Inside the Online MBA: Why An Online MBA? With Kelley Dean Idie Kesner & Program Chair Ramesh Venkataraman

How do you know if an online MBA program is the right choice for you?

Inside The Online MBA is sponsored by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business

Indiana University Kelley School of Business Dean Idie Kesner and Ramesh Venkataraman, chair of Kelley Direct MBA and MS programs address this very question in the first of a series of three panel discussions on the Online MBA experience. It would be hard to find a more qualified duo to discuss the benefits of an online MBA option. Kelley has been a pioneer in this field, launching its online MBA 20 years ago in 1999. Nearly 4,500 MBAs have graduated from Kelley Direct, and in the latest spring quarter, the size of the school’s latest cohort jumped by 28% to 177 students.

The program also consistently does well in rankings of online MBA options, tying for first place on the latest U.S. News & World Report list and third on Poets&Quants’ 2019 ranking of the best.

Poets&Quants Founder and Editor-in-Chief moderated each of the three Inside The Online MBA discussions which also explored the actual experience of doing an online program and the career outcomes an online graduate can expect and how they may differ from a full-time residential program.

In this first session, Kesner and Venkataraman offer advice on how to decide if an online program fits with your career goals and expectations, what features you might want in an online offering, and what career outcomes you can expect. They also go into detail on the school’s recent revamp of Kelley Direct and how it offers students far more electives than ever before (see Indiana Kelley’s Online MBA Gets A Major Revamp).

An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

John A. Byrne: So how do you know, in fact, whether an online MBA would be ideal for you or not? What are some of the things that you should be thinking about?

Dean Idie Kesner: First of all, it’s very important to know that there are many choices in MBA programs today. Each one is nuanced and each one has value, depending upon the students’ needs. And that’s true of continuing full-time MBA programs and of online programs as well. There could be individuals who see themselves on the borderline and fit in both. So students have to do a lot of self-reflection to understand which one is right for them.

But if you want to take the big differences, the online MBA program provides lots of flexibility. It’s usually from a quarter to quarter timeframe. You can choose when to come in and when to stay back if things are particularly crazy at work. You can take a lighter load. So I think that flexibility is very important.

If you are in an industry that you really like, if you are with an organization that you feel very comfortable with, but you need to develop greater breadth or depth of your skills, then considering an online program is a great option for you. You’re not ready to step away from your job, but you have these opportunities and you know you need more. You know you have gaps and you need to fill those gaps.

Today’s online programs, and ours, in particular, have some of the same benefits that you’re going to see in other programs, but you may not be able to take advantage of all of those opportunities like you would in a full-time program. Maybe you can go on one of our international trips as an online student, but a full-time student may have the opportunity to go on multiple trips.

If you’re working simultaneously, obviously you have to step away from your job for periods of time where you might have an intensive study opportunity, whether that’s a global or immersion opportunity or coming back here for perhaps a residential week. Online students have to choose between those and they have to make some important choices on which ones are going to enhance their opportunities. Full-time students are usually here and they can take advantage of multiple opportunities like that.

The bottom line: an online program is all about enhancing you, deepening your skills, filling gaps in your skills, but basically taking those skills and abilities to the next level. And it may be that I already have great networks, and I want to leverage those great networks, so I want to learn how to do that better.

Full-time programs are about transforming you. You want to take two years. You want to step back. You want to go deeper into understanding who you are, what your skills and abilities are, and what is the best industry, the best company for you, and the best way to accomplish your goals. And by the way, you need to develop new networks,  spend time developing those with your peers and with alums and the faculty. Those same developmental opportunities also exist in online, but you’re also having to leverage the networks that are part of your existing activities within the organization. I see it as always enhancing versus transforming.

Byrne: So if you wanted to make a more radical shift in your career, maybe changing industries and disciplines, a full-time experience that allows you an internship might be a better option for you.

Kesner: Exactly,  because that summer internship allows you to test it out. You really want to transform your career, you want to go somewhere different. And so for most full-time, two year programs here in the U.S., especially top programs, that summer between is going to be your opportunity to test out that career path or that new industry.

In an online program, of course, you’re still working for your organization so that testing opportunity doesn’t exist in the same way.

Byrne: The other benefit, however, is that you actually get to apply what you’ve learned immediately.

Kesner: That is a benefit of online programs. You do get to go back into your job, take some of the techniques that you’re learning, and work with your professors to sound out how you can do things better.

Byrne: A common mistake many applicants make is thinking that all online programs are alike. But you have programs that are purely online, where you never have a live session with a professor, you never step foot on campus, you don’t do a global trip, and you don’t do an immersion in a city. And then you have what’s often referred to as blended programs like Kelley Direct that actually avails itself of many of the components of a traditional residential MBA. Ramesh, can you talk a little bit about those different elements.

Ramesh Venkataraman: Sure. You absolutely hit the nail on the head that we try to keep the program flexible so that people can continue to balance their work and family with their education. But we also give the kinds of opportunities, if they choose to, to develop deeper bonds with their colleagues so they’ll have more face-to-face experiences. There are three important aspects to Kelley Direct that we truly believe in and that also make it more blended, as you called it.

The first one is we have these two required in-residence weeks. They are one-week intensives where students work on a live case study to help a company solve a business problem. They are here in Bloomington for a week; first at the beginning of the program, and the second about halfway through the program.

Byrne: So even before they begin to take a single online class, they come to campus first?

Venkataraman: For the most part, though it depends on when they start. Either it’s immediately right before or maybe a quarter after, but the first in-residence week is very much up front.

Kesner: And I just might add that there’s some flexibility here. So if someone has an incredibly intense work experience, and they have to delay that residential week to another cycle, they can do that as well.

Venkataraman: I would say about 95% take it in the beginning, and a few of them take it later. So I think that does two things. One, it brings them to campus, shows them the buildings and classrooms and everything else that we have. So it gives them a connection to the campus, which is important.

Byrne: And the faculty, and their classmates.

Venkataraman: Yeah, and they are part of our network of alums so that’s important. They also get to feel good about helping a business with a problem and feel more confident about the skills that they are going to either learn during that week or later in the program. You’re going to present to a company’s founder or senior executives. In our last live case, we had the CEO of the firm here and they were listening to the ideas presented by students. And the nice thing is you hear that they actually have gone and implemented some of the recommendations that the students have made.

THE COMPLETE INSIDE THE ONLINE MBA SERIES

Candid perspectives from Kelley Direct students and Kelley School of Business officials

SHOULD YOU CONSIDER AN ONLINE MBA?

WHAT’S AN ONLINE MBA EXPERIENCE REALLY LIKE?

WHAT’S THE CAREER IMPACT OF AN ONLINE DEGREE?