Potentially the biggest choice a potential MBA candidate can make is whether to study online or on-campus. It’s a decision that will shape the next few years of their life, will affect the relationship they have with their current employer, and even with their family and friends.

Fortunately for those considering an online MBA, the choices are rich and numerous. Better yet, employers are actively supporting the idea of online MBAs as they tick a number of boxes. Online MBAs, for example, mean talented staff aren’t removed from the organisation for long periods of time for their study.

Online education whilst working also helps to demonstrate in the candidate an ability to manage and cope with varying demands and pressures. Finally, as online MBAs have improved in leaps and bounds over the past five years, employers are now sure their staff are receiving an exceptional education.

In fact, during the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit in 2019, an expert panel discussed the fact that the full-time, on-campus traditional MBA program model is fast collapsing and could be obsolete within five years.

The on-campus model, experts openly admitted during the event, is suffering from the fact that people need to earn as they learn. Fewer employers are subsidising the cost of full-time MBAs, they said, and fewer students can afford the high fees and costs related to an MBA without working.

This is not just a pattern in Australia. A Harvard Business Review paper from September 2019 claimed the rush to online internationally was well overdue.

“Pre-pandemic, there was already widespread acknowledgement that the traditional higher education business model is seriously challenged,” the paper said. “Fall 2020 marks a clear inflection point as students, educators, and government leaders alike scrutinise the price and value proposition of higher education through the new lens of traditional classroom versus multiple modes of digital delivery.”

Whatever is happening long-term in the market, students have never had a broader choice of MBA formats. That choice is typically between increasingly advanced and technologically powerful online educational offerings, full-time, on-campus MBAs and part-time, on-campus MBAs.

So, what’s the difference? How do the experience and outcome vary between online and on-campus?

Let’s explore.

The online experience

Online courses offer freedom to choose when and where the coursework is done. Once enrolled, a student typically has a period of time in which they must complete each unit of study or segments of each unit. Classes can be taken and re-taken, at any time during that period and the academics make themselves broadly available for consultation.

While online MBAs once required some on-campus interaction, most providers are moving to a 100% online model.

What do classes involve? They tend to be a series of bite-sized videos, rather than hour-long lectures. These videos might be three, four or five minutes long, and are interspersed with coursework tasks that help to bring an immediacy of understanding and practicality to the learning process. Those tasks are sometimes focussed on the business in which the student works.

From the very beginning of a course, group projects are conducted. Just as staff members in workplaces develop strong relationships with people they’ve never met in other departments, other organisations, and in supplier businesses, online MBA candidates also develop powerful networks.

Students come to know each other very quickly, fast discovering each other’s working styles, strengths and weaknesses. They connect and experience networking opportunities in real-time in breakout rooms via videoconference during study periods, and again during projects. Some meet in the real world if they’re in the same geographical area. And some work on practical projects together, solving existing problems for local businesses.

Then, of course, there are also some live classes during which students and teachers will interact openly. Pre-work and reading will be set each week before the live session, then students and teachers dial in to discuss, to iron out any issues and to work through problems together.

There are no queues at libraries, instead, there is 24-hour library access. There are no extra costs of social events, university clubs, external trips, travel, accommodation or membership society fees. With the online MBA program offering, everything you need is on your screen, whenever and wherever you need it, and often available to be digested at the student’s own pace.

The on-campus experience

How does the on-campus MBA experience differ from online? First of all, the class timetable of the on-campus MBA is more rigid, which could be a benefit for individuals who respond better to an external level of discipline, stability and accountability.

Much of the coursework takes place in the same physical space as lecturers and fellow students. Here, there are greater opportunities for physical social gatherings and for water-cooler conversations, etc. There are also greater opportunities to spend time – over lunch and after lessons have ended – with others in the course.

Extra time must be put aside each week for commuting to and from the campus, and it’s possible that an agreement will need to make with the student’s employer, to ensure they are released from work for long enough to meet their MBA obligations.

Full-time courses held on-campus offer little chance for paid work. The degree is able to be completed more quickly, but the student must take at least a year out of their employment to do so.

Part-time MBAs held on-campus offer a little more flexibility, sometimes allowing options such as choices of days or times for particular classes. Increasingly, on-campus courses are also including some online options.

Part-time courses still require extra time for travelling to and from the campus.

On-campus MBA offerings can be interrupted negatively by travel and other unforeseen events and, indeed, by major disruptions such as pandemics.

However, the structured nature and the increased face-to-face time in a real-world environment can also be positive. MBAs require great discipline, and certain types of people will appreciate the discipline that on-campus MBAs promote, rather than having to be individually responsible and accountable.

Which MBA format will fit in with my work?

It’s interesting to note that there is an age and experience difference in online and on-campus MBA cohorts, although this line is fast blurring. Traditional, and particularly full-time, on-campus MBAs, tend to attract younger professionals with less work experience. Online MBAs tend to attract a slightly older cohort, with more years of experience.

The Australian Financial Review  says the average age of online students in Australia is 38, while on-campus students are 30 to 32 years old.

This is likely because individuals more established in their careers are also at a stage at which they may have settled down, taken on a mortgage and had children. As they have greater financial, social and professional commitments outside their study, they’re less likely to be able to or to want to, spend an entire year without an income. Also, they want to network during their MBA degree with people at similar levels to them, professionally.

As mentioned, full-time, on-campus MBAs certainly do not fit in with full-time jobs. The two cannot co-exist. For obvious reasons, online MBAs fit more comfortably with full-time employment. The online MBA student need not take a financial or professional hit for the sake of their education. Both can co-exist.

In fact, the AFR says, analytics from the Deakin University online MBA degree show that online students mostly engage with their learning between 4 am and 6 am, then between 8 pm and midnight. That leaves daytime hours open and available for whatever life demands.

While there is not a lot of research around the topic, anecdotal evidence suggests that employers prefer not to lose their promising talent during the time they’re studying. Instead, online or part-time courses allow the student to continue to work, and to apply their new knowledge to their job as they progress through the degree. In that way, it’s a win/win for the MBA participant and for their employer.

If an employer questions the value of the MBA, whether online or on-campus, it’s always worth checking whether the business school has any resources that have been developed to help employers appreciate the value of the degree to their business. Many do this very well.

Online MBA checklist

An online MBA will likely suit your requirements better than an on-campus MBA if:

  • You are in a busy job that requires time and effort. Online MBA degrees are far more flexible in terms of timing of classes – you can attend at 6 am, 3 pm or 11 pm, the choice is yours – and as an added bonus you don’t have to factor in travel time to the campus.
  • You have a family, perhaps a partner or children. Once again, the flexibility of an online MBA means it can be shaped around other personal commitments. All you need is a quiet space to attend the online classes, whether at home, at work or in a local library or park.
  • You desire choice in providers of MBAs. Online MBAs open up an entirely new range of choices of university, whether within Australia or anywhere else around the globe. This offers a greater ability to personalise the course offerings to your own specific needs and aspirations.
  • You’re motivated and technologically equipped. You’ll need to put aside time and mental bandwidth every week to ensure you keep up with the workload. And speaking of bandwidth, you’ll also need a decent, reliable internet connection and a computer.
  • You travel for your work. Most impressive is the fact that online MBAs can be conducted anywhere and any time, as long as you have a laptop and a web connection. While travel has been decimated during the pandemic, an online MBA typically takes two to three years to complete. Future evenings in hotel rooms, downtime at airports and quiet moments in foreign offices can become periods of educational and career advancement once you’re enrolled in an online MBA.

On-campus MBA checklist

An on-campus MBA degree will likely suit your requirements better than an online MBA if:

  • You’re able to leave work or cut down your hours. The qualification can be earned more quickly if conducted full-time, which means a year out of work and with little to no income.
  • You prefer the discipline that comes from structure. Every MBA course, whether online or on-campus, requires a high level of discipline. The less flexible nature of on-campus MBA courses may help those that might struggle with that discipline.
    you want access to all a university has to offer. This might include social or sporting clubs, infrastructure such as gymnasiums and cafes, as well as student services such as career counselling.
  • You prefer real-world, face-to-face learning and networking. Some learn better in a real-world environment, others prefer the lack of distraction that comes with online.
  • You are happy with what your local university offers in their traditional MBA program or are willing to travel and live elsewhere.

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