Opting for the Wired Classroom
Online MBA programs allow business professionals to pursue advanced degreeEvan Curry loves to learn but admits, “I’m not wired for the classroom.” So when the senior vice president for Philadelphia-based auto parts maker Cardone Industries USA wanted to pursue a master’s of business administration degree two years ago, doing so online seemed like a perfect alternative. He could work at his own pace and the flexibility of an online program suited his work demands.
Yet, he was overwhelmed by the number of offerings available. “I checked them all out — dozens of them,” he says. Finally, one caught his eye. Cardean University, based in suburban Chicago, was beginning a new MBA program that had been developed with the help of five top-ranked graduate business schools, including Stanford and the University of Chicago.
Since Cardean pitched its program as hands-on training based on case studies, Curry, 43, was hooked. He has been in management for 20 years and prefers real-life work. “I also liked the fact that big automakers such as General Motors were having their executives take the Cardean course. After all, we’re in the auto business, too,” he says. His company is paying $22,500 for the degree he’s slated to get next July. The practical courses are immediately relevant to his job, and he hasn’t had trouble finding time to study. “I’m a late night guy, and if my wife falls asleep on the sofa, I can get to work,” he says.
Curry’s experience illustrates the big opportunities — along with the limitations — of so-called eMBAs, degrees earned while working through the Internet. Using the Net means prospective students have many more opportunities to pursue advanced degrees, without having to leave their jobs or move to a university town.
And now, taking the online education concept one step further, some institutions are advertising MBA programs specifically tailored for the Internet, including Apollo Group Inc., which operates the University of Phoenix, DeVry University, Capella University and Kennedy-Western University. Besides convenience, these eMBAs typically cost about $22,000 for more than two years of work — three times less than a traditional MBA. Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, for example, charges $73,894 for a two-year program and that’s just tuition.
Even so, there are still major issues with eMBA problems, says John A. Byrne, editor in chief at Fast Company magazine and an expert on business schools.
“eMBAs lack the prestige and worth of traditional programs,” says Byrne, who was one of the first journalists to start ranking MBA programs as a BusinessWeek editor in the 1980s. “That’s mostly because they’re granted by little-known schools without the alumni networks and faculty of the best ‘b-schools.’ And most of the learning comes from the students who typically come to grad school with three to five years of work experience.”
Cardean’s founders were painfully aware of such limitations, but thought they had an answer. Dr. Gary Becker, a University of Chicago professor who won a Nobel Prize for economics, and Andy Rosenfield, a Chicago area entrepreneur, dreamed up the idea of an eMBA program based on case studies prepared by professors from top business schools. A new approach was needed on the Net and technology sophisticated enough to make it happen.
“In the early days, most people went for online teaching so that it would look like television or a film,” says Dr. Geoff Cox, president of Cardean. “You would tape lectures and try to create the same kind of atmosphere you had in the classroom. It didn’t take advantage of what the Internet was good for — its ability for interaction.”
By the late 1990s, Becker and Rosenfield had corralled the University of Chicago, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, Columbia and The London School of Economics to help with their program and conferred on what to offer in the courses. By then Rosenfeld had created UNext Co. in Deerfield, Ill., which created Cardean, named after Cardea, the goddess of portals. Cox got on board while he was vice provost at Stanford three years ago. He says he was impressed with Becker’s and Rosenfield’s approach. “Becker believes that by investing in people, economies grow,” he says. “You can provide access to education to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it.”
Cardean launched its eMBA program in 2000 after UNext invested $100 million in advanced information technology. The standard course takes about 20 months and costs about $22,500. Prospective students need to provide copies of their undergraduate transcripts, no matter how long ago they graduated; must have recommendations; and go through an interview process. Fifteen courses and 45 credits are required for graduation. Students are assigned an adviser and then undertake the course load at their own pace. Curry, for example, says he tries to complete at least one assignment a week, which is reviewed by a business school instructor. Cardean has attracted 900 students, including ones from General Motors, Thompson Corp. and the Hyatt hotel chain.
Other online schools have taken different tacks. Capella University in Minneapolis, for instance, revamped its online MBA program in October 2002 by surveying 100 companies to learn what they wanted. Instead of concentrating chiefly on academics, says MBA program director Barbara Butts-Williams, companies wanted an MBA program that helped students work more efficiently in a corporate setting. “They wanted the students to understand how to operate on the human side of the equation in such areas as dealing with diversity,” she says. “Core skills are important, but so are people skills.” Capella changed its curriculum to include special coaching to help managers relate to employees.
The stigma remains, however, of being inferior to in-class MBA programs at the best schools. “Most eMBAs have not one but two strikes against them,” Byrne says. “First, they are granted by schools few people have heard of. Two, there is little or no recruiting from the corporate sector. At the best ‘b-schools,’ hundreds of corporate recruiters from the best global companies show up each year to recruit for summer internships and full-time jobs. Not so with an eMBA.
“You’d graduate and then nothing would happen. No new job. No salary increase. Few new colleagues or friends. No alumni network to tap,” Byrne says.
Indeed, since many MBA students are already working in competitive industries, they may find that an online degree doesn’t cut it against someone with a campus degree when it’s time for promotions. “Has there been stigmatization?” Cox asks. “To be perfectly honest — there probably has been. But online is absolutely the fastest growing segment; the rate of growth is just staggering. Before too long the sheer kind of numbers will begin to dwarf the others.”
Curry says he isn’t worried about being regarded as inferior because he’s getting his MBA online. “I’m not doing this to get a promotion,” he says, “I’m doing this because I want to know more about business and do my job better.” Moreover, he says that he has created a network of student contacts. Since the Net knows no country borders, he says he’s struck up close relationships with fellow students from other countries. He’s happy with his experience so far. “I don’t see myself as a creative listener. Even back in my high school and college days I did OK, not great. But in business I moved ahead fairly quickly. This course is the real world with highly competent professors.”
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