can’t take too much time off work to enter full-time MBA programs,” says Dean Anandalingam.
“This new program allows students all over the world to get a world-class degree [remotely].”
Interest in online and distance learning has risen to a high of 23.5 per cent, according to an applicant survey by QS. Those that take online programs are older, with more years of experience. But entrepreneurs are enrolling too.
Casey Wahl studied IE’s Executive MBA+, a blended online and face-to-face program. He launched Wahl & Case K.K, an executive search firm, about three years ago in Japan. “The program is hard, but it’s hard in terms of the challenging nature of setting aside the time to do it,” says Casey, whose company has 30 employees in Tokyo.
“There is a lot of energy and passion [on the program], but you need the focus, the focus of setting aside the time.”
But interest in full-time study has declined by 0.7 per cent. Just 38 per cent of European full-time one-year MBA programs reported increased application volume last year, according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC).
Programs in the Asia-Pacific region also slowed in the 2013-14 year, with 33 per cent less applications compared with 2012. U.S schools have reported no increased application demand at all in recent years.
“A lot of our students spoke about the need for flexibility. They have increasing travel demands and it can be a real challenge to attend the traditional face-to-face classes,” says Federico Frattini, the director of MIP’s new online MBA.
“More and more students want to be able to continue doing their job without taking so many days out of their agenda.”
Online MBAs are just one example of an explosion of both formal and informal distance learning. Business schools that teach campus-based programs are increasingly putting their course material online and giving students video recordings in advance of classes.
Leading U.S schools like Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan are experimenting with Moocs - massive open online courses. The Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania has placed 10 per cent of its MBA courses online, which are accessible for free.
Grenoble Ecole de Management, a top business school in France, is developing Moocs in geopolitics, innovation and research methods. Most Moocs use technology developed by companies such as Coursera or Future Learn.
But there are many obstacles to overcome, in particular ensuring that those who enrol on programs complete them. And ensuring quality of education.
Many argue that Moocs are brand-building initiatives. “I don’t understand yet how Moocs could ever replace that tangible experience,” says David Simmons, Executive Director of the full-time MBA at Cranfield University.
“What students don’t get is the interaction, the conversations. They don’t get the networks in the same way. I don’t think we’ve reached a point where face-to-face interactions can be replaced by online experience.”
Engagement is just one of many problems yet to be fully resolved on the online frontier. Students on online MBA programs do not get as much face-to-face networking opportunities.
“It’s a concern to us, to make sure students feel they are really part of this university,” says Dean Anandalingam. “We will have some pre-recorded lectures in video format, but there will also be real-time lectures and coursework for every course.”
MIP’s Flex EMBA students will still meet in person, says Federico. “You will still be able to create networks and in a traditional format. And this is boosted by face-to-face interactions with students on the other MBA programs,” he says.
He also points out that although many programs have older cohorts, some European schools are becoming increasingly younger.
Dr Ashutosh Deshmukh, Program Chair of Penn State's online-only iMBA, is sceptical about Moocs, but insists online MBA degrees do not lack networking. “IMBA students network with their teammates, and also with the other students in the cohort. We also assign alums as mentors to students,” he says.
The market is becoming more competitive, although there is still potential for growth.
But online MBAs are not just cash-cows. MIP's Federico says that although traditional distance learning and online MBAs have been a "one-way process", new technology has changed the game.
“They are normally content replicators. But we believe in peer-to-peer learning and new technology allows us to enable that online.”