Vol. 15 : No. 9
Editor’s Note: This paper has special significance because of the number of universities worldwide now offering online MBA programs. The online courses provide opportunities for large numbers of potential students who could not otherwise attend, and provide flexibility for the more traditional student to enrich or accelerate his program. The comparison data provided here is of value to potential students and to institutions building online programs. With this knowledge, potential weaknesses and threats can be minimized in favor of strengths and opportunities.
Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats for the On-line MBA Programs: A Literature Review for its Future
The number of students in online MBA programs is growing; therefore much research has taken place to evaluate its merits and/or disadvantages over the traditional MBA. This paper is an attempt to review and assess the future that online MBA programs offer to universities and students. Based on that objective, the paper conducted a general comparison between the online and the traditional MBA, followed by a detailed evaluation of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the online MBA. The evaluation considered the point of views of universities, professors, and students, since the three combined views build the future of the online MBA.
Since the online MBA is growing, this means there are merits for those programs over the traditional MBA. The online MBA programs are accepted by new customers that were not willing to pursue their MBA degree in traditional classes. In other words, students who want to pursue an MBA degree without going to the campus would be willing to apply for an online MBA. An example is if he/she has family issues, and it is difficult to leave the family, or to relocate them (Larsen, 1999, McCallister & Matthews, 2001). Another example is seeking the MBA for career improvement without leaving the job (quitting or just temporary leave), because of the need for the monthly salary, or because of its responsibilities (Larsen, 1999, McCallister & Matthews, 2001). It is an opportunity/cost trade off, whether to lose the monthly salary and leave the job for the sake of a full time/part time MBA. Also, where he/she is living, national or international, affects the size of the potential market for the online MBA.
In general, the online MBA suits more the executives who need to improve their careers within the same organization, or disabled and elderly people who cannot easily move and go to campus. The traditional MBA will still have its students who want to change their career or improve their education, and have the ability to sacrifice a monthly salary.
To better evaluate the online MBA, a comparison/contrast is conducted between the online MBA and the traditional MBA. The comparison highlights the main issues that in general affect a student’s decision, followed by the selection criteria that are mostly used to choose an online MBA.
The selection Criteria
Affected by the above motivation to go for an online MBA, the criteria of university selection are specified. Selection differs from one student to another, but the major criteria is first the flexibility to enroll in the program and courses, as in the university of Phoenix, which offers online courses in six-week increments (Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, 1997). In the case of the traditional MBA, courses are only offered in the Fall and Spring semesters.
The second criterion is the adequate time to complete the courses (Larsen, 1999, Gerencher, 1998). The third criterion is the services and quality offered (Gerencher, 1998). This criterion is discussed later in the article considering its threat to the online MBA.
The Fourth criterion of selection is the price. The online MBA prices are comparable with the traditional MBA. It is about the same (Gerencher, 1998), although it differs from one university to another.
The table below shows a sample of universities that offer the online MBA program, its cost, and the features of that program. (Smith 2001, Larsen, 1999) - Adapted
The fifth criterion is the accreditation (McCallister, & Matthews, 2001, Gerencher, 1998, Wood, 2000). Accreditation is used by evaluate the quality of the education as determined by the accreditation body. According to Charlotte Thomas, career and education editor of educational power-publisher Peterson’s, “Accreditation is the number 1 verification of the quality of a higher-education distance education provider.” (Abernathy, 2001). Accreditation by internationally respected bodies such as the AACSB is an important selling point of programs at reputable school (Wood, 2000). Some universities that offer the online MBA are accredited by local bodies, but until now the AACSB accreditation body did not give any accreditations for the online MBA.
The sixth criterion is the reputation of the university (Gerencher, 1998). And the sevenths criterion is the ability to compensate for the lack of face-to-face experience (Larsen, 1999), which is addressed later in the paper noting the studies held to examine that feature of the online MBA.
Strengths are the competitive advantages that the online MBA programs against the traditional MBA type. Those competitive advantages are the large dissemination of the online MBA globally, its mass customization just to fit specific needs, and the fact that it both benefits and is benefited by the technology.
