“The key is choice and the quality of the experience that is offered to hybrid students when they do have periodic interactions on the campus.”
Westerbeck cites moves by low-end education institutions DeVry and the University of Phoenix as evidence of institutional response to a market yet clamoring for education with face-time. “There’s a reason that some of the big online educational providers such as Phoenix and DeVry have opened up so many local campuses,” Westerbeck says. “They know people are much more likely to get an online degree if there’s a location within 50 miles of where they live.”
Data from the Graduate Management Admission Council supports Westerbeck’s contention. A 2014 GMAC survey revealed only 13% of those surveyed who were considering an MBA wanted a fully online program. On average, respondents wanted 75% of their classes on campus, and 25% online. And 61% wanted their program based within 50 miles of their home.
Eduvantis’ own numbers, produced for client institutions, reflect similar desires among students, says Westerbeck, who would only speak generally about the data as it’s proprietary. “We are increasingly asked to look at how the online dimension of a school’s portfolio is performing from a student’s standpoint,” Westerbeck says. “You consistently hear that people really value the fact that the institution through which they’re experiencing this product is local, so they can engage there if they want to, so they can attend face-time education.”
Surveys reveal that students specifically interested in online/on-campus programs want a half and half mix, Westerbeck says.
SOLELY ONLINE PROGRAMS’ MARKET SHARE QUESTIONED
“This to me is why there are questions about how fast market share will be taken, if you will, by purely online players,” Westerbeck says.
It is this demand in the student market for on-site learning that’s pushing schools into battle not at the extremes of purely online or purely on-campus delivery, but into the middle area between education by man (and woman), and by machine.
Online course delivery typically involves live-feed and recorded lectures, group work via video and text chat, plus discussion boards in which students and professors interact.
Underlying the attraction of online education is convenience. Learning can take place during down-time from work. Students can do assignments while sitting on a recliner in pajamas. But fully online delivery removes the element of direct professor-to-student interaction, and interaction among fellow students.
“One of the common things we hear about purely online experience is that the full value of that experience is not readily achieved,” Westerbeck says. “People know that a campus-based environment is kind of the center of activities, like clubs, the social and cultural aspects of the educational experiences.
“The personal interaction with faculty members is something that’s been a cornerstone of education for a very long time and something that people clearly value.”
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT RESEARCH SUPPORTS HYBRIDITY
A 2009 U.S. Department of Education report concluded that in general, instruction mixing in-person and online delivery “had a larger advantage relative to purely face to face instruction or instruction conducted wholly online.”
Demographics will also play a role in take-up of online business education, Westerbeck says. Non-traditional students – including parents, people working full time, and those delaying post-secondary education – and older students represent a growth area in higher education, Westerbeck says. And while younger people are accustomed to doing everything online, older people have not necessarily adjusted to digital-dominant living.
Educators and industry experts argue over the speed at which online education will cause major disruption in traditional education. Business schools’ quest to maintain and increase student numbers will always be subject to the vagaries of the U.S. and global economies and their effect on labor markets and demand for higher education. But the real battle lies ahead, where traditional bricks-and-mortar education runs up against the digital frontier.
CARNEGIE MELLON’S TEPPER HAS THE HYBIRD FORMULA RIGHT
In institutions’ fight for market share, those who do the best job of balancing the flexibility and convenience of online learning with on-campus education will have the advantage, Westerbeck says. Further, schools offering hybrid programs must ensure their students receive the non-academic benefits that come with campus-based education, such as access to recruiting fairs and alumni networks, so that “students that are not . . . physically on campus as much are still given first class citizen status in accessing those services,” Westerbeck says.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, which opened a hybrid “FlexMBA” program last year, addresses students’ desire for on-campus time by incorporating into the program “Access Weekends” every two months of the 32-month program, in which students attend CMU locations around the U.S. to work with peers, professors and alumni.
“What Tepper is doing through its immersive ‘access weekends’ is giving students who prefer the hybrid flexibility and learning style the best of both worlds, including some time networking with peers in person, having intensive discussions with faculty, walking around a campus,” Westerbeck says.