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The Alsop Perspective: UNC Joins the Effort to Bring Online MBAs Upscale

Online MBA degrees have long been the Rodney Dangerfield of academia. Many alumni, corporate recruiters, deans and professors have dismissed them as inferior to traditional classroom learning. Among the typical objections: condensed and watered down content, too many adjunct instructors, and lack of valuable face-to-face classroom interaction.

Back in 2005, I was part of a survey project in which corporate recruiters rated various types of MBA programs. They gave online degrees the lowest marks by far, calling them “MBA Lite” and “commodities.” At about the same time, for-profit online diploma mills were rampant, and the Associated Press reported that even a cat had received an online MBA.

But six years later, online degrees, particularly MBA programs at AACSB-accredited business schools, deserve more respect. As major nonprofit universities add online offerings to the curriculum, the gap between cyberspace and the classroom is narrowing. The Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina is the latest top-tier school to create an online MBA program. Its model is similar to those at other well-regarded schools, including the Thunderbird School of Global Management and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Like Thunderbird and Indiana, UNC promises to provide the same quality instruction that its on-campus students receive.  

What distinguishes the new MBA@UNC program (http://onlinemba.unc.edu/), is the technology platform it is developing with 2tor Inc., a New York-based online education firm. Among other things, MBA@UNC will use live streaming video to allow students and professors to see and hear each other in real time. The technology also will permit live faculty office hours and student study group meetings. “In a nutshell, we think that now the market is there for online degrees and the technology is there as well,” says Jim Dean, Kenan-Flagler’s dean. “Instead of talking heads, we will have a lot of interaction and video footage. Online education is migrating upscale, and I believe our program will change perceptions.”

In-Person Meetings Still Beneficial

The most appealing feature of online programs is their convenience. Students can keep their jobs and meet online from their homes or offices. But North Carolina, Thunderbird and Indiana also require online students to meet in person periodically. In the MBA@UNC program, for example, students and professors will get together face-to-face at the end of each quarter for three-day immersions in different locations around the world. Students in Indiana’s Kelley Direct program meet twice—a week each time—on the Bloomington campus, where they engage in a product branding project and a case study competition.

When Thunderbird students convene in person for part of the Global MBA On-Demand program, not a minute is wasted. “We’re all over them when they get together, making sure they meet faculty, staff and colleagues and have the full Thunderbird experience,” says Bert Valencia, vice president for distance learning. “I try to attend lunch with them every day.” Indeed, hybrid or blended online MBAs that include both Internet and in-person classes clearly appear to be the superior approach. A study by the US Department of Education last year concluded that blended online programs might actually be more effective than either the classroom setting alone or pure online instruction.

To continue to win more respect, online programs must aim high. That means continual improvement as new technologies provide a richer online learning environment. Valencia says Thunderbird frequently reviews its program and adds new audio and visual technology. For instance, Adobe Connect and Skype are now used for teams to meet and collaborate and for tutors to conduct sessions on the weekends.

Indiana, which says it’s the oldest AACSB-accredited business school in the online arena, has witnessed a number of changes since its inaugural program about a decade ago. Initially, it was offered as a corporate program, but now about 60 percent of its students come through open enrollment. Over time, Kelley Direct also has found that it competes more with part-time MBA programs than with other distance-learning providers. “Some students would prefer a top-tier online program over a tier-two evening program,” says Terrill Cosgray, executive director of Kelley Direct. “We even compete now with some top-ranked evening programs, including New York University and the University of Chicago.”
 
Some Limitations Persist

Although they may offer virtually the same courses and faculty as traditional full-time MBA degrees, online programs still have a number of limitations.  Clearly, they can’t offer the same experience, no matter how many hi-tech bells and whistles they add. Even if they can hear and see each other over the Internet, students still miss out on valuable daily interpersonal interactions with faculty and classmates. MBA students have often told me that they learn as much or more from classmates as from professors, whether during class discussions, in campus clubs or over pizza and beer. Online students are less likely to build the deep relationships and networks among themselves that can endure for years and prove so valuable to career development.
 
In distance learning programs, MBA students also don’t have the chance to secure a summer internship and receive the extensive career-services support that is especially critical when changing jobs. “We don’t see our online format as a substitute for a full-time MBA,” Dean acknowledges. “It’s more for someone trying to accelerate their career at their company than for a 28-year-old engineer who wants to go to Wall Street. Online simply is not for everyone.”

The most recent GMAT testing year data found that 84 percent of test takers prefer the on-campus delivery format. Only about 8 percent said they intended to purse an MBA through a combination of campus, online and distance learning. And US residents showed more interest in online or distance learning than people from other countries.

Even though online programs are clearly improving, perceptions die hard. Perhaps most telling are student attitudes about the words “online,” “on demand,” and “distance.” They fear being stigmatized if their diplomas and transcripts include any of those descriptors. “Our students and alumni feel they’re getting a true Thunderbird degree and want us to play down the ‘on demand’ part of our name,” Valencia says.

Getting faculty buy-in also can still be challenging. Not only do some professors question the quality of online instruction, but they also may object to the time and effort required to create an online version of their syllabus. Thunderbird gives faculty extra compensation and provides instructional designers to help customize courses for distance learning and to create a variety of videos. “We feel we must provide a carrot to the faculty,” Valencia says. Students also can be very demanding of faculty time because they require frequent interaction online, he adds. “Feedback to online learners is tantamount to oxygen.”

Despite the limitations, Dean, Cosgray and Valencia all believe more MBA programs will soon jump on the online bandwagon. “When I attend GMAC and other business education conferences, I hear increased interest about either a full-fledged MBA program or at least some online courses as part of the residential program,” Cosgray says. “Very few schools are not at least thinking about online learning.”

Ron Alsop is the editor of Workforce Management, the leading magazine on workplace and talent management issues. He is a former Wall Street Journal  columnist and editor and the author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace and The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Top Business Schools. The Alsop Perspective runs quarterly in Graduate Management News.
 

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