The pandemic caused an explosion in demand for online business education, but quality control can be lacking in what some academics still call the “Wild West” of higher education. For this reason, they believe picking the right course is essential.
“You get what you pay for,” argues Kirk Werner, vice-president of content at Udacity, the online learning company. The strongest virtual programmes include hands-on learning and projects based on real scenarios, he says. “The goal is to choose a programme that enables you to walk away with real-world experience that can be easily applied in your chosen profession.”
Rebecca Loades, director of MBA programmes at non-profit business school ESMT Berlin, suggests the factors that set the best providers apart include how long they have been in business, how much they have invested in technology, and how strong their learning design team is. “I think institutions underestimate what it takes to develop and deliver a good online course,” she says.
For Jocelyn Tillner, an online MBA candidate at ESMT, the big selling point was the flexibility to study at her own pace alongside a job, and the opportunity to apply the insights immediately at work. “It’s also really valuable that we have a large amount of group work,” she adds.
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Another key factor is not having a programme outsourced to a third party, advises Dot Powell, director of teaching and learning enhancement at Warwick Business School. The UK institution developed its online MBA in-house: “This means we can constantly refine and update the content,” Powell explains.
She also singles out high-quality teachers as a crucial ingredient. “The important thing is that, beyond the bells and whistles, there is a solid academic grounding to the curriculum,” Powell stresses.
With some companies still wary of online education, employment outcomes are an especially important factor to consider when choosing a course. Researching this may take some digging, though.
“Beyond the marketing materials, [reading] the chatter about [a particular] programme on the web and speaking to students who have been through the course, are both critical sources of intelligence,” says Marni Baker Stein, chief content officer at online learning platform Coursera.
Once a course is chosen, applying can be daunting, especially for those who have spent many years in employment. One key to securing admission is self-reflection, says Baker Stein. “A lot of people say they want an MBA and don’t think about why,” she notes. “So, really understanding your aims, and making sure this degree is aligned with you, is the most important question to ask yourself.”
ESMT’s Loades adds that authenticity is also essential. “Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear, give us a little bit of your personality, let yourself shine through.”