For the last two years, medical technologist David Gerlowski crawled out of bed each morning at 5 A.M. and headed to his job at Quest Diagnostic's laboratory in Pittsburgh. Returning home each afternoon at three, he would immediately turn on his computer and check his e-mail for messages from his classmates and professors. After unwinding and grabbing an early dinner, Gerlowski would log on again at six to read the transcript of a lecture on financial management and post his questions and comments on the class message board, all the while sitting in the comfort of his own home.
Like many potential MBAs these days, Gerlowski had found he couldn't hold down a full-time job and pursue his degree simultaneously. Anxious to start a career in e-commerce, he wanted a school that allowed him to work around his unusual schedule at the lab. Gerlowski found the perfect program more than 200 miles away, at the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business. Its online MBA program allowed him to keep his job, pick up a diploma, and save money (tuition for out-of-state students in Merrick's online program is about $20,000, significantly less than the $90,000 that some bricks-and-mortar programs can run you). "Logging onto the Internet and school from my PC gave me so much more flexibility," Gerlowski says. "I'd be reading lecture notes and could stop for five minutes or an hour and a half to do something else."
The University of Baltimore, the first school to offer an all-online MBA program accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business - International, awarded the program's first six MBAs ever in January 2001. David Gerlowski was among graduates who included a Massachusetts couple looking to advance in their high-tech careers and a Florida-based lieutenant in Pratt & Whitney's security division.
Distance learning is certainly not a new concept-correspondence courses were available as early as the nineteenth century-but with the advent of Internet-based educational technologies, it has taken off in recent years. More and more people are turning to the Web in order to pursue an MBA with minimal disruption to their work, family, and other commitments.
InterEd, a higher education research firm, predicts that enrollment in virtual MBA programs will explode from 5,000 students in 2000 to more than 50,000 in 2002. And this growing interest in the online MBA isn't just a domestic phenomenon: England's University of Cambridge will begin offering an "e-MBA" in July 2001.
The array of options available can make the prospect of distance learning daunting for the future MBA. According to Vicky Phillips, CEO of geteducated.com, a consulting firm focused on Internet-enabled adult education, there are currently more than 150 accredited distance MBA programs, up from only three in 1989. A few of these programs offer synchronous courses-students must log on at an appointed time in order to participate in class lectures and study groups-but these are becoming fewer and farther between. Most allow you to tune in anywhere, anytime, such as Baker College and the University of Phoenix. Quite a few programs, New York's Pace University and Portland State University, for example, include a certain amount of "face time," requiring MBAs to be on campus several times throughout the semester for course-related events. MBAs at the University of Baltimore or Colorado State University, on the other hand, don't even have to show up for graduation.
Most of these programs use some combination of e-mail, chat rooms, online bulletin boards, and document-sharing software to teach classes and facilitate group interaction and teamwork. Team projects are prevalent in distance courses of study just as they are in "ground-based" MBA programs.
The admissions process is fairly similar to that of traditional programs. Prospective students submit GMAT scores, transcripts, and sometimes recommendations, along with a writing sample or essay.
The main concern experts and MBAs share about distance learning is how the degree is viewed in the job market. Most professors and students claim that there is no need to draw a distinction on resumés between standard MBAs and 'virtual MBAs' since the course content is the same. At most schools, such as Nova Southeastern University, transcripts are identical regardless of whether the student attends courses in front of a lectern or behind a monitor.
Still, Michael Moore, director of the American Center for the Study of Distance Education at Penn State University, says that "employers are likely to be cautious, if not skeptical. And rightly so, since there are many upstart and untested institutions entering the field." He points out that employers do trust established institutions, and he recommends enrolling in programs tied to traditional campuses that already have a strong reputation. Mark Lonergan, managing partner at international executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, agrees. Most high-level businesspeople have traditional degrees and may be reluctant to hire someone with less established credentials. "The belief is that an online degree is an interesting exercise, but it's not going to be as rewarding or valuable as a full-time MBA would be," he explains.
An online MBA from a prestigious school, however, could help change that belief. Many top-notch institutions have recently launched online programs, increasing the profile of "e-learning." Most of them are geared toward the seasoned executive looking for an MBA, but that could soon change. Duke University's Fuqua School of Business blazed trails when it launched its Global Executive MBA in 1996. The distance program is highly acclaimed-and by far the priciest of its kind ($95,000 for the class entering in May 2001). Harvard Business School and Stanford announced in December 2000 that they will jointly offer nondegree business courses online. Harvard has also introduced HBS Interactive (HBSi), a nonprofit organization that will combine on-site executive education and e-learning technology.
Another concern is that MBAs attending classes from home-or office or airplane-don't have the same opportunities to enjoy casual acquaintances and interactions with professors and peers the way on-campus students do. And when it's time to start looking for a job, such networking can be very important. Don't assume that virtual is synonymous with vacuum, though: Members of many online programs become quite close-and a virtual MBA can be a way to expand your network around the world.
In the end, many MBAs find that the benefits of distance learning outweigh potential drawbacks. And academics in the field contend that their courses may even be better than "the real thing." "In terms of content, there's really not much difference," says Steve Herrington, who teaches 'Introduction to Management' for the University of Phoenix's online MBA program. "There's a lot of time wasted in the classroom, from passing out papers and other administrative concerns, that you don't have this way. My lectures are always much more focused and targeted when I teach online, because I've had time to think about exactly what I want to communicate."
Venkat Reddy, associate dean at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (whose all-online MBA program is AACSB-accredited), sums up the issue best: "I'll never say this is a perfect replacement [for traditional business education], but it meets the needs of people who want a degree but are working or don't have access to a regular college."