Ask the experts: Online MBA 2010

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What a difference a year makes. Kindle, twitter, iPhones and Facebook are all in common usage in business schools while developments in communications and computing technology have improved the attractiveness of online study. As the more traditional MBA programmes continue to increase in price but arguably not in value, will online MBAs prove to be a viable alternative for the millions of managers who crave management training? And if so, how do you select an appropriate programme?

On Wednesday March 17 a panel of experts answered your questions on this page at

http://www.ft.com/q&a/newmedia2010

On the panel were:

Della Bradshaw, Business Education Editor, Financial Times

Nick Hutton, Chief Executive of U21Global, Singapore

Richard Magjuka, Chair of the Kelley Direct Online MBA programme

Post your questions now to ask@ft.com or use the form below.


What is the value of an online ”qualification” irrespective of the issuer. Might this not be seen as something it is not? Whilst a person benefits from online tuition, this does not compare with a non online degree programme because it lacks the other dimensions of learning? There are two potential categories of candidate for on line MBAs. Those who want to get on the management ladder and those who are already there.

The first group would benefit from certification since there is no other yardstick to judge their suitability, but they would be better served by conventional business schools where they would benefit from the name and performance of the establishment.

The second group would be more likely to benefit from modular online tuition. They can assess their own training needs and select specific available programmes. Time is vital for practising managers and a distance MBA programme may be a blunt instrument covering course material that does not fully match training needs.

It may also be considered by potential employers as being something it is not since a Masters’ degree in its wider sense needs to cover environment, social and communication aspects between students and instructional staff etc. Sending selected managers to established high level schools for short programmes in specific subjects have a greater pay-off in widening the horizons of selected high flyers through contact with others from different industries and experience.
John C. George, France

Nick Hutton: Let’s not forget those who are already on the management ladder but want to move up it - so I’m not sure I agree that they would not benefit from a full MBA. Both groups could benefit from an online MBA for a number of reasons:

- assuming they are working full time and are typically ‘busy working executives’, then they would need a programme that they could fit into their ‘work, life, learn balance’ – even going to a local business school part time is very often too much of a commitment for today’s working executive;

- they would need a programme that is flexible and modular – the ability to stop and start given personal and work circumstances. On average a U21Global MBA student completes his or her degree in 2.8 years, but we give a maximum of 5 years – the fastest to date has been 18 months. This is done by taking a number of subjects in parallel and by maximizing the time you have available or can discipline yourself to make available;

- as you point out, the global nature of an MBA programme is critical to broadening the thinking and experiences of the students. Again, with U21Global an average MBA class would be around 30 students from as many as 30 different countries – and the Professor may be from a 31st! Given that on average our students each have 8 years working experience, then the richness of the experience, the knowledge and the cultural diversity of the students is incredible - one of the main roles of the Professor is to ‘facilitate’ the class and to draw that richness out and share it amongst all the students;

- The final MBA certificate is also important – as you mention, the name, performance and the reputation of the business school is critical to the value that both the student and more importantly the employer put on the completion and the quality of the MBA. U21Global’s certificate includes the crests of its four partner universities – Virginia, Nottingham, Birmingham and Melbourne and the value that represents globally is outstanding.

Richard J. Magjuka: Embedded in your question is an assumption about the nature of the learning experience in an online environment. Your concern about online education is reasonable but it is misplaced. There are high-quality degree programs and there are lower-quality degree programs. Your concern should not be about the method in which the educational experience is delivery but the quality of the learning experience. It is not the technology but who uses the technology and how it is used which are the key issues. Allow me to provide a more comprehensive respond using my experience at Kelley Direct as an example.

At Kelley Direct, our students are fully engaged with the faculty and other students. Thus, many of the issues you identify are already addressed by our pedagogy. This is also true for other online programs in the US. Our faculty teach online to our students. Our learning is not self-paced. We have a defined beginning and end to a course and the instructor will guide our students through the course over twelve weeks in order to develop mastery of a subject. In any one course, an instructor might use a very diverse set of technologies: video, web conferencing, i-phone, social media as well as forums, chats and other online formats.

Finally, in terms of networking, I agree that networking is a key part of any MBA program. At Kelley Direct we have approximately 2000 students and most are selected by the companies for our program after hurdling an internal nomination process in their company. Thus, when our students interact with other students in asynchronous or synchronous learning events, they are networking with other ”high-flyers” across many different industries, companies and countries.

Della Bradshaw: Many of the so-called online programmes do involve face-to-face components and most involve online teamwork or groupwork. There is also the question of those students who live in remote areas or areas which are not well-served by business schools, where this is the only option for them.


