April 28, 2014

Web becomes bigger classroom for MBA students

As web-based technology has evolved over the last decade, so has the ease with which working professionals who wish to continue their education can obtain advanced degrees.

A growing number of colleges and universities offer online courses to at least complement traditional classes, and many have designed programs that are offered entirely via the Internet, with students partaking in discussions and listening to lectures through Skype rather than in a building.

Higher-education professionals say this is becoming the preferred way for many people to earn an MBA, as it allows students to continue working and complete schoolwork without having to travel to a college campus during business hours.

Enrollment in the MBA program offered at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which has a satellite campus in Shrewsbury, is a telling indicator.

Personalization is a challenge

John D. Wells, associate dean of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, said there are about 70 students enrolled in the full-time, traditional program, but more than 1,200 in the online and blended programs (the latter offers a combination of online and in-person courses). On average, students enrolled in online courses are about 10 years older, falling between the ages of 35 and 55, Wells said.

With an influx of students from all over the country enrolling in the UMass Amherst MBA program, Wells said the professors' challenge is to personalize the program, and make it every bit the MBA education traditional students receive.

"We don't want to be a silo…We have a lot of interactive case discussions," Wells said, of video-based class discussions. "We want to signal to (the student) that they're an Amherst student, even if they're in California."

This strategy, as well as efforts to align the online MBA program exactly with the traditional MBA program, have gone a long way toward making students and employers feel comfortable with the idea of an online degree.

Stigma carries less sting

When the UMass Amherst program launched 11 years ago, Wells said there was certainly a stigma attached to pursuing an MBA online. But today, he said, that has been drastically reduced. In fact, there's no language in the degree online students earn that indicates the program was web based.

The UMass system, which offers online MBA programs in Boston and Dartmouth too, got into the online space relatively early on, Wells said. But with more schools offering programs today, UMass is finding it more difficult to compete, according to Wells. And while data tracking the number of online MBA programs is difficult to come by, it's clear that online higher education is now pervasive in our society.

A survey published by The Babson Survey Research Group, out of Babson College in Wellesley, showed that the percentage of all higher education students enrolled in at least one online course rose from 9.2 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2011.

Screen newbie

One online MBA newcomer is Anna Maria College in Paxton. Anna Maria's online program launched in January 2013, and with roughly 30 students enrolled, the program is off to a bit of a slow start, according to Elzbieta Manos, director of business programs at Anna Maria.

But she said administrators are confident it will stick. The program caters to a group of students who are unable to attend evening classes on campus. And it doesn't compete with Anna Maria's traditional MBA program because the students' needs are so different, Manos said.

But academically, they're comparable. In fact, Manos said that in many ways, the online MBA program is more challenging, and it's not for everyone.

Course requirement: discipline

"You have to be very disciplined online," said Manos, noting that students are expected to participate in weekly discussions that can't be made up. "If you're not disciplined, you will not succeed."

For this reason, Nancy Dube, a West Boylston-based human resources consultant who works for a number of clients in Central Massachusetts and beyond, doesn't think most employers view online MBA degrees any differently than traditional degrees, if they're even aware of the mode.

Pursuing an advanced degree while working is not an easy feat, she said, and that dedication is "extremely important" to employers.

"I think they just value an MBA," Dube said. "I've never heard a client say (an online degree) is not as good." n

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