Internet MBA programs provide services in countries where traditional correspondence courses do not work well. Mail service and even express mail are difficult in some areas of the world where Internet service is more reliable (Natesan and Smith 1998, cited in Smith 2001). In other words, the online MBA is better in this regard than the traditional and the other long distance MBA programs. In that sense the online MBA offers a quality MBA program to the masses from all over the world that can’t afford to come to the US (Clayton, 2000). For example, the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business offers a postgraduate Advanced Management program to jumpstart MBA’s for executives living in Japan. (Larsen, 1999).
Another example, Oakland University, began in January 2001 an online MBA program for students in Lebanon. The MBA program officials expect that the program will eventually attract applicants from beyond Lebanon, especially from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and from the territories administered by the Palestinian Authority. The MBA will combine distance courses with Beirut-based seminars. Students will travel to Michigan for the last portion of the program, in which they will meet their instructors and local business leaders. Officials at the Michigan College say that the program is the first online MBA to be offered by an American institution to any Middle Eastern nation other than Israel (Cohen, 2001). Also, given the global reach of the Internet, Nova Southeastern University has picked up students in a number of foreign countries; the MBA program has attracted people from Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Guam, Jamaica, and China. Faculty are drawn both locally and from countries such as Britain, Chile and Canada (Marshall, 2001).
The growth of “distance learning” programs give students a wider choice of schools without regard to location. Jocelin Kagan, who runs a corporate-communications firm in Johannesburg, South Africa, has been enrolled in the MBA program of Henley Management College in Henley-on-Thomas, England, since 1998. Kagan, who meets with a group of seven other Henley students in Johannesburg, used to get her coursework via textbooks. Recently, she has begun to enjoy the efficiency and convenience of getting her coursework online. “E-learning crunches time down enormously,” says Kagan, who will graduate in May 2002 (Schneider, 2001).
“Global” can mean reaching others from across borders, also it means reaching the students locally who have a handicap. DeSales University and a technology foundation are teaming up to develop what they believe will be the nation’s first online MBA program for students who are deaf or hard of hearing (Mangan, 2001).
Mass Customization or Supply Location
“Because many distance-learning programs are business-related, employers are willing to foot the bill for continuing education” (Schulhof, 1999). Universities can use mass customization in the MBA programs to customize the MBA degree just to fit a group enrolled from a company. From another point of view the online MBA can supply the education into the customer’s location, as it is now common for online providers to offer additional services to their corporate customers (Aron, 1999).
For example, The Banco National de Mexico (Banamex), was sending its executives to Harvard and Yale, but now they allow their employees to complete their MBA in cooperation with the National University that offers an online MBA. They report that the advantages are their people can complete the course without leaving their work or their home, it is a very comparable education, and they are satisfied with the results. In addition, they decreased the costs, since it costs three times as much to send one person to Harvard, which does not include the cost of temporarily replacing them at work. Lately, Banamex and the university worked out an arrangement in which Banamex supplied the computers and the server, while NU oversaw the technology links that placed the program directly into the site (Donoho, 1998).
Another example is Ohio University, which is prepared to offer a corporate MBA program directed to companies interested in sending as many as 30 students to cyber school at a time. According to its director, Ohio University program will assign projects to MBA candidates that their employers need accomplished. In addition, at an employer’s request, the university provides regular reports on students’ progress. (Aron, 1999)
Some of the reputable companies such as Intel and PricewaterhouseCoopers are now customers of the online MBA. E-learning company Conquest Corp. and Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., have partnered to create a customized two-year MBA program for Intel. The program will combine E-learning and classroom training online and collaborate via threaded discussions and chats. In addition, Babson faculty will hold classes once a month at Intel’s locations (Swanson, 2001). In addition, PricewaterhouseCoopers has a custom employee MBA program it created several years ago with the University of Georgia that also includes online and classroom instruction. “The tailored curriculum lets consultants quickly put learning into action,” says the director of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ learning and professional development group (Swanson, 2001).
In addition to the above, the online MBA also benefits and is benefited by the technology as a result of the competition would be between companies to offer a better product. From the technological point of view, the severe competition between businesses the may produce a more powerful Internet, which is faster and of better quality to deliver the information. Also, more quality software being produced and will continue to be produced due to the competition between the online software companies.
Another possibility is that virtual reality may be used to deliver the MBA education. In that case, the student will interact with the other students and with the instructor. For example, the reaction of a student presenting a topic to the class, and the responses of the instructor and the students will appear to each other in the class, as if it is a presentation in a traditional MBA class. Currently, the webcam (Internet Camera) could be used to deliver the reaction of the students to each participant in that class.
Technological improvements through current mergers between the educational institutions that offer the online MBA and other companies specializing in the technology sector are resulting in better quality online MBA. University of Cambridge will offer a new executive online MBA, to begin in the fall 2001, which will be a joint effort of the university’s business school, the Judge Institute of Management, and FT Knowledge, a division of London-based Pearson P.L.C. (a company that also publishes the Financial Times.) FT Knowledge will handle the technical aspects of putting courses online and delivering them, as well as the marketing of the program to potential students internationally. Cambridge will determine what is taught, and all the content, and lectures are to be done by Cambridge academics. (Blumenstyk, 2001, Abernathy, 2001)
Some universities are famous because of achieving a good reputation in the online education arena, and especially the online MBA. The University of Phoenix has the largest online enrollment for U.S. colleges. Its private, profit-making program enrolls 9,500 students in a variety of undergraduate and graduate majors including an electronic MBA (Welcome, 1999, cited in Smith, 2001)
The largest nonprofit distance education MBA program in the U.S. is thought to be at Colorado State University. The program served 375 students from 44 states in the spring semester of 1999 (Ruoff, 1999, cited in Smith, 2001)
As schools aim to better adapt to their students’ lifestyles, online learning has proven a sound and even revenue-building solution. At Indiana University, the Kelley School of Business’ Direct online MBA program, which was launched in August 1999, has 60 students enrolled so far, including an officer on an aircraft carrier in the pacific. In the fall 2001, it plans to accept 120 students. (Schneider, 2001)
Admissions and Enrollment
A weakness that has not yet been well researched by the universities is the required admission criteria to be accepted by the university. Will some universities change their admission criteria, will they require the GMAT, or will a new type of exam be needed other than the GMAT to reflect the new requirements such as the computer skills.
A study conducted assessing enrollment and attrition rates for the online MBA (Terry, 2001) imply that online courses enroll more students, but suffer from higher attrition rates than traditional campus courses. The sustained higher enrollment across several business courses is a positive sign for the future of Internet-based instruction. On the other hand, attrition appears to be a problem with some of the online courses. Courses in the disciplines of accounting, economics, computer information systems, marketing and management appear to be very conducive to the Internet format, as attrition rates are comparable to the campus equivalents. Courses in business statistics and finance, with attrition rates in excess of 30 percent, do not appear to be very well suited to the Internet instruction format. This study concludes that courses requiring extensive mathematics are difficult to convert to an Internet instruction format.
The online MBA programs are cheaper than the traditional MBA. This is not the case if we are talking about a quality program. The universities need money to be able to finance the equipment needed, such as fast computers, software, and of course 24/7 technical support for the whole system. In addition, the number of students enrolled in a single class are the same as the traditional one (20-30 students), because the instructor has to contact each one, and monitor student participation and level during the course.
For the students, it is also costly, since they need a desktop computer or a notebook, with multimedia and printer. Besides, the computer should be in compliance with the university’s technological requirements. For example, a student should not use a Pentium 133 MHz, with 1-gigabyte hard disk and 16 MB ram, while the university’s requirements are Pentium III 500 MHz, and 64 MB ram. If used, the less robust system were would be unfair for the user and an unfair advantage for the other participants, because that would be an obstacle to participate, creating an interaction gap. That raises the issue of who can afford a compliant computer, multimedia, printer, and good Internet connection. It appears that the online MBA will mostly be monopolized by the western European and the North American population, and the minority rich in the rest of the developing countries. Also, currently the universities that offer the online MBA did not offer scholarships to online students.
Another monetary concern is weather the MBA would be offered completely online, some courses of the program online, or parts of some courses online. In the case when some courses of the program are online and some are on location, the students will pay for the living expenses, apartment rental expenses, in addition to the normal fees, which is not cost effective. Some universities require the students to travel to the university for meetings at the beginning and end of class, but this is not cost effective for the international students.
Actually what universities should do is actively pursue the online education market opportunities. These opportunities are confirmed by the surveys and statistical studies conducted through reputable firms. Dun and Bradstreet (1996) cited in Smith (2001), estimated corporations and government spend $40 billion on training annually, and a growing portion of that training is accomplished through distance education. According to research, the overall online-education market will explode from its current $1.8 billion (with about 700,000 students) to $5.5 billion (2.2 million students) by 2002 (fisher, 2000).
This is supported by the history of the online education, because since 1890 more than 130 million Americans have studied via distance learning, including Franklin Roosevelt, Walter Cronkite, Barry Goldwater, and Charles Schulz (Abernathy, 2001). Also, the above studies are backed by the change in the lifestyle of people, since “Nine out of 10 people just don’t have the time or money to spend an extended period of time on campus,” says Charles Hickman, vice president for academic affairs at Quisic, an e-learning company in Los Angeles that is planning an online MBA (Clayton, 2000).
InterEd, an Idaho based research firm that studies the use of technology in higher education, projects that enrollment in virtual MBA programs will jump from 5,000 in the year 2000 to more than 50,000 in two years (Dash, 2000). As a result, MBA program administrators see distance learning as a means to expand their student population (Smith, 2001).
Second and Third Tier Universities
The second and third tier universities have the opportunity to do better in the market and acquire a large market share by competing with the first tier universities in that new field, especially since not all of the top universities are going into the market. An example is the University of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which does not offer online MBAs and is not planning to. Because Haas admits only 11 percent of its applicants, it is seen as an elite university, and that is part of its value to students (Gerencher, 1998).
On the other hand, online education can be seen as a threat to second and third tier universities, since distance learning MBAs delivered online can offer access to prestigious schools that have not been available in the past (Wood, 2000).
Threats are just warnings that should be taken care of; otherwise it would be weaknesses and blow up the online MBA. In other words each participant should adapt to the changing environment, and implement solutions to those threats.
The changing professor:
Adapting to the changes from the live to online instruction needs some modifications from the professors to beat the problems that are inherent to that type of instruction. “The faculty needs to become two new things. First, we can no longer emphasize individual teaching content and styles as much. We need to become a coaching team that works as one. Second, we have to move from being the center of learning to being the facilitator of learning,” said John Dory, Professor of management at Pace University, New York (Greco, 1999).
Some of the difficulties that face the professors due to the change from the live to online instruction are summarized in the following table: Source, Smith 2001 (Adapted)
The changing materials:
The traditional MBA uses the textbook as the main source for the syllabus content, but the textbooks are outdated by the time they appear in the bookstore (Goldman, 2000). As a result, online classes can use other materials such as articles published in academic or professional sources, or even what is published in the newspapers and magazines. Or the online instructor could combine the principles in the textbook with the current practices, and deliver that mix as a combined coherent material online.
The changing classroom:
Changing from the traditional classroom, into software is a huge change. Students can communicate with the instructor and with each other by e-mail, bulletin boards, chat rooms (Larsen, 1999, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, 1997), and news groups (Larsen, 1999). In the online MBA, the feel of the physical classroom is created by software used to give the same benefits and the information needed by the students, as the traditional classroom. As example of software is the one used by Arbaugh in its research in 1997 (2000), which is the Learning Space software. It consists of five modules. The schedule module is simply a table of contents for the course. The media center module is a shared knowledge base that stored lectures notes, articles, book chapters, summaries, and presentations. The course room module is an interactive environment that allows participants to work in teams and discuss course material with the entire class. Profiles module contains description for the participants as their work experience, contact information, and the like. The assessment manager module is used to develop and administer examinations.
The changing student:
The requirements for the students to enroll in an online MBA would be: Self-motivation, self-discipline, organization (Larsen, 1999, McCallister & Matthews, 2001), and superior analytical skills (Larsen, 1999). These requirements may differ from the traditional MBA, but they are assumed so the student can positively interact with the new challenges he/she will face when enrolling.
One example is the Athabasca MBA program. The students read the course material online, then regroup into teams and discuss the case among themselves and with “teacher coaches.” Students are evaluated on their participation, just as they would be in a regular MBA class, but the discussion doesn’t happen in real time. Instead, students can log on whenever they feel like it, read the electronic messages that have already been posted, and add their own contributions. (Carpenter, 1998).
In addition the changing student patterns can occur in terms of the gender. Based on a research conducted in 1997 by Arbaugh (2000), the participation for men was at a stable and moderate level through most of the course, but dropped off at the end; whereas women had a high level in the beginning of the course, dropped to a moderate level in the middle, and had a slight increase toward the end.
One argument against the online MBA is that the quality of the online MBA education is not as high as the traditional MBA (McCallister & Matthews, 2001). The conclusions of other authors on distance education suggest that the lecture model may not be as effective in virtual classrooms as it is in physical ones. (Ahem and Repman, 1994; Gibson and Gibson, 1995; Plater, 1995; Thach and Murphy, 1995, cited in Arbaugh, 2000)
A study conducted analyzing the face-to-face versus distance education (Ponzurick, France, Cyril, 2000) indicated that consistent course structure can be developed across delivery formats but that some pedagogical adjustments may be required for the distance education format, particularly in the areas of class participation and course related activities. Another study conducted analyzing the face-to-face versus distance education (Ponzurick, France, Cyril, 2000) indicated that MBA students in a distance education environment tend to have a lower level of satisfaction with the distance education course than do their counterparts in the traditional face-to-face instructional environment. Students also perceive the level of effectiveness of a course taught via distance education to be less than that of the same course taught using the traditional face-to-face method. Although the level of satisfaction and effectiveness of the distance education course were perceived as lower than the traditional face-to-face approach, students elected to take the distance education because of convenience.
Live presentation and participation skills, are a major part in an MBA study, but in the current situation, the online MBA will not help the students with limited presentation skills. Students who are not able to participate face-to-face effectively, can use the online MBA and talk freely without any fear, because personally no one sees them. That’s good for the online MBA class, but it is a disadvantage to the students, since the purpose for pursuing an MBA study, is to improve the managerial knowledge as well as skills. And every manager and executive has to be involved in live - and not just through the computer - discussions and tough negotiations, which will not be given by the online MBA.
Distance learning and traditional learning may differ, but the goal should be to achieve the same learning results with either method (Imel, 1998, cited in Pozurick, France, Cyril, 2000). In order to do that, some changes should be made to the content of the traditional MBA in order to adapt for the online mode.
The E-commerce, Internet, telecommunications, and network communities are the main components of the necessary retooling and reengineering of MBA programs (Zeleny, 2000). The business schools have to invest heavily in the software, hardware, and the technical support that is needed for the online MBA.
The following table is a comparison/contrast of the content in traditional and electronic marketing planning courses (Smith, 2001)
The Online MBA acceptability
Since the distance MBA graduates have been on the market for only short period of time, it is difficult to assess accurately how they are going to compete for jobs and salaries (Carpenter, 1998). A survey conducted by the Business Week of corporate recruiters found that an overwhelming majority haven’t even considered applicants who earned their MBAs online. Of the 247 companies who answered the survey, all but a handful said they hadn’t considered hiring an MBA with an online degree. (Dash, 2000)
The evaluation conducted by this paper assessing the online MBA against the traditional MBA, concludes that the online MBA is a very fast growing educational area, affected by the universities, professors, and student participants combined. That growth is supported by the competitive advantages the online MBA has, and the potential of the opportunities appearing to the three participants. Despite the obstacles of the online MBA that were discussed, they can be solved by the technological improvements. In addition, the online MBA is not necessarily a competitor to the traditional MBA, but it may take part of the market share of the traditional MBA. Generally, the potential customers of the online MBA are different than those of the traditional MBA. In addition, special care must be given to the threats discussed, especially its acceptance from recruiters. Since that type of threats can blow up the whole idea of the online MBA.
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About the Authors
Yunus Kathawala, Ph.D. is a Professor, School of Business, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston IL 61920. He was Chair/Associate Chair, School of Business before returning to faculty. He received his Ph.D. from University of Georgia in 1979, and has 27 years of teaching experience. His primary duties of teaching are in the areas of Operations Management and research interest includes supply chain strategies, quality improvement, and global strategies. He has embarked on a process to bring his courses graduate and undergraduate on the web. He has published widely in a variety of journals and can be reached at email@example.com
Khaled Abdou, CPA is a MBA student at Eastern Illinois University. He received his Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting from Helwan University, Cairo, Egypt, and is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) from the state of Illinois. Prior to joining Eastern for his MBA, he worked for Deloitte and Touche as a senior auditor and financial consultant. He has other banking and financial experience and aspires to enter a Ph.D. program on completion of his MBA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org