Online MBAs: 5 Biggest Surprises

Welcome back!

It has been a while.

10 or 20 years for many online MBAs. Let’s just say education has changed some.

As undergraduates, many still sat in lecture halls. They took notes and raised their hands like the GenXers and Boomers before them. Their definition of digital was accessing a publisher’s learning management platform, courtesy of expensive and unreliable access codes. Sure, they completed team projects here-and-there. When they entered the work world – replete with dashboards and whiteboards – graduates still experienced quite a shock…initially. Soon enough, they became digital dynamos as the likes of Zoom and Slack became indispensable tools.

To their surprise, they learned business school had adapted as quickly as their employers.

Juventino Uriarte

“My online experience was much different than my traditional in-classroom experience,” explains Juventino Uriarte, a 2022 online graduate of Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “For my undergraduate, classroom times were fixed, assignments were mostly on paper, and textbooks were large and heavy. For MBA, everything is now in digital format and made everything convenient – most textbooks, if not all, were digitally available and assignments can be saved in the cloud. This means that I could complete coursework material from a laptop, tablet or even my cellphone.”

Not only did these tools make online MBAs more efficient individually, but they also bridged gaps and leveled barriers that enabled them to work more closely in teams. “I am old enough to prefer talking on a phone over texting, so I was surprised by how easy it was to build meaningful relationships using video conferencing,” notes Casey Timmons, a McKinsey associate who earned her online MBA at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School this spring. Working in groups over Zoom on shared spreadsheets to ensure that everyone in the group understood what was happening and that we had the right answer was far more enjoyable than I would have imagined.  In many ways, it was easier to interact with a more varied group as the online platform allowed people to vary the time and days that they were able to interact with each other.”

The quality of technology wasn’t the only difference that stunned the Class of 2022. As part of the Best & Brightest Online MBA nomination process, P&Q asked candidates to share the biggest surprise they experienced in a digital education environment. Here are some of the biggest transitions they faced:

1) Increased Collaboration: “The most surprising aspect is the high-level of cross-collaboration along with cross-functional insights. You are typically paired into teams of 3-4; with this team, you tackle simulations, case studies, and papers. Each teammate works in a different industry and in a different function. As a result, during every meeting you are hearing a completely different point of view compared to your scope of work. I was surprised how this level of ‘ideas bouncing off each other’ was still highly maintained in an online environment. For example, a team can consist of a financial analyst, HR manager, supply chain consultant, and risk compliance member, and each team member will provide their own cost-benefit analysis on the virtual meeting, allowing you to weigh factors you may have not considered before.”
Joseph Arrunategui, University of Florida (Warrington)

Maria Ilundain, ’22 graduate of Arizona State’s W. P. Carey School of Business

“I was surprised by the degree of interaction with fellow classmates and professors that still occurs in the online learning environment. It helps students feel interconnected and gain similar experiences to being in an in-person learning environment. Each course was designed with interactive elements from online discussion boards to optional live sessions with peers and professors to provide relationship- and team-building opportunities. I also felt there were many opportunities where students could draw from professