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The MBA remains a desirable qualification that has the potential to enhance earning potential and connect participants to new peer networks. However not everyone can accommodate a fulltime MBA alongside family and work commitments.

Technology increasingly influences how we live, work and study. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) – free online courses offered by universities around the world – were once tipped to transform higher education. Thirty-five million students signed up for these courses last year, but poor student engagement means that average completion rates have been estimated to be as low as seven percent.

While MOOCs and online MBAs are hugely different in terms of content, both have grown in popularity in recent years, as ambitious professionals gain access to qualifications they might not otherwise have had time to study for. In accordance, the number of accredited business schools offering online MBAs is growing – driven by student demand. The 2016 GMAC Application Trends Survey Report revealed that two-thirds (63%) of online MBA programmes expect to increase their class size in 2016 compared with last year.

Mature students are increasingly attracted to easily accessible and flexible quality education that isn’t limited by location. According to a recent survey of students considering taking an MBA from 82 countries around the world, 26 percent said they would be most interested in a blended or online MBA.

According to a recent survey of students considering taking an MBA from 82 countries around the world, 26 percent said they would be most interested in a blended or online MBA.

Study anytime, anywhere 

Online MBAs provide greater flexibility and accessibility. Geographical barriers are removed, opening up a wider range of options for students based abroad, who travel frequently, or who simply can’t take time off work. I meet students every day from really varied backgrounds – from a professional rugby union player situated in Hong Kong to a London-based woman who works full-time and helps run a music festival alongside her job.

While men typically make up the majority of MBA students, this is changing. Online MBAs help improve the options for women who might have taken time out to have children, or who are juggling family and work-life. I know of one student who postponed her MBA plans to start a family. Ten years and three children later, having moved to South Africa and set up her own business, she’s now studying for her MBA online.

Build a (digital) network

The networks students create while studying for an MBA are almost as important as the accreditation itself. One concern among prospective students is that an online degree will prevent them from interacting with their fellow students closely enough to forge lasting connections. However, advances in education technology have improved engagement with both course materials and other students. Online MBAs can now offer an immersive, fully interactive experience that bears little resemblance to older distance learning programmes or MOOCs.

Many business schools offer a blended experience which includes some on-campus time as well as regional events organised throughout the year. If you’re interested in the online route be sure to check how the business school manages this experience.

Online MBAs – changing perceptions

I believe the perception of online courses is changing. Previously, they were not seen to be as reputable as attending a course in person. But with more and more prestigious universities offering online MBAs, the image is now far more positive.

Niall Rowark, professional rugby union player and online MBA student, Hong Kong

Niall perfectly summarises one of the main issues online MBAs have traditionally struggled with. As the technology improved though, so did the quality of online MBAs on offer. The last five years has seen a big increase in the number of reputable business schools who have added an online offering to their curriculum and there has certainly been a shift in how the market, and employers, perceive the qualification.   

While today’s online MBA has a distinctly personal element, it’s not for everyone and some people still prefer the experience of face-to-face learning. For those that are comfortable with the digital experience though, online learning means they can fit their studying in around their work, social and family life, enhancing their career prospects as a result.

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Paolo Taticchi

About Paolo Taticchi

Professorial Teaching Fellow in Management and Sustainability and Executive Director of Global Student Experience
Dr Taticchi was Executive Director of Global Student Experience, leading the Global Experience team. He left Imperial in 2020.