Has The Online MBA Finally Come Of Age?


Demand for online MBA programs continues to grow, so why do so few of the world’s leading business schools offer an online MBA? In the U.S., Carnegie Mellon, Indiana University, UNC and the University of Southern California’s Marshall School are in the game. And among the top 40 schools in the Financial Times Global MBA ranking, only two schools – IE Business School in Madrid and Imperial College Business School in London – offer an online MBA. But where is Harvard, INSEAD, Columbia, or even Stanford, which sits in the Internet epicenter in Silicon Valley?

Some business school applicants still fear the credibility of the qualification, and look for the most reputable program possible. Yet two-thirds of online MBA programs expect to increase their class size compared to last year, according to the latest Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) Application Trends Survey Report. At the same time, demand for the two-year full-time program is faltering with potential business school applicants increasingly concerned about giving up their jobs and the opportunity cost of two years without a salary.

It seems the idea of learning when you want and where you want makes perfect sense to the latest generation of young professionals.  So why are Stanford, Wharton and MIT not announcing the launch of their own online MBA, rather than a growing series of MOOCs and selective open course ware?


Many of the top business schools are cautious about engaging because of concerns about the quality of the online experience and how that may affect their brand. With endowments and so many stakeholders to manage, they are more comfortable maintaining the business school model that has served them well in the past, rather than innovating to build the business school of the future.  But the next generation of students doesn’t just expect changes in the way they learn and engage with others. They will consider backward and obsolete any business school that fails to grasp how online platforms enhance community, learning and networking.

Developing a high quality virtual learning platform does not come cheap, or an Edtech lab that is at the cutting edge of education technology and pedagogy. Such a long-term investment competes with the funding of undergraduate programs, research and other demands on a business school’s resources. But we believe that the investment is not just worthwhile, it’s an educational and commercial imperative.

‘Ease of use’ is a barrier for prospects considering an online MBA option over an orthodox program, so we have consequently spent a lot of time developing a platform that intuitively matches the user experience and comfort level they have with social media such as Facebook and Linkedin. As technology continues to evolve, broadband and 4G provide a seamless connectivity. This means that a new generation of MBA students are experiencing first-hand the ability to acquire a top-ranked business education, build a meaningful network of talented and diverse classmates, and accelerate career opportunities while maintaining their jobs in the four corners of the world.


In the next five years we can expect many more top schools to launch an online MBA. But they have a lot to learn. To develop a truly engaging learning experience takes more than partnering with IBM or Microsoft for an off-the-shelf system, hiring a new dean of technology, and filming professors in the classroom. At Imperial College Business School we decided to develop our own purpose-built platform called The Hub. Other top schools such as LBS and IMD tried to do the same thing and gave up. But the rewards of such a significant investment are immediately apparent for MBA students who use internet all the time, and who demand a contemporary, easy-to-use interface that does not feel like a step back in time.

Nevertheless, the best online MBA cannot be delivered purely via laptops and smartphones. A blended learning experience is essential, so in addition to live and recorded classes, individual coaching and career advice, we realised how important it is to create a sense of community within the cohort to build life-long relationships. It is much like the international work groups you find in a modern multinational. So we begin the program in January with an intensive one-week induction at our central London campus, to develop strong ties with fellow classmates and a sense of belonging that goes beyond the online MBA.

Just as other online MBA programs do, our students are continuously connected to the campus, and are able to follow events and guest speakers via live streaming. We also organize 3 or 4 regional events each year in the US, Africa and Asia for online students to network face-to-face with the rest of the Imperial College Business School community. And beyond core modules and electives they can come to London to share courses with other Full Time / Weekend / Executive MBA students, and face the same rigorous exams and final projects as the full-time students. Which is why they receive the Imperial MBA degree which makes them alumni of Imperial College itself with access a network of thousands of professionals across the globe.


Based on the feedback from students I can see us reporting an increasing demand for the online MBA to GMAC for many years to come. But I am also struck by the increasingly high quality and diversity of profiles that are now choosing online over the full-time MBA format. We use the same selection criteria as our top-ranked MBA, and go beyond job titles and salary to understand the aspirations and impact they hope to have in the work place and in society.

We attract students whose personal circumstances mean that the only business education that works for them is online. The world of work has changed, and education needs to change with it. The most talented candidates have demanding jobs, and often travel globally. One of our entrepreneurs from Nigeria was pregnant when she started the program, and needed the flexibility to raise a family and run a business in addition to her studies. A psychology researcher from Los Angeles is one of many scientists, doctors and professors that wanted to study business at an institution that is also renowned for science and technology. And even a London-based student who lives a short distance from the campus knew that his work schedule would never make full-time study an option.

Even companies understand the benefits of the online degree, and the flexibility for staff to apply what they learn immediately to their job. Close to a third of our students receive some form of sponsorship, either monetary or time off in support of their studies, a figure unheard of among full-time programs. And they are rewarding the growing analytical skill sets of their employees with promotions and new projects.

So a world class online MBA is now a reality, and you can expect to see more of the leading business schools launching their own programs in the next five years. But they will need to be ready because the biggest threat in the field is not traditional business schools, but businesses such as McKinsey getting into teaching. And it needs to be recognized and embraced because such competition can only benefit the consumer and will insure that we continue to innovate and deliver the best possible online business education.

Imperial's Paolo Taticchi

Imperial’s Paolo Taticchi

Paolo Taticchi is the Academic Program Director of the Global Online MBA at Imperial College Business School. The school recently launched a number of free online courses to provide essential skills to those who are considering an MBA.







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