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Online MBA Programs: New Educational Opportunities for Today's Student

From Asia, through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and into America, online education is appealing to those looking to advance their careers. Enrollment in accredited online MBA programs is rising, according to The Wall Street Journal and The Sloan Consortium. Renowned business schools are even joining the online education market, a $40 billion industry, traditionally driven by for-profit schools.

In four years, The Wall Street Journal reports, enrollment in online MBA programs, accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, jumped 65 percent--from 2,690 students in 2006 to 4,433 students last year. Forty-one percent of more than 1,000 U.S. graduate business programs offer online degrees, according to The Sloan Consortium.

In The Economist's Distance-Learning Special 2010, "Which MBA?", an online MBA student explains the rise in popularity of online MBA programs by saying, "Not only do I get to continue working and earn money, but I can directly apply the knowledge gained from my coursework the next day at my job."

The Online MBA Experience

Online MBA programs usually combine face-to-face meetings with periods of online work. At the IE Business School online MBA, students begin with a two-week orientation in Madrid, then, work online for six months, until they meet again for two weeks in cities, such as Shanghai. After their trip to China, students work online for another six months, until they gather for the final two weeks in Madrid. Grades are based on case study comments in online forums, online or offline exams, and team work.

"Surprisingly, you are probably more connected to the program because the quality and quantity of your participation is monitored," another distance-learning student tells The Economist.

At Penn State University, business professor Diane Parente says she makes sure her online courses are just as valuable as her offline courses, while Penn State University's iMBA Chair Ash Deshmukh adds online MBA virtual teams prepare students to operate across continents and time zones, just as they would do in the global economy. Penn State iMBA graduate Matt Henry recalls how he had to coordinate virtual teamwork with colleagues in Texas, Maryland, and Iraq, where one of the team members was serving in the military.

An international equestrian competitor, Indian Vanita Malhotra, pursues an online MBA in Strategic Management, through the Kelley Direct Program of Indiana University. "Without it, I feel I would not have had the opportunity to earn an MBA from a world-class university," says Malhotra, who also works and has a family to care for.

An IT Director, Philippe de Raet commends Durham Business School in the United Kingdom for his online MBA education and staff support and says he keeps in contact with colleagues through networks LinkedIn and Agora.

Online MBA Challenges

While the graduation rate at some campus-based, part-time programs is higher than 90%, some online MBA programs suffer from retention rates as low as 60%, according to The Wall Street Journal and The Sloan Consortium. Students may drop out because they don't have time to handle family, work and online MBA responsibilities. Unappealing content may also prompt students to leave MBA programs.

From day one, schools are taking measures to pique student interest and engagement. Penn State requires students to attend a mandatory orientation session where they explain in detail program obligations. Warwick Business School students draft presentations during video sessions, leave files online for those unable to attend meetings, and are encouraged to meet with colleagues in the same region. The University of Florida distributes iPads with program lessons.

Ted Pawela of IE Business School says managing work, family, and the online MBA could be at times "grueling." "How many hours a week?" he writes in his IE blog. "I have no idea, but when it's all over, and even now in the midst of it, it's time well spent."