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MBA Candidates Go The Distance With Online Programs And Moocs

"Digital natives" are demanding more flexibility in how they study. For some students, Moocs and online MBAs open up a new world of business opportunity.

On weekday mornings, Daria Demina rises at 5AM in Moscow with a thirst for knowledge. The financial bachelor’s student, enrolled at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, is at her peak of activity from 6AM. The only problem is that her classmates and lecturers are all still fast asleep. “I… Have a weird regime,” says Daria.

The ambitious Russian financier won’t wait for them to wake. Like a growing number of MBA candidates, she plugs into cyberspace to supplement her learning in-between degree studies. “I learn fast, and when things are too slow at lectures at university I get frustrated,” Daria says.

She has got massive open online course, or Mooc, certificates coming out of her ears. Economics, statistics, financial markets, money and banking: all qualifications gleaned from a computer screen at unsavoury hours of the morning from online providers Coursera and edX. “I believe this kind of education will overtake traditional universities, thanks to its convenience and flexibility,” Daria says.

Harvard, MIT Sloan, the University of Virginia’s Darden School and several other big-ticket US business schools are experimenting with these Moocs, just one example of a plethora of online learning now demanded by “digital natives”.

Students like Daria, who have grown up swiping, texting and blogging, are increasingly demanding flexibility in their study.

“In the recent trends we have seen, managerial professionals do not have the bandwidth to dedicate two to five years of their time to an MBA,” says Peter Methot, who leads executive education at Rutgers Business School in the US. Like a handful of others, Rutgers runs a “mini-MBA” that is taught entirely online.

Brought about by great advances in technology, virtual learning environments are fast becoming a necessity for most top-flight schools.

Daria plans to apply to either some or all of a long list of leading MBA providers – UCLA Anderson, UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business and UC San Diego Rady School of Management are just a few options floated by the undergrad, who has already earned a degree at the Anderson School of Management in California.

But what has piqued her business education interest is Moocs, the free education courses beamed into offices and dormitories from China to Chile. “I find them as sufficient as a degree program would be,” she says. “There are similar courses [to degrees] taught by different instructors and you can find the one that suits you best,” she adds.

It is this opinion that has forced many to adapt their modes of delivery. In Europe, business schools such as Spain’s IE and Warwick and Durham in the UK have taught online MBA programs alongside their highly-ranked traditional degrees, while Imperial College Business School will launch its online MBA program in January 2015.

Catherine Spencer, chief executive of the Army Families Federation which represents military families across a range of sectors, is considering applying to Warwick and Durham for that very reason.

She plans to start up a business while living overseas for two years with her husband, an officer in the British Army, and time is not on her side.

She says: “It's too good an opportunity to miss in terms of experiencing another culture, but the [online] MBA will allow me to demonstrate that I have used my career break usefully.”

A concern, however, is that candidates like Catherine will bypass an expensive MBA program altogether and opt for a series of Moocs, which are becoming more vocational and may be more specific to her entrepreneurial needs.

In an opinion piece written this month, for example, two Wharton professors said that Mooc technology poses a “real threat” to business schools, envisaging a scenario in which the “fundamental architecture of the business school could crumble” in the face of wide-scale adoption of learning tech.

But few, if any, are convinced that Moocs are as valuable as MBA degrees in the jobs market, and “corporate recruiters are still immensely reluctant to consider MBA graduates from online business programs”, according to the Association of MBAs, the accrediting body.

In a statement earlier this year, AMBA said: “Recruiters still do not consider job seekers from online business programs to be of the same calibre as those that have graduated from a face-to-face MBA program.”

Most big brand schools, however, are confident that Moocs will not replace or threaten their programs, or executive education courses which bear the most the most similarities to Moocs, and are considered to be at the greatest risk.

Professor Eric Waarts, dean of degree programs at Rotterdam School of Management, says: “Moocs are great PR generators, and are a great tool to easily get knowledge and information about a specific topic. However, the core function of EMBA programs is to develop people to improve their competencies and careers, which go much further than Moocs, at least in the way they are currently designed.”

Peggy Bishop Lane, vice dean of the Wharton MBA for Executives, does not see free online programs as competition either.

“While MOOCs are great tools for picking up knowledge, they do not have the same elements of rigor, evaluation, cooperative learning, and relationship development that happen in the classroom,” she says.

Equally important, she adds, is the experience outside of the classroom, including bonding with classmates and co-curricular events. “[That] seems impossible to replicate through a Mooc.”

For Daria in Russia, however, they are opening up a new world of digital learning – at any time of day.

“You can learn at your own pace, when and where you [want],” she says, adding: “You can take a course on a subject you are interested in even if it is completely out of your specialization. Broadening your horizons pays in the long run.”

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