How Online MBAs Differ From Undergrad Classrooms

The online MBA represented a brave new world for the Class of 2019. Many hadn’t taken classes since the 90s. Back then, few lugged a laptop around campus. Heck, most classrooms didn’t even carry wireless. Imagine their shock at going from that to the online world. On their screens, classmates are stuffed into boxes as chats rage on the side.

The shift isn’t that drastic, really. In fact, it is a lot easier, says Kurtis Williams, a 39-year-old CEO and triathlete who earned his MBA at USC’s Marshall School of Business this spring.

“You sit down, log in, and get right to the good stuff.”


That means online MBAs work on their schedule, not a mandated 8:00 start time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “The flexibility of being able to stream or download lectures at my own convenience made the learning experience much more enjoyable,” writes Eric Hensley, a Verizon general manager who took his online classes at Auburn University from home in Nashville. By having the ability to work in a comfortable environment at a time that works best for me, I was able to put more thought and application into what I took away from lectures.”

Drexel University’s Cindy Moser

Does that mean the online experience better than a standard classroom? This year, Poets&Quants asked its 2019 Best & Brightest Online MBAs to share how the two environments differed – for better or worse. It turned out to be a difficult question. Cindy Moser, for one, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering nearly 25 years ago. As an MBA student at Drexel University, she experienced some striking similarities to her undergrad years…along with profound differences.

My experiences were similar in the experiential and project-based approach of both schools and degree programs, where blending individual initiative with the development and refinement of collaborative skills was necessary for success,” she explains. “It was different in the sense that without classroom lectures, you have to actively initiate and seek out interactions with your peers in order to challenge yourself and your opinions in order to develop a deeper sense of understanding.”


For Megan Broude, a Jack Welch Management Institute grad, the tradeoffs between the online and classroom experience were equally mixed…but in an entirely different way. “As an undergraduate student, I juggled multiple courses each semester. As a graduate student, I am challenged to balance work, school and life. The online experience forced me to be more diligent about setting aside sufficient time for coursework, homework, and assignments.”

Then again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s how Spandana Lakkamraju chalks up her online MBA. While Lakkamraju enjoyed a traditional undergraduate experience, the 27-year-old had encountered online environments long before she joined Cisco Systems and the Indiana University’s MBA program.

I transferred to my university in the second year for my undergraduate program and then left for a study abroad program in France during my final year. I was staying in touch with all my university friends virtually and I was basically living in multiple time zones at the same time, which is what it feels like now. The world today is changing. Globalization is real and online is the way of the future. A lot of the in-class experiences are also leveraging online platforms for education today, as did my undergraduate program. I believe we’re all adapting to the way learning is going to be in the future. This is just the beginning.”

What are some other differences between these environments – and what are some of the advantages of the online MBA? Here are some additional observations from the Class of 2019.

Carnegie Mellon University’s John Campion

1) Requires Better Organizational Skills: “My online MBA experience required more robust group norms than my in-the-classroom undergraduate experience. We all had full-time jobs, more outside-of-school requirements than we had as undergraduates, and less opportunity to work together in person. Thus, we needed to be more intentional in organizing, preparing, and carrying out group meetings. With job and family requirements, we needed to schedule meetings far enough in advance. Prior to our meetings, we needed to make sure that we had done adequate research and preparation to ensure that we were not wasting the precious time we did have to work together. During and after our meetings, we needed to hold each other accountable if we were not adequately prepared or were deviating from our plan. I think the necessity of putting such priorities on the scheduling, preparation, and structure of meetings will make me a much better organizer of meetings in the future in both remote and in-person settings.”

John Campion, Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)

“I did miss the human interaction and immediate access to discuss concepts. I have found that it is oftentimes easier to grasp an idea by discussing with somebody else who is also learning it rather than from the instructor themselves, so there was an additional step to scheduling and organization when I wanted to walk through concepts with a peer.”

Eric Hensley, Auburn University (Harbert)

2) Learn On Your Schedule: “My online experience was superior to my in-the-classroom experiences in nearly every way. Perhaps the most impactful benefit was the ability to learn when I’m ready to learn. As an undergraduate, I needed to learn calculus on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the same room at 7:30 a.m., regardless of whether that was the best time for me to learn or not. Most lectures were spent just transcribing onto paper verbatim whatever the professor was writing on the chalkboard without much comprehension in the process. I would have to struggle to do the learning on my own later. Online learning, in contrast, is flexible enough to facilitate learning exactly when I am most engaged to do so. Some days, I don’t have the time or energy to watch a lecture. Other days, I might be so engaged that I can complete an entire week or two of lectures in an afternoon. I also had the option to re-watch the very same lectures days, weeks, or months later. Re-watching lectures months later was often helpful because I could appreciate the lecture from a “bigger picture” perspective, better understanding how it integrated with other knowledge I had acquired in the interim.”

Daniel Prorok, University of Illinois (Gies)

“I had to work full-time during my in-the-classroom undergraduate studies. Scheduling conflicts added another layer of complexity to my studies, sometimes even limiting my ability to take classes. Comparatively, the flexibility afforded by online schooling has allowed me to optimize my time and provided a way to re-watch lectures as needed.”

Lindsay Scherer, Arizona State University (W. P. Carey)

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