I have offers from Warwick, Strathclyde and Henley business schools. I am trying to decide which one is better for the distance MBA.
V. Thomas, USA

Nick Hutton: All great business schools – you could, of course, look at an online MBA backed by 4 top universities – Virginia, Nottingham, Birmingham and Melbourne – then your MBA would be truly global.

Della Bradshaw: They are all great schools. Enjoy!


Generally, do employers prefer graduates with an MBA from a traditional university rather than an online MBA?
London, UK

Nick Hutton: I think it depends to a certain extent on the employer as well as the design and focus of the MBA. In my experience a multi-national or regional organization is more interested in the global nature of the learning that comes from the MBA, although the business school that provides it is also important from a quality point of view.

A U21Global MBA combines both - a global degree that draws learning and experience from a class of students from many different countries and cultures all with a rich working experience and a structure that focuses on drawing out those experiences and knowledge and sharing them amongst the class. At the same time, a degree given in partnership with 4 highly respected, global universities – the universities of Virginia, Nottingham, Birmingham and Melbourne.

Della Bradshaw: I’m not sure there is a simple answer to that one. Some business schools - Warwick in the UK is one example of this - give the same degree to online MBAs as they do to their full-time and part-time programmes, so it would be hard for a new employer to distinguish. And it would clearly depend on what employers were looking for. Who would you prefer to employ - someone who had taken time out to do a full-time MBA, or someone who spent two or three years studying in the evenings and at weekends in addition to doing a full-time job?

I also think there needs to be a distinction made between employers and recruiters. One of the most powerful aspects of a full-time degree, I always think, is the strength of the careers development office, which obviously is something missing in part-time, executive and online programmes. But at the end of the day, your qualifications are only part of the reason you are offered the job.

Richard J. Magjuka: I will not attempt to answer your question in terms of the experience of students or companies that deal with a program at another university. Students and companies are attracted to our program because they do not wish to make the trade-offs that your question implies. They come to the Kelley School of Business because our undergraduate and graduate degree programs already are ranked in the top 20 in the United States. In addition, our academic departments are routinely ranked in the top 20 of among all business schools in the U.S. Instead of selecting between a degree offered by a ”traditional” university or an online MBA, our attitude is that you should seek an online MBA program offered by a top 20 school of business, the Kelley Direct program.


I am an engineer working in the telecommunications field for the past four years and I intend to study for my MBA from a reputable school in the near future. My question is: which specialization should I be aiming for? I don’t want to go into fields such as finance as marketing because I come from a completely different background and would like to stick to the technology sector. Grateful if you could guide me in any way. Thanks!
Usman Waseem, Pakistan

Della Bradshaw: There are loads of options open to you in supply chain, technology management and operations.,but while you are working out what you your really want to do, why not stick to the basics such as management, strategy, international business and leadership. They will always stand you in good stead.

There again, if you want to stay in the telecoms field, have you considered a specialised masters degree instead of an MBA?

Richard J Magjuka: First, many students enter MBA programs holding onto the belief that they will major or specialize in one area only to become intrigued by another topic that they learn while enrolled in the program. For example, engineers often accept positions in non-engineering companies to perform duties such as finance or marketing upon completion of an MBA program.

Second, while I do not know which programs have majors or specializations in technology or information systems, I do know that the Kelley School of Business offers a dual degree program -- a MS in Information Systems and a KD MBA program.

Nick Hutton: It sounds to me that you would need to look at a Masters that specializes in technology, but still gives you the fundamental management grounding – which would include basics in marketing, finance, strategy, leadership etc – even a CTO/CIO needs these, assuming that’s the path you are looking at. There are a number of programmes that allow you to do this – at U21Global, we have a programme called MMIT, Master of Management in Information Technology which combines all of these elements.


What are the present and future perspectives for the online MBAs in Singapore paying attention to the presence of superior telecommunications industry with best Internet portals, like www.inSing.com, already available in Singapore?
Viktor O. Ledenyov, Ukraine

Nick Hutton:Very positive. Don’t forget, there are two critical access points for taking an online degree – the delivery out of the data centre that hosts the programme and your local access to the internet. Whilst I cannot guarantee your access (hopefully in the Ukraine it’s pretty good), what I can guarantee is the delivery out of Singapore, which is one of the best connected countries in the world. This is due to the excellence of the local service providers as well as the agreements that they have across the globe with other service providers and various submarine cable operators that transport data around the world. Singapore is also the major financial services hub in Asia-Pacific – and they would not be there if the connectivity was not excellent.


