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As the ripples from the financial crisis continue to move across the globe, is an online MBA – which allows you to study whilst continuing to work – now the best way of studying for a management degree?

On Wednesday March 18 between 14.00 and 15.00 GMT, a panel of experts will answer your questions on the topic on http://www.ft.com/online-learning-QandA

Post a question now to ask@ft.com or use the online submissions form below.

On the panel are Leonard Schlesinger, President of Babson College, Massachusetts.

Dr Angel Cabrera, President of Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Linda Anderson, Deputy Business Education Editor at the Financial Times


What is the typical profile of someone who chooses an online MBA over a normal course?

Linda Anderson: Online MBA participants tend to have a broader age range than participants in full-time programmes. They also have logistical challenges which makes it difficult to attend classes regularly. Perhaps they travel frequently, have varying work patterns, family demands or are reluctant to leave their jobs to go to business school full time. An online programme answers all these needs.

Leonard Schlesigner: The typical person is a working professional who prefers to stay in his/her job, typically because their career is progressing and they don’t want to lose the momentum. Or there are people who simply can’t afford to take two years off of work, but want to accelerate their careers by learning and applying their new insights immediately.

Finally, many of our students have very responsible jobs that involve considerable travel and they simply cannot attend a weekly face-to-face class.

Angel Cabrera: The reasons why students choose an online over an in residence (both are normal!) MBA vary. They may include: a desire not to interrupt one’s career, a lifestyle that involves significant travel, an interest in developing the skills to work in a distributed/collaborative environment, a work schedule that is difficult to plan and structure in advance, or a desire to study at a school with a specific set of values and approaches which is not practical otherwise before of location.

How do you deal with the potential problem of plagiarism or impersonation on a distance learning MBA?

LS: In our online discussions each week, we can see who is actively engaging in the learning. The face to face meetings of our blended program provide the opportunity to validate learning, as faculty in the classroom can readily assess whether the person in front of them has the appropriate command of the material. Finally, we have an honour code which students must sign for each major exam or assignment, and which we take very seriously.

Would an online MBA programme give me the qualification I would need to go on and study for a DBA or PhD? Or should I enrol on a face-to-face programme if this is my academic goal?
Dave Broadshire, location not given

AC: Any degree given by Thunderbird, whether obtained online or in residence, certifies the same level of academic qualification. There is no distinction. Some doctoral programs in fact also use distance methodologies.

LS: This depends on the doctoral program you are planning to attend. Accreditation and reputation make all the difference here; as most doctoral programs will evaluate your degree based on those factors.

In the FT report published earlier this week, one of the pieces talked about networking opportunities for students studying online. I am very sceptical about the validity and longevity of contacts made exclusively through the internet. What evidence can the panel provide about the value of a network of contacts made exclusively through the internet?
PS, London

AC: The experience at Thunderbird is quite the opposite. Participants in our GMBA-On Demand work in-residence during four intensive modules over the duration of the program (two in Glendale, one in Geneva, one in Beijing). The combination of these modules with the daily interactions required by group projects and class discussions is actually generating an extraordinary cohesion among participants. Our learning outcome assessments show a very high level of responses when it comes to social capital and relationships within the cohort.

Upon graduation, these graduates become full-members of the alumni network and gain access to new networking opportunities around the world.

LS: This is part of the reason why our program is a blended program. The connection that our Fast Track students make to each other, the faculty, and to other students is an important part of their network. As are the speakers they meet when they are on campus.

LA: An online MBA programme is as intensive as its full-time counterpart. Over the duration of such programmes, participants will spend a lot of time – both synchronously and asynchronously – online, taking part in classroom discussions, working with their peers on assignments, having ”conversations” with their tutors. Online chat rooms allow students to develop their relationships even further. Although there may be no face to face interaction, students nevertheless do come to know each other very well and their networks are in many cases stronger than those established in the traditional classroom setting.

Many people today in their working lives, work remotely or maintain contact principally through virtual mediums. Consequently it is second nature for people to develop and maintain strong online relationships.

Another point to bear in mind is that many online programmes do offer one or two-week residential courses during the programme so that face to face contact can be established.

The listing in the Financial Times of online MBA programmes includes a column for accreditations, but some of the big schools are not accredited by AACSB. Whart does accreditation tell me about the programme? Do employers understand the difference between accredited and non-ccredited programmes?
Alex, UK

LS: Accreditation affirms that the faculty and the curriculum have a clear strategic mission that is relevant to the market and that the program delivers on that mission. It creates discipline and rigor and accountability to our students.

AC: Accreditation signals that a programme has demonstrated to meet certain standards that have been agreed upon by the international academic community as necessary components of a quality business education. These standards include assessments of the academic and professional qualifications of the faculty, the structure of the curriculum, the quality of the learning environment, the quality of research produced by the faculty, its level of internationalisation and involvement with the business community, etc.

I would recommend to pay attention to whether a school has been accredited (whether AACSB or EQUIS, mostly) before making a decision.

LA: If a programme or school is accredited, it means that it has received a ”stamp of approval” from the accrediting bodies such as the US-based AACSB, the Association of MBAs in the UK or from Equis the accrediting arm of the European Foundation for Management Development. As such it means that the school/programme has reached a certain quality standard.

The MBA qualification has been around for several decades and employers are familiar both with the degree and the various accrediting bodies that assess it.

Online programmes are cheaper and more convenient than a traditional MBA course, and one can study while working, but my perception is that they are less appreciated by employers. Is this correct?
Do you have any information or survey results about the attitudes of employers both now and in the future?
Marine Mchedlidze, Georgia

LS: While we have not collected any systematic data from our employers we have reams of anecdotal data from the managers of our blended learning programme students testifying to the utility of their learning experience. These comments generally relate to the ability to directly put tools to work, to demonstrate substantially greater versatility and a broader organisational orientation, and to contribute in new and different areas of the business.

