The Face-To-Face Online Degree

A sample class from MBA@Syracuse. Photo provided by 2U, Inc.

The first documented distance learning program took place in 1728 in Boston when Caleb Phillipps ran an ad in the Boston Gazette to teach students how to write anywhere in the country by swapping letters. Fast-forward more than a century and a half to 1892 and the University of Chicago began offering “correspondence courses.” Jump almost another century to 1985 and Nova Southeastern University awarded its first accredited online graduate degree. With technological gains comes distance learning growth and legitimacy.

In fact, the days of poking fun at online education are fast dwindling. Yes, there will always be the University of Phoenix’s and Kaplan Universities of the world to serve as the butt of academic farce. But several highly prominent business schools such as Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper, Virginia’s Darden, and Indiana’s Kelley have helped online MBAs gain street cred with their prestigious names. Nevertheless, responding to the question about possessing an MBA with, “Oh yeah, well, it was an online program” is admittedly still attached to a stigma.

Entering the distance learning game in 1977, Syracuse’s Whitman School of Management has recently upped the digital ante in business education. The MBA@Syracuse has teamed up with 2U, an online degree platform that partners with colleges and universities to develop interactive course materials and live classes. The partnership, which is the second of major business programs following North Carolina Kenan-Flagler’s 2011 launch, has helped the MBA@Syracuse create a program makeover starting with the January 2015 cohort. The upgrade creates inadvertent ammo to combat obvious arguments against online-only MBAs.


First, the new technology will help the lack of face-to-face connection so many online education detractors reference as a hindrance in online education. Whitman will now provide the opportunity for live “classroom” sessions every week. Students will video conference once a week with about 15 fellow classmates and their professor. Next, all classes will be available for download and replay and will be smartphone and tablet compatible. Students can download the class, hop on a plane and watch it while traveling.

“To be honest, the quality of course delivery was not the best it could be,” says Amy McHale, assistant dean for Masters Programs and director of Experiential Learning at Whitman. “Working with 2U, the entire student experience will be enhanced and better.”

Besides course delivery, how will it be enhanced? A few ways. For starters, Whitman is implementing a new speaker series with alums and improving the already established residency program—all in the name of a campus connection and networking. “We pride ourselves on the fact we provide the exact same courses online in terms of curriculum and professors as our residential program,” McHale says. “The missing component is a connection to the physical campus. By hosting a residency on campus and hosting a speaker series with alums, we hope to improve a community feeling while creating networking opportunities.”


The series commenced this autumn and is pushing the limits of traditional networking. Whitman alums from Google, Pandora, PopChips,, Live Nation and others have met digitally with students since the end of October. Each session has had a quaint 15 to 20 students audience—allowing ideal time for connection between the speaker and participating students.

Nathan Pittman of Albany, N.Y., is one of the members of the January 2015 cohort and has already taken advantage of the speaker series by participating in three event and has begun networking with alumni and future classmates. “The most helpful part is getting to ask them questions,” Pittman says. “It starts by asking them more formal questions about classes at Syracuse and how they got to their positions but we also get restaurant tips and how the campus is.”

The technology allows for each student to have a profile akin to a Facebook or LinkedIn page where they can post on each other’s walls. Pittman says he has already formed relationships with a few of his classmates that would not have happened without being able to see their faces and communicate with them before classes commence.

For Pittman, a father, husband and process engineer for Target Corporation, an online degree made the most sense. He didn’t want to quit his job to go the full-time route. Additionally, his work requires spending months at a time in other states. Even a part-time program wouldn’t do. The deciding factor for Pittman was Whitman’s flexibility and technology combined with its residency program.


The three-day residency is designed to give students and professors the opportunity to build relationships by meeting for workshops and social events in different cities around the world. Students are required to participate in three residencies before graduating.

Another change is the MBA@Syracuse students are now invited to participate in networking alumni events throughout the country.

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