Online MBAs have exploded onto the business school scene and 2014 looks set to be a year of tech-enabled distance learning. MBA students swapping blazers and ties for bathrobes and slippers may well become the norm.
Imperial College Business School, a leading UK institution, has just launched a new Global MBA – a program that will be taught almost entirely online. They aim to deliver an outstanding course with the flexibility increasingly demanded by the modern business student.
And there is no doubt that they are fulfilling a need in the MBA community. Demand for online and distance learning has increased, while interest in the traditional full-time MBA has declined. According to QS Top MBA, interest in online learning has risen to a high of 16.2 per cent.
The combined number of those interested in online learning and distance learning is 23.5 per cent, while interest in full-time study has declined by 0.7 per cent, according to the same study.
And by 2020, could there be more online programs than there are bricks-and-mortar courses? Will every business school have to adapt to changing times?
The question Imperial asks itself, says Imperial’s Dean, Professor G. Anandalingam, is why haven’t we launched an online-based MBA sooner? “Online education has really taken off all over the world. We know that most people can’t take too much time off work to enter full-time MBA programs. This new program allows students all over the world to get a world-class degree [remotely],” he says.
Imperial’s new Global MBA will use a “bespoke” online learning platform, The Hub, enabling students to study and interact with each other and their tutors during live lectures and online forums.
Through The Hub, MBA students will be able to track their progress in real-time and benchmark their work against other classmates. The technology will enable academics to group participants into time-zones so that they can collaborate on projects and assignments.
Students will also have the opportunity to network with alumni and corporate partners through interactive forums and social media platforms – negating one of the main criticisms of online programs.
Although there will be some face-to-face learning; students will spend three weeks out of the two-year program on campus.
When the first global online and distance learning rankings were released last month, European schools came up trumps – and Imperial was ranked an impressive sixth out of the 30 leading universities included in the table.
Of the top-ten schools included in the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings, six were based in the UK. IE Business School came first, with Manchester Business School and Henley Business School also making it into the elite list.
There has been a rise in online/ distance programs in recent years, but the difference in quality between them varies significantly. Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) have recently caused controversy in the MBA community, and there is little regulation of the sector.
Imperial’s new program has been introduced partly in response to the rise of Moocs’ popularity, says Dean Anandalingam. Nearly four million students have registered with Moocs world-wide.
“But what we’re trying to do is not ‘massive’, because we want students to personalize the experience of being an Imperial student,” he says. “As a result, we have the same admissions process as for all out other programs, and we have the same quality of exams, assignments and grading.”
There has been a rise in online programs across Europe, meaning schools need to offer something unique to stand out in the MBA community. The state-of-the-art technology makes Imperial’s program different, says Dean Anandalingam. But there is more.
“The program will focus on what Imperial does really well: learning with a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship,” he says. “We will also have students from at least three different time-zones whom 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.”
Indeed, international cohorts are one of the main drivers behind MBA applications. On Imperial’s traditional full-time MBA program, 65 per cent of their class is international and around 30 per cent are female. Students also have an average of seven years’ work experience.
The biggest criticism of online platforms is the lack of interactivity. Other commentators have gone further, describing the Moocs offered at some leading US business schools as marketing gimmicks. But that is certainly not the case with Imperial, says Dean Anandalingam.
“It’s a concern to us, to make sure students feel they are really part of this university,” he explains. “We will have some pre-recorded lectures in video format, but there will also be real-time lectures and coursework for every course. Plus, every week they will engage with teaching fellows, which will help them solve problems and answer any questions.”
He doesn’t think we should get ahead of ourselves, though. Not every school should “go online”, says Dean Anandalingam. He also disagrees with the assertion that an increased online MBA presence will drive the cost of business school down.
One thing is certain, though – online MBAs are coming in thick and fast. And they look like they are here to stay.
How long will it be before every other school catches up?