Will an online MBA afford me the same mobility opportunities compared to a more traditional programme? For example, if I live and work in Europe but wish to secure employment in the US, will an online study help me achieve this?
UK

Richard J Magjuka: Again, I hope that everyone who reads this forum will remember the following point: what matters to employers is the quality of the degree and the reputation of the school or university -- not the technology used to support the educational experience.

Nick Hutton: I think that it depends on the quality of the programme as well as the global nature of the learning that is perceived by the employer. At U21Global our content, pedagogy and faculty are all quality assured through the 4 universities that are our partners – Virginia, Nottingham, Birmingham and Melbourne – to the extent that any one of them would be more than happy to deliver the same programme themselves. In addition, the fact that the four universities cover the world gives our MBA global credentials. Also, our students come from 72 countries, so the richness of the learning on a global scale is outstanding.

Della Bradshaw: It has always been my impression that even MBA programmes from schools that are ranked in the top 10 or 20 in the world are often not recognised outside their home markets of the US, Europe or Asia, and I am certain this is true of all forms of delivery - full-time, part-time, online. Then again, for some markets and industry - a consultancy role in the US for example - it is almost de rigeur to have an MBA. So, my advice is to choose a degree - be it online or some other form of delivery - that is recognised in the country in which you hope to work.


What are the two key areas of opportunity that deserves focus to enhance the distance learning experience?
Robert Y., Zuerich. Switzerland

Richard J Magjuka: I am not sure that I fully understand this question. I assume that you are asking me to identify factors that contribute to student learning in a distance learning program.

From my perspective, students should demand that courses be designed to require a high degree of interaction between faculty and students. In addition, students should demand that the faculty who teach in the distance program are the same faculty who teach in the school’s other degree programs. With all of the tools available, it is easy to design a highly interactive course for students. Also, ultimately it is the quality of the faculty and their effectiveness as instructors that are critical in any degree program.

Della Bradshaw: I think one of the topics that has to be looked into is that of career development and what online providers can do to help students get a step up in their careers. I think the second issue that has to be addressed is that of the balance between open access and student quality. Both are very thorny problems - I am glad it is my colleagues on the panel and not me that have to address those issues.

Nick Hutton: There are many key areas – but amongst the top would be the quality of the content and the role of the Professor in facilitating the class. Albert Einstein once said – ‘I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn’. The art of drawing the knowledge and experience out of the class, whose participants will probably come from many different countries and combine a richness difficult to find in a more traditional classroom, and then being able to share it amongst the participants to allow them to learn from it, is an important and critical skill to the success of an online degree.


I heard that virtual study can be a lonely experience. How do you address this problem? Talking to fellow students and faculty via email, online forums or over the phone is not the same as face-to-face communication. Are there opportunities for residential study?
UK

Della Bradshaw: Some online programmes require students to study on the university campus and others in local or regional study centres - or both. The FT interactive listing of online MBA programmes will give you this information for individual programmes.

Richard J Magjuka: I believe that the trend in MBA education is to offer students a wide variety of ”blended” learning options that mix online and residential learning into a single degree program. I am extremely confident that every student can identify a MBA program that offers the blend of distance and residential learning that is best suited to his or her needs.

Nick Hutton: Not at all – the combination of technologies that are used today, particularly with web 2.0 tools and the fact that a student can interact with the class, his or her assignment team and the professor 24 hours a day and 7 days a week means that it is a continual interactive experience. Discussion boards, chat, email, vodcasts, podcasts, wikis, video streaming, webinars to name but a few, keep you fully occupied and interacting. Of course, if that is not enough, then there are programmes that combine both online and residential.


How do you ensure that your students are not cheating in an online environment?
Victoria Chan, Hong Kong

Nick Hutton: A great question – let me try to give you an answer from U21Global’s perspective:

- Our student profile is mature students, mid-30’s, typically highly-motivated;

- We advocate an honour code to create the right culture;

- We have an explicit academic dishonesty policy;

- We have community ‘policing’, where students are encouraged to highlight instances of plagiarism to the professor (this has been one of our major deterrents);

- We have detection technology – there are a number of very good products in the market;

- We perform continuous assessment through weekly discussion postings;

- We use ‘authentic assessments’ where there is no such thing as a generic or model answer;

- We have OBOW (Open Book Open Web) examinations;

- And finally, the student-professor relationship is critical as the professor typically has a good grasp of a student’s academic ability before they sit for the exam.


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