Online courses are making MBAs open to more

But many students are concerned about the quality and credibility of this alternative model of business education

FOR many City professionals with a family and stable employment, taking a year or two out of work to obtain a Master of Business Administration (MBA) qualification is a luxury they might not be able to afford. As such, online MBA courses can seem an attractive alternative to the traditional educational model. But prospective students are rightly concerned whether the experiences they gain, and the credibility of the course will match up to the offline equivalent.

Online MBAs come in a variety of formats, ranging from self-paced “on-demand” classes, to blended courses involving a mix of in-person campus attendance and live virtual lessons.

And the raw data shows that more people are going online for their business education. Between July 2011 and June 2012, the number of students taking online MBAs grew by 20 per cent, according to statistics from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC). They are offered by reputable institutions across the world, including Durham, Warwick and Arizona business schools. But they are still relatively uncommon, making up just five per cent of all MBA programmes on offer globally last year.

Taking an online course can provide some key cost-saving benefits. For example, the full-time one year MBA at Warwick will cost £31,500 for the September 2013 intake, while the two and a half year online course will cost between £17,800 and £18,500 for students starting this July (taking into account expected budget increases for annual fee reviews). If you’re in paid employment while studying, the savings can be even greater.

But not all online courses are the cheaper option; the IE Business School’s blended Global MBA costs a hefty €43,200 (£37,567). And when comparing courses, students need to bear in mind not just initial costs, but long-term return on investment.

Dr Brigitte Nicoulaud, director of MBA programmes at Aston University, says that one of the main advantages of the online MBA is the geographical and professional flexibility it provides. “Students can study for the course while continuing to work anywhere in the world.” This opens up the qualification to those who cannot relocate, those who work full-time, or who do a lot of travelling.

Interestingly, few take advantage of the distance-learning aspect of the course to obtain an MBA from a foreign institution. Statistics from GMAC show that almost 90 per cent of online MBA students take a course based in their own country, while a third live in the same metropolitan area of the school. This suggests that the ability to take courses from a highly-ranked school elsewhere in the world is not currently one of the main appeals of the model.

But distance-learning is also one of the online MBA’s greatest weaknesses. Networking opportunities – a key attraction of the traditional MBA programme – are necessarily more limited when students are not physically present. Elena Liquete, MBA director at the IESE Business School, says that, although online interactions are becoming increasingly sophisticated, they cannot replace getting to know your fellow students in and out of class. “For many people, the life-long connections you make are an integral part of the MBA’s appeal.”

For this reason, Jane Delbene of GMAC says that online courses may be “a less optimal choice for career switchers who need to build new networks.” And it may be harder to reach employers, who are unable to access the talent pool as easily as by attending campus events. This, in turn, could reduce graduates’ ability to find further employment after the course.

A further concern is the credibility of the online model in the eyes of employers. A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, An Avalanche is Coming, demonstrates how the rapid increase and availability of online education is providing some important opportunities for students, but also creating challenges for regulators. These concerns arise from schools that are more concerned with making a profit than providing quality education, and stories like that of Chester Ludlow: a dog who earned an MBA online from a US University.

Because some courses are not based at a bricks and mortar business school, it is harder for students to assess whether or not they are trustworthy. The easiest way to check is by finding out if the course has been given a tick of approval by one of the main accreditation bodies: the Association of MBAs (AMBA) for instance.

In an interview with Top MBA, professor Newton Campos of IE Business School says that, while there is still some scepticism around online programmes, opinions are starting to change. “We are seeing companies now, particularly hi-tech, internet and innovative companies, who prefer students from our blended MBA, rather than the face-to-face programmes.” Students that work full-time alongside their studies can demonstrate that they are exceptionally hard-working, and do not have a gap in their employment history.

Until prejudices dissipate fully, however, an online MBA may best be taken at an existing business school that also offers a traditional MBA programme. These courses usually have the same content, and are backed up by experienced professors, established careers services and a solid reputation. Recruiters often care more about the status of the school you attended than the method of course delivery. Given that the course awards you with the same qualification as the traditional programme, graduates don’t even need to make it apparent on their CV that they took it online.