The Online MBA will become the king

Von am 23. April 2017
Imperial College

In the world of business education, the MBA retains pride of place as the gold standard degree program offered by business schools. Not only do these programs attract a school’s leading faculty but they also provide students with significant career development opportunities, personal skills development and access to social networks. An attractive element of an MBA program relates to who you will meet and the networks you be able to access. Programs are selected by applicants based on reputation, rankings and location, but also on the potential quality of the cohort and the alumni base. Much of the learning experience too relies on intensive human interaction.

Given the importance of such human interaction and personal networks, a common view has been that the MBA experience cannot be replicated online. Or at least that any attempt to do so would result in a program that offers an inferior experience to its traditional counterpart. To a degree this view has been self-fulfilling. Highly ranked Schools have been reluctant to deliver online programs and those on offer have been often been provided at a lower price point than their face-to-face equivalents perhaps reflecting the school’s perception of their online offer more than reflecting and underlying differences in cost. This is perhaps one key reason why online MBA programs have held something of a “second-rate” position in the eyes of applicants and employers in previous years.

Perception on online education has changed

The reputation of online MBA programs has also struggled due to poor execution. A primary issue being that the technologies available were unable to deliver a quality learning experience. However, these barriers are steadily being dismantled. The perception on online education has now changed. MOOCs are yet to deliver an experience anywhere near comparable to an MBA however their rapid adoption by prestigious schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Imperial has given strong credibility to the idea that online business education can work. Broadband, social media and the widespread adoption of collaboration tools, together with a general decrease in the cost of web technologies have given schools the tools they need to deliver high quality online education. And perhaps most crucially, the emergence of a generation of tech-savvy professionals has greater demand for a greater range of online options for their MBA studies.

The criticism that working groups and human networks cannot be formed effectively online is met with bafflement by a generation of professionals who do just that on a daily basis. Those working in multinational companies or in other global networks, are intimately familiar with the concept of blending face-to-face with online. And in using internet based communication and collaborative online tools to facilitate working in geographically dispersed groups. To such professionals, the idea that all work must be conducted face-to-face seems antiquated.

Only two top schools have an online MBA

Despite these shifts in perception, technology and market demand, currently only two of the top 40 schools in the Financial Times Global MBA ranking – IE Business School in Madrid and Imperial College Business School in London – offer an online MBA. Most schools are still hesitant to engage in developing online MBAs.

Moving to online format requires cultural change and this takes time. A long-term investment is essential. It is no accident that Imperial College Business School is one of the few top schools offering an online MBA. For many years the schools has positioned itself as a frontrunner in the fusion of business and technology, and the advancement and development of educational technologies through dedicated innovation centres such as the Edtech lab and consistent online offerings.

For our Global Online MBA our goal was to create a very high quality program which provided students with the full MBA value proposition. We built a program design around three pillars; equivalence to our campus based MBA program, community and leading technology. This meant replicating the on-campus experience as closely as possible and enabling strong connections between the school and students and between all the participants on the program.

Graduates get an identical MBA qualification

Equivalence means that admissions procedures and criteria are identical. Students follow the same curriculum and take the same assessments as the campus based students. And importantly, our online students are given access to the full range of career counselling and personal development opportunities. Online students are given full access to our campus and are able to opt to study campus based courses form our Full-Time, Weekend or Executive MBA modules if they wish. Upon graduation, all MBA students receive an identical MBA qualification.

Community is achieved initially through an inducted week on campus enabling students to form relationships with ourselves and with each other. Intensive group orientated activities ensure that everybody gets to know each other very well. Weekly group tasks, regular live online sessions and further opportunities to meet face-to-face throughout the programme ensure these relationships are maintained.

To achieve our technology goals, we built our own customised learning platform which integrated well with the collaborative tools commonly adopted in the workplace. This platform, The Hub, has been developed with communication and personalisation at its core, utilising the best of modern technology to present a very accessible and friendly system to users.

Students are highly successful professionals

So why do I make the claim that the Online MBA may well merge as the premier program in an MBA Portfolio? The reason is the quality of students these programs can attract. The primary reason students opt to study an online MBA is flexibility the format offers. If we consider the type of student that requires flexibility then many of these fit the profile of that business schools are keen to attract.

We have found that our Global Online MBA appeals to a network of outstanding and highly successful professionals who are unwilling to take a potential 2-year career gap, or commit to a study schedule which involves to spending days or evening at a particular campus each month. These students have demanding jobs and often travel frequently – fledgling business leaders in challenging roles, entrepreneurs whose businesses are growing rapidly, successful professionals juggling complex work and home lives but still with the determination and motivation to complete a business degree. These students are frequently not the types we see on campus but are very much the type with whom business schools wish to engage.

The online MBA market is now at the start of a new journey. Our experience at Imperial College suggests that this frequently neglected child may well grow up to become king.




Über Dr. David Lefevre

Dr David Lefevre is the director of the business school’s Edtech Lab. He joined Imperial College in 2001 as an MSc student and became a lecturer in the humanities department where he taught EAP and course modules on the Imperial’s MSc translation program. Joining the business school in 2005 he formed the educational technology unit (now Edtech Lab) and launched the Global Online MBA program in 2015. David has a PhD in the field of instructional systems from Imperial and is also the co-founder and president of the Imperial College eLearning spin-out firm Epigeum which publishes high quality online courseware used by 250+ universities globally.