March 11, 2013 12:01 am

Point of view: Virtual classes give lesson in reality

James Dean, dean of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School©Chris Hildreth

James Dean: 'Using traditional education as the gold standard is outmoded'

Can an online MBA programme be of the same high quality as a campus-based programme?

From a teaching and learning perspective, there can no longer be any doubt that online education can match and, in some ways, exceed the performance of conventional education.

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Online MBA programmes match or exceed the quality of on-campus programmes when done right. Doing it right does not mean simply transmitting taped lectures or using Powerpoint slides with a voice-over lecture. It does mean:

• Rigorous courses taught by excellent teachers who assess students’ work and provide feedback

• Students working in teams on group projects:

• Students actively engaged with classmates and professors, forming a lifelong network.

Doing online right is very hard work, and requires investments of time and resources. But it is possible and worthwhile, and MBA@UNC is the proof.

Any quality programme is built on the foundation of excellent students, faculty and curriculum. It must be engaging, interactive and supportive. A quality online programme is no different. Furthermore, while the experience is not exactly the same, the differences might surprise you.

With the right design, an online programme can offer experiences that you might think students miss by not being on campus. Our students participate in simulations and group projects, listen to corporate speakers and engage in a virtual consulting project. Live classes, capped at 15 students, feature a high level of direct student-faculty interaction. Students build strong relationships with each other and the school. They have virtual happy hours and virtual hallway conversations. When our first class graduates in July, a member will serve on our school’s alumni council.

Frankly, what we discovered is that using traditional education as the gold standard is outmoded.

• In our small, live classes, professors and students are visible at all times. There is no back row, so everyone can and must participate in ways that do not always occur in on-campus classes. Students are more accountable and their levels of energy and engagement are higher. Professors can better gauge their understanding in real-time.

• We archive everything, including live sessions. Students watch taped classes as many times as they need to master a subject; the class does not “evaporate” when the session ends. Professors can evaluate sessions and go back to a specific moment – for instance, to identify when a student became confused. Importantly, we have given essentially the same tests to our full-time and online students and seen virtually identical performance.

• Online students master virtual teamwork – a skill that companies require and value.

• Professors think deeply about what exactly they want students to learn and how to communicate that in new ways and then redesign their courses. They often incorporate those changes into their on-campus classes.

Beyond the purely curricular perspective, the picture is more complicated. Full time and online programmes have a portfolio of strengths and weaknesses, and meet the different needs of different student populations, with EMBA programmes, in many ways, the intermediate between the two.

For students who want to make significant changes early in their career paths, full-time programmes offer on-campus access to recruiters in ways not easy to replicate. Yet MBA@UNC students receive individualised career management support, assessments and coaching as students. And their employers reap the benefits of what they are learning. MBA@UNC students apply what they learn in class on Thursday at work on Friday morning. Employers so value their learning that about 30 per cent of our students have received promotions and new jobs after only one year in the programme.

Among the most compelling reasons for a top online programme are increased access and unparalleled flexibility for people who thought a quality MBA programme was out of reach. Those students might live in a place without proximity to a top programme and cannot or do not want to leave their jobs or relocate their families. What is the highest cost for on-campus students? To forego income for one or two years.

Asking whether an online programme can match the quality of a traditional programme might ultimately be the wrong question. As technology evolves, the question will increasingly become what are the characteristics of a high-quality programme for a particular student segment, however it is delivered.

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The author is dean of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

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