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Elli Lembessis would not be taking an MBA if there was not an option of studying online. “There is so much going on in my industry at the moment that I don’t want to miss out by leaving to study,” says the head of business analysis at the American Bureau of Shipping.
Ms Lembessis applied to one programme, some 3,000 miles away from her base in Texas: the Global Online MBA at Imperial College Business School in London.
“They have a focus on engineering, science and technology, and I really wanted those,” she says. Ms Lembessis also liked the way that Imperial structures its course, with cohorts of students completing assignments together. This means that she is already completing modules that give her practical knowledge which she can apply in her current role and which also opens up new career opportunities.
“I am being pulled into projects now that I wouldn’t have had access to beforehand, because of this particular MBA,” she adds. Ms Lembessis says she is very satisfied with her programme of distance learning, but what makes a good online MBA?
In a difficult market for course providers, the numbers taking online programmes have grown only modestly. However, they have not declined in the same way as full-time two-year MBAs, which have seen a fall in applications. Last year, 62 per cent of two-year MBA courses in the US suffered a drop in applications, while numbers were either flat or up for 53 per cent of online MBAs, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT business school entrance exam.
The quality of online teaching varies significantly, however, both in the technology used by students to study and interact with their tutors and in the availability of face-to-face networking events and the way classmates are encouraged to work together.
Stacy Blackman, who runs an admissions consultancy in Los Angeles, stresses that a good online MBA requires much more than good technology — building high-quality teaching and a strong community of students and faculty is essential.
It is also important that the course is developed by the school and not outsourced to a third party, she argues. “The mark of a high-quality online MBA programme lies in who is providing the instruction.”
Ms Blackman singles out as an example of good practice the part-time online MBA offered by Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business in the US, which uses the same faculty, curriculum and career planning resources as the campus degree. Students on the online MBA have the option of switching to the full-time format at any point.
The mark of a high-quality online MBA programme lies in who is providing the instruction
Imperial College Business School’s Global Online MBA course has been created using technology developed with the university’s mathematics and engineering departments through its Edtech Lab. The London school has lost only seven out of more than 500 students since the online MBA started in January 2015. This suggests that the balance of face-to-face contact and technology is about right, according to David Lefevre, Edtech Lab director.
“Our two guiding principles are the human and the real,” says Mr Lefevre. “Learning can never be a completely computerised experience.”
Course quality is especially important given that prejudice against online programmes still lingers among some big MBA recruiters, although this bias is fast disappearing, says Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of New York-based MBA admissions consultancy Expartus.
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“Ultimately, the verdict will come down to whether graduates of online MBA programmes are able to achieve their career objectives,” she adds.
Another dividing line between online courses is the level of interaction they enable between students, who could be logging on from around the globe.
Kate Kravchenko, a Moscow-based country manager for Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s data networking business Aruba Networks, is highly computer-literate, having worked for IT companies since joining IBM in 2009. She chose the Distance Learning MBA at Warwick Business School for several reasons, including the quality of the technology, the ability to study on campus for certain electives and access to the university’s large online library resources for essay research.
However, the biggest selling point was the flexibility to choose whatever she liked for her final dissertation, enabling Ms Kravchenko to conduct an assessment of mergers and acquisitions that has directly helped in her career at HPE. Other schools she considered were less flexible, she says.
“It is obvious that they really make an effort,” she says of Warwick, adding that she visited the UK campus several times each year during her studies.
“It is really hard to allocate the time to learn from a distance,” she says. “But Warwick is a good brand.”
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