Business schools have been offering distance learning programs as early as the 1960s. Yet students who take their MBAs from afar still face a number of prejudices.
Many see distance learning MBAs (DLMBAs) as an inferior qualification in comparison to full-time studies. Proponents of traditional MBAs argue that students must take time to immerse themselves in their educational experience.
In recent years, however, the quality and credibility of DLMBAs has been making leaps and bounds. Thanks to a slew of improved online tools, such programs are offering flexibility to busy professionals and a more interactive experience with other students around the world. As such, the gap between MBAs in brick-and-mortar universities and DLMBAs is starting to narrow.
According to Alick Kitchin, business director at Edinburgh Business School (EBS), distance education students perform just as well as full-time students who study in traditional campuses.
While distance education has long been criticized for lacking face-to-face peer interaction and networking opportunities, studying online may provide other advantages for making personal contacts. “Some of the ‘spin-off’ benefits of a traditional campus MBA – such as a strong cohort identity and network – are not so prevalent. Instead, with DLMBAs you have the opportunity to meet a global network of students,” Kitchin said.
Internet tools, such as uploaded videos of tutorials and peer forums, also provide students with learning methods that can replicate traditional classrooms. He Jilong, a DLMBA graduate of EBS, completed his degree from Beijing and said he did not feel disadvantaged by studying from a distance.
“We could reach teachers at EBS with ease; and the professors would even give online lessons at Beijing time,” he said.
Another benefit of a DLMBA is that distance education students do not have to uproot their lives for the sake of a few years of full-time study. Kitchin said DLMBAs are becoming increasingly popular among Chinese professionals who increasingly have to travel for work.
According to Terrill Cosgray, executive director of Kelley Direct Programs at Indiana University Bloomington, students say that completing their degree while working gives them an opportunity to immediately apply what they learn. They also pick up skills like how to work in virtual teams across multiple time zones, which is an increasingly important skill.
Schools are also adapting their courses to meet global demand. EBS, for example, offers students the option of completing their degrees in Chinese. “Ten years ago, the perceived wisdom was that anyone who wanted an MBA would study in English as the benefit was seen to be a job in a Western company,” Kitchin explained. “Now, students need the skills of an MBA to do their job better, and want to apply their skills in a Chinese-speaking environment.”
The provision of distance education is still relatively new in China, which is home to 68 online colleges – leading many students like He to look west for their MBA. “I am a global businessman,” he said. “I understand that courses from Europe and such tend to be more reputable.”
In recent years however, more Chinese universities have been introducing distance education programs in general. The number of students enrolled in online courses rose from about 800,000 students in 2002 to 2.3 million in 2006.
For certain jobs, employers still prefer hiring MBA graduates who studied at a traditional school. Emma Charnock, Hong Kong and China regional director at recruitment firm Hays, said candidates with campus-based education may offer certain advantages for management positions that require more interaction. These include a network of contacts, a better understanding of cultural differences and presentation skills gained from facing a real audience.
Still, DLMBA graduates may develop other employable attributes, which are particularly useful in positions that require more independent working knowledge. “[DLMBA graduates] tend to be more self-disciplined, have superior time management skills and are better independent problem solvers,” Charnock said.
The fact that staff can gain new skills from DLMBAs – without taking time off – hasn’t been lost on employers. According to Cosgray of Indiana University, approximately 60% of Kelley Direct’s current students received full or partial financial support from their companies. “These companies really believe that the online MBA adds tangible value for their workforce,” he said.
Need for credibility
Accreditation standards are also helping online schools in their credibility battle. Many online institutions have the same internationally recognized credentials as traditional schools, such as Equis, AMBA and AACSB.
Yet, as the number of distance education programs increases worldwide, the presence of unaccredited and for-profit courses is still an issue. Potential students therefore need to thoroughly research the validity of their DLMBA school selections.
Cosgray advises students to choose programs that use the same faculty in both their residential and online courses. Another way to judge a DLMBA is to speak with current students or alumni to get firsthand reports on the programs.