FT.COM. MARCH 11, 2013. Online degrees require one thing – working internet. Joshua Lippincott pursued his MBA online dealing with a shaky connection – sometimes because he was simply in a developing country, other times because the US army base he was stationed in was under attack.
After hours of monitoring supply truck routes from Bagram air base in Afghanistan and watching his men frequently attacked, the army logistics officer would go back to his bunk, pull out his MacBook and virtually meet with his team scattered around the US.
Mr Lippincott’s situation – multiple international moves, irregular working hours and dealing with time zones – epitomises the flexibility that online MBA programmes claim.
The stigma of online business degrees has been erased in recent years as more bricks and mortar institutions began offering programmes for working professionals. Employers’ concerns about the quality of degrees has been nearly eliminated as graduates have proven their bona fides.
Ten years ago Alex Sevilla, the director of the MBA programme at Warrington College in Gainesville, Florida, frequently talked to employers to convince them “that this was a good idea” and would have to “literally triage them” to explain how the programme was run.
“Now those conversations are very seldom,” says Mr Sevilla. “There is much more receptivity to the idea of doing online education. One of the nice things about more competition entering into the marketplace, it has validated the construct.”
Though many elite business schools like those at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania still require students to attend classes in person, many selective schools have well-ranked online programmes.
Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration and Arizona State University’s WP Carey School of Business have traditionally ranked in the top 100 global business schools and all have top-five ranked online MBA programmes.
Though the programmes are strictly structured and are usually completed in one or two years, students rarely, if ever, have to be in an actual classroom. The graduation rates are comparable or even higher than traditional programmes because common problems that can lead to dropping out are easier to handle.
Warrington and WP Carey claim completion rates above 90 per cent. Just because someone changes working hours or is relocated, it does not mean that they have to leave the programme, says Mr Sevilla.
Courses can be completed anywhere with a wifi connection and team meetings take place over Skype, online instant message and conference calls.
Many programmes require in-person “residencies”, which are usually one weekend a semester, or an extended weekend of orientation.
This kind of interaction with other students and faculty, along with small class sizes and project-based learning, are key elements to look for in any degree programme, says Kay Gilcher, US Department of Education chief of accreditation. With so many options available, thorough research is key, she says.
“It is important to find out whether or not that degree would be something that a potential employer would find acceptable,” says Ms Gilcher. “There is a growing acceptance of online degrees. Make sure to check in advance with any employers with whom you would want to work following completion of your programme.”
This kind of close teamwork and interaction is the cornerstone of the online MBA course at the WP Carey School of Business, where students work in the same cohort for the duration of the two-year programme. The WP Carey School has been offering some form of online MBAs since 2000.
“We use a lot of team-based assignments and they keep the same teams throughout the programme, learning from one another and collaborating,” says Stacey Whitecotton, senior associate dean of graduate programs at WP Carey.
She added that the students meet their team members on the first night of orientation – the only required time on campus – and often only reunite at the graduation ceremony two years later.
In addition to team learning, Mr Sevilla stresses the value of professionally experienced and academically experienced faculty. At Warrington and other business schools, the same faculty teaches the in-person and online courses, using similar if not the same syllabuses.
In addition to universities that have bricks and mortar campuses, there are purely for-profit online universities like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. Thousands of students have graduated from them in the past 20 years.
The University of Phoenix focuses on faculty that are “working professionals that also teach,” says Barry Feierstein, chief business operating officer at the University of Phoenix.
It has recently introduced Phoenix Connect, an internal social network that connects current students and alumni that studied online. The university has had online programmes for more than 20 years, transitioning from cd-roms to DVDs to internet-based learning as technology progressed.
Unlike many other programmes, the University of Phoenix does not limit the time students have to complete their degrees.
Michelle Bennett was travelling constantly for her job and did not have time to be in one place a few nights a week for class. She completed her online MBA through the University of Phoenix in a little more than a year and has since received her doctorate.
“The best part of learning online was going at your own pace. You are teaching yourself and that works best for me,” says Ms Bennett. “It gave me the opportunity to work at a faster pace and finish sooner.”