LA: Many business schools offer the one MBA programme, delivered in a variety of formats – full-time, part-time or online. Whatever the means of study, on graduation the ”value” of this MBA is the same. Online students follow the same programme as their full-time counterparts.

AC: Informed employers are coming to appreciate the variations in quality among distance MBAs just as they do among traditional MBAs. They now also understand how a distance MBA provides the added advantage of developing the skills to work in collaborative, distributed settings, which are more and more common in the modern workplace.

Is an online MBA perceived by the school to have the same weight as an MBA studied on campus?
What do employers prefer, an online MBA or on campus MBA or it doesn’t matter? Lindsay, Minneapolis

AC:At Thunderbird we assign the same ”weight” to all degree programs regardless of whether they use online delivery or in-residence. Same standards, same content, same faculty. The rigor is the same. And depending on your own learning styles, one type of learning environment may work better for you than the other. Some students report being more effective learners in the online setting as it allows them more time for reflection and for engaging in in-depth conversations around cases and class materials.

LS: Again we are limited to commenting on our blended learning programme which combines both online and live classroom instruction. All of our programmes grant the identical MBA degree and operate off the same fundamental educational outcome measures and adjust content for the differing characteristics of the respective admissions pools. As far as we, and our recruiters, are concerned they are all the same – one year MBA, two year MBA, evening MBA and Fast Track blended learning MBA.

Increasingly we are experiencing employers displaying a preference for employees to stay on the job and bring insights from the classroom to apply to their workplace. A blended learning model essentially provides the best of both worlds – the convenience on on line learning with the grounding of a face to face classroom intensity experience at 6 week intervals. The research data on on line interactions strongly highlights the need for supplementation with face to face experiences to ground reflection and learning.

LA: An employer, when told that his or her employee has an MBA from an accredited school will not give more weight and value to those who studied full-time. In fact the rigour and self-discipline of a person studying for an MBA online, who will frequently be juggling a career and personal commitments as well, often exceeds that of students studying full time – a fact recognised by employers.

My fear is that an online MBA will be perceived by prospective employers as lacking the rigour of a class-based MBA. Is this a valid concern?
Muloongo Muchelemba, London

LA: Established and accredited online learning providers of MBAs are well regarded by employers. These providers offer excellent pedagogy and flexible and robust delivery. Again their MBAs are highly valued.

LS: As long as the program is a reputable and rigorous initiative and the employer perceives they are receiving an ROI (return on investment) from the employees on the job contributions I believe that there is increasingly less of a stigma attached to non-traditional delivery methods. This has been confirmed by research conducted by the Executive MBA Council.

Some universities allow students in their senior years to do research or assist with teaching to cover their fees/expenses. Do these opportunities exist when you do an online degree?
Ken Ng, London

AC: Online students have the same access to their faculty at Thunderbird as in-residence students do. Most distance students though choose that format because it allows them to retain their current employment and are therefore not interested nor have the time to engage in other jobs while they pursue their MBA

LS: They certainly do. Research activities can be conducted virtually as long as the institution is capable of providing access to the resources. At the same time it is important to recognize that most of our students find themselves with little or no discretionary time for such activities after work, school, home life, etc.

LA: The workload of an MBA programme – online or full time – is a heavy one and students find that outside their working commitments and study there is little time left for further work. Whether online providers would consider using students to assist with teaching would be up to the providers concerned.

What about a student’s Intellectual Property - how do you protect that online?
Akiva Beebe, South Africa

LS: The log in process to our online learning platform requires an authorization which protects both the student’s and the faculty’s intellectual property rights.

LA: The recent surge in online programmes, technological advances and synchronous delivery, has meant that online students are able to collaborate and work together closely in teams – albeit virtual ones. Such intense working patterns mean that students develop deep friendships and trust in their team mates and the issue of protecting intellectual property rarely arises.

I am a graduate student from a China-based university. I have a Masters in Management Science and a BSc in Mathematics from top-tier Chinese universities. I have also worked as an intern at a leading global investment consulting firm and have a job offer from a local hedge fund. From this base, I want to develop my career. Will my qualifications and experience be recognised? Would I be better off studying for an MBA degree from the US or the UK?
Clark, location not supplied

LS: We have many students from China who are represented across all of our MBA programs. The choice of where to study is substantially a more personal than professional one given the quality of institutions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

AC: The GMBA On Demand at Thunderbird enrolls individuals from all over the world. In programmes like ours, you won’t have to choose between US and UK (or other geographies for that matter) because you can have all cultures and backgrounds represented within your very cohort.

Do you believe MBA students will be able to get a positive ROI (Return on investment) on their investment given the economic environment?
Julia, High Point, NC

LS: There is no question that the opportunity to yield a positive ROI exists and that an MBA will be helpful to realizing one’s aspirations. The current reality of the job market requires the candidate to think more expansively and creatively about how to access and capitalize on the possibilities before them. Babson’s entrepreneurial orientation is designed to equip people to both make and find opportunities in the market. The making side of the equation is substantially more in demand today.

LA: An MBA is a premium product and the investment required is significant, not only financially but also in terms of study. However the ultimate rewards are also significant.

With the recession tightening its grip, an MBA can only improve employment prospects. It demonstrates to potential employers that you have invested in yourself and enhanced your skill set.

It will provide you with a broader perspective and will also give you a wide range of management tools so that you are able to help your organisation weather the financial storm and identify new opportunities as and when they emerge.

AC: A good MBA continues to be one of the safest investments one can make career-wise. Several studies have proven the tremendous value over a person’s life-time in terms of increased income. The online MBA has the advantage of reducing the opportunity cost side of the investment.


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