Though the prospect of the business education is often framed as a choice between attending classes in one’s home country or attending classes abroad, there is a third option: Go online for an MBA degree.
Enrolment numbers for online learning as a whole are booming. According to Global Industry, a California-based market research firm, the worldwide market for online educational programs is likely to surge to over US$52.6 billion by 2010. The Asia market alone is expected to grow 25-30% over the same period.
But more important than the sheer growth figures, the old distinctions between online and traditional universities are becoming increasingly blurred. Responding to the need for greater flexibility, traditional brick-and-mortar universities are offering more courses online. Meanwhile, online institutions are gaining credibility through academic research and publishing, once the spheres of traditional schools.
Mixing it up
“The question is not the difference between online and campus-based study,” said Dr Helen Lange, dean of business management programs at online graduate school U21 Global. “The question is really about quality versus poor education.”
Singapore-based U21 Global, whose course offerings include a number of flexible online MBA programs, now boasts over 5,000 MBA students from 65 countries. Last year MBA enrolment grew by 80%.
Lange said online business education has come a long way since its start in the dotcom era, when low-quality “distance learning” methods that mimicked traditional approaches and face-to-face learning were the norm. Today, industry-leading online schools have revamped their pedagogies, creating a new approach that makes better use of online technologies.
Campus-based schools are using similar strategies in developing their own online MBA programs. And their arrival in the digital domain has added a much-needed dose of credibility to online education.
Yet, for prospective MBA students like 28-year old Zhu Yi, a sales coordinator with an Italian jewelry manufacturer in Shanghai, there is a still a perception that traditional MBA programs are superior to online degrees, in both quality and social capital.
“If a traditional MBA is worth 100% in an employer’s eyes, an online MBA would be 85%,” Zhu said.
Accreditation standards are helping online schools in their credibility battle. Many online institutions are now recognized by the same internationally recognized credentials as traditional schools, such as Equis, AMBA and AACSB.
A digital debut
But in the eyes of potential students, perhaps a more important factor in bringing online degrees to parity with campus-based programs is that high-ranking, well-established MBA programs are now offering their own online degrees.
Madrid-based IE business school, ranked eighth by the Financial Times in 2008, has offered a traditional campus-based MBA program for more than 30 years. It has now introduced a 16-month online global MBA degree as well. Students study two subjects for 20 hours a week over a 16-month period. They are required to attend a videoconferencing course on Saturday mornings, in which they are actively engaged with their professor on the screen. Working in groups, students devise solutions to case studies, which are discussed in professor-moderated online forums. Students are graded on their contributions to the discussion.
The situation is much the same at U21, except that students have up to five years to complete 18 courses, including seven electives and one research project. On average these projects take 2.5 years. Cooperation and interaction with other students is a critical component of grading: Online class discussion boards account for 30% of the course grade.
“When you think about it, our programs are designed to run more like the way businesses are run,” said U21’s Lange. “In the global-knowledge economy, students need to learn how to manage virtually, mentor staff virtually, discipline staff, negotiate, influence – all in the virtual setting.”
What to look for
Currently, neither BusinessWeek nor the Financial Times offers rankings of online business schools. However, the FT does offer an unranked list of online schools, which mentions some schools’ distinguishing features. When evaluating online business programs, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Accreditation – Make sure the school is internationally accredited by groups such as Equis, AMBA or AACSB. If your employer is sponsoring your studies and the online program chosen is not accredited, the degree may not be transferrable if you ever leave your position.
Program length – Some programs let you study at your own pace, while others are more regimented. Lengths range from 16 months to 10 years. Most students graduate in two to five years.
Cost – Costs for online degree programs also vary greatly from program to program. U21 Global charges tuition based on the home country of the student. Thus, mainland Chinese pay US$13,000 for the whole course, while Americans can expect to pay US$25,000.
Alumni network – How well will you stay connected with classmates and grow your professional network?