Sarah Stuart's 2014 Blog

Sarah Stuart, an MBA student and former editor of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, reveals the challenges of the programme in a weekly blog.

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Fellow students big advantage over online learning

29 October 2014

Online MBAs are proliferating and universities around the world are grappling with what that means for their flagship executive courses.

Cheaper (mostly), less time-consuming thanks to the lack of travel required, global (some are from the world's leading UK and US institutions) and growing in stature, online business education has its appeal.

Sometimes I've arrived late to our Saturday lectures because I was cleaning mud off my son's soccer boots before handing him to the babysitter to get him to his game. Organising your employer to deal with reduced working hours is one thing; corralling your family around lectures is another.

So working mums are a big target for the new online courses. So too are those outside good university areas, those who think they work best alone and at their own speed, and those who really want the bit of paper and don't mind too much about how they get there.

Last weekend, in the middle of a six-hour session on careers and change, we were told that the most useful thing we will take out of our MBA is the network we make. That's the 23 people we've spent most weekends with this year, plus their connections.

I don't know if that's true - yet - and probably won't for another year or two. Obviously the growing number of people taking online MBAs, or even those which offer a combination of in-class and online learning, don't place as much emphasis on the hours spent sitting in rooms with people formerly known as strangers.

I asked some what was the most important thing they'd learned over the past two years: "How to keep a marriage together," said one, not unreasonably. "That I'm actually pretty awesome," said the other, followed by an unfathomably long explanation of just how awesome he is. Hmmm. That's my network.

But I for one wouldn't swap those sunny weekends spent indoors arguing gender differences in managerial style or shut in tiny windowless rooms preparing for a peer-adjudicated presentation. Yes, Quantitative Theory and Accounting might be good skills to learn through recorded lectures and clever YouTube videos. But I would have missed the spirited debates, the group dynamics and the honest work experiences shared over the past two years. Yes, even the 'awesome' chap has added to my overall experience.

Could that have happened through what the highly regarded Washington State University Online MBA programme calls "a synchronous online format" ("sessions occur weekdays at 6pm")?

Probably not, in my opinion. I think I have learned almost as much from my colleagues as I have from some of the lecturers. In Quant, I learned more.

Undoubtedly online learning will change universities and their executive MBA programmes. If employers start to regard online degrees in the same way as in-class, the network may be the only thing that sets it apart.

Me, I'm glad I was there for the classes. Even when I missed soccer.