How to build an effective online MBA programme

Imperial College Business School’s Paolo Taticchi highlights seven core ingredients that underpin the delivery of a high-calibre online MBA programme

A decade ago, if you asked those at the world’s leading Business Schools where the future of the MBA programme lay, the answer most likely would not have been ‘online’. However, that is certainly the way the industry has been heading in recent years.

To get a grip on what the future of the MBA looks like, your best bet is to reflect on the students. The GMAC Application Trends Survey Report provides an illuminating narrative on just how much the global MBA market has evolved as applicant demands, priorities and concerns have impacted on how programmes are designed and delivered. 

The traditional two-year, full-time MBA, once considered the stalwart industry leader, has faced a steady decline across the US and Europe, while the one-year programme has only grown in prominence. There’s also been increasing demand for part-time MBAs (so-called ‘lockstep programmes’, in which students follow structured classroom-based learning as a group, rather than dictating their own hours of study), which have seen stronger application volumes than part-time, self-paced programmes.

Such developments perhaps, on reflection, are not so surprising. The market changed substantially after the financial crisis of 2007-2008. People enrolling on a full-time MBA had to consider the potential return on investment in a way they didn’t previously. On top of substantial tuition fees, the prospect of giving up their jobs for up to two years of study with less guarantee of securing another on the other side, and arguably less opportunity for speedy career advancement, understandably made applicants look a little closer at the value of the two-year programme in comparison with shorter or more flexible options. 

However the most surprising trend to some, has been the significant hike in demand for online MBA programmes; a study method which, for a long time, was widely considered to be a sub-standard qualification, mostly due to over-ambitious, and ultimately unsuccessful, early attempts to provide online programmes. Despite significant leaps in technological developments since then, modern online programmes have continued to be shadowed by the failings of their less than stellar predecessors. That is, until now. 

High-quality applications

As the global business landscape becomes ever more driven by technology, with geographical boundaries no longer a barrier to working globally, and with the next generation of business leaders demanding greater flexibility in their working hours, the business education market has been under increasing pressure to offer programmes which better fit the lifestyle of the modern professional.

Since launching The Global Online MBA programme at Imperial College Business School, we have seen a growth of 30% in applications each year. This, in itself, wasn’t a surprise. Imperial has been a longstanding investor and supporter of online education. However the surprising factor was seeing the rising number of high-quality applications from extremely capable students around the world – not to mention the increasing number of students being sponsored through the programme.

It seems that the time of online MBAs being considered a B-product is over. 

Today, both applicants and corporations recognise the value of a good online education as equal, if not superior, to one gained on campus. In fact, only Business Schools seem to have missed the memo. Despite the surge in demand, a high proportion of leading institutions still do not offer an online study option to MBA students.

Their reluctance is understandable. The online MBAs remains, in many ways, a new, untested product, which requires significant levels of investment – both financial and intellectual – to make it a worthwhile venture. It’s not only about leveraging technology for the delivery of courses and degrees. It’s about new pedagogies, new forms of engagement and communication with students, and new ways of doing marketing and recruitment. Ultimately, it’s about developing new business models.

It’s no mean feat to create an online MBA – and to do it well. For those Schools willing to take the plunge, through my experiences of developing the online MBA programme at Imperial College Business School and building a knowledge of the best programmes offered by other Business Schools, I’ve identified seven core ingredients that must be present in order to deliver a high calibre, effective online MBA programme:

Top teaching faculty

Students who invest in an MBA programme typically harbour high aspirations and, as a result, hold high expectations of what their education should deliver. Quite rightly, students want access to the best researchers and teachers their School has to offer, and to receive personalised support in their professional development, regardless of whether they’re studying on campus or online. 

In an ideal world, the faculty responsible for delivering an online MBA should be the same individuals in charge of running the campus-based programmes, ensuring the same quality of curricula and helping to create an inclusive atmosphere beyond the physical boundaries of the campus. Any differentiation will only serve to create an unnecessary divide between campus-based and online programmes.

At Imperial, our full-time campus-based MBA is treated with the same academic rigour as our online programme. Applicants are held to the same criteria across the board and faculty are instructed to treat both classes as equal. Upon graduation, all MBA students, regardless of their study method, are awarded the same degree.

Structured flexibility

For all the talk surrounding the benefits of flexible working patterns, affording busy professionals greater levels of flexibility in structuring their learning doesn’t necessarily equal greater satisfaction or success. In fact, the opposite is true. Affording students too much flexibility does little to encourage cohort cohesion and engagement, as students find themselves at wildly varying stages of the curriculum and thus have little cause to engage with and learn from each other. It also provides little benefit to students’ professional development as they lack momentum and structure in their learning. Lockstep programmes put the right amount of pressure on students who, alongside modular learning, develop the additional skill of managing an intense workload of work and study. 

Proceeding in the learning experience together as a cohort creates a positive stimulus; students, naturally, keep up with study and deadlines driven by their classmates, and curricula can become characterised by group activities. 

Innovative ways of engaging students

As well as learning from the programme’s curriculum, a large part of MBA students’ learning comes from conversations with their classmates, faculty and the alumni network. Opportunities for conversations can easily be lost when studying at a distance. Engagement is vital in fostering a positive learning environment, therefore online programmes should be built to facilitate and encourage interaction between faculty, student and the wider school community wherever possible.

Building group projects into the online curriculum, enabling online students to attend live sessions, lectures and Q&As with faculty or alumni, creating online student-led events and regular discussion forums on relevant topics are all ways in which this can be achieved. 

A blended curriculum

Many of the best online programmes offer students a blended learning experience – allowing them the opportunity to engage in some learning in person in a physical environment. Time spent by students on campus should be designed to build the cohort’s spirit, helping firm-up relationships between students and faculty. For example, induction events can be a great way to break the ice between new students and set them on the right path. Similarly capstone experiences can be useful in enabling students to transition smoothly from student to alumni status.

Moreover, offering international study trips can aid dispersed global students to meet up throughout the programme, as well as providing a valuable hands-on learning opportunity. 

Sophisticated technology

The technology challenge scares off many Business Schools and constitutes an entry barrier for Schools that are open to adding an online MBA to their catalogue but don’t know how to. However, to offer a competitive programme, it is vital to invest in modern, intuitive and savvy technologies to support students’ learning.

There is a range of options to consider. Classic virtual learning environments (such as Moodle or Blackboard) typically do not offer the user experience that online MBA students want, so some Schools decide to engage popular online study platform providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity and FutureLearn to run their programmes instead. Others may decide to invest in proprietary bespoke platforms. 

Beyond facilitating the day-to-day running of the programme online, tech innovation is needed to support a variety of learning methods – live streaming of classes and events, or enabling multiple-campus connectivity, creating virtual and augmented reality solutions, developments of chatbots for student support.

Even creating purpose-built on-campus facilities (for example, the Harvard HBX facility designed for teaching online cases at best, or the WOW room of IE to offer a visual-classroom experience to both students and faculty) is a worthwhile investment. 

Continuous investment

The online delivery of an MBA calls for major investment from the outset, and a consistent dedication to investment moving forwards as technologies involved continue to improve. The inevitable growth of this market will bear significant rewards for Business Schools that have invested heavily and strategically in their online offerings, whereas those Schools that have limited themselves to tweaking old distance-learning programmes will have little chance of survival in this crowded market.

Senior management support

The development of online programmes, particularly the industry gold-standard MBA, triggers all sort of questions and problems for Business Schools to consider. It’s not only about money, it’s about developing (or committing to outsourcing) tech expertise and training faculty on how to conduct online delivery effectively, managing and protecting intellectual property, recruiting students globally and facilitating timely support for students of different cultures in different time zones. Managing these considerations is not possible without senior management support and a long-term commitment from all involved.

The structure and continued development of the Global Online MBA at Imperial College Business School is a reflection of each of these points. Since the programme’s launch in 2015, we have endeavoured to keep investing in its development, performing a major curriculum review after two years, and introducing new technologies on a regular basis. We’ve also encouraged and supported faculty to pilot new forms of engagement online, on-campus and abroad.

The successes and positive feedback, we’ve received from students have led us to develop our online offerings even further, offering a blended Executive MBA, a new online MSc in Business Analytics, and adding blended elements to all on-campus programmes.

For Schools, Deans and MBA Directors exploring the development of online MBAs I have three final pieces of advice:

1. Online education is a ‘go big or go home’ game. Investments in online programmes must be thorough and strategically aligned with the larger agenda of your institution. Investing in an online programme could cost you as much as investing in 10 traditional MSc programmes. Be ready.

2. Online education is also a ‘different’ game to master. The best lecturers you have at the School may actually become your worst online, if not trained appropriately. Not all members of faculty will adapt to online education smoothly. Take the time to understand your faculty’s reservations, and invest in their training and development.

3. Online education is only a ‘game’ metaphorically. In fact, it’s a complex business that calls for the right strategies at the right time to ensure success. You must pay attention to the world around you, the actions of your competitors and the needs expressed by your students and applicants – and be prepared to be bold in addressing them.

Dr Paolo Taticchi is Principal Teaching Fellow in Management and Sustainability, and Director of the Weekend and Global Online MBA programmes at Imperial College Business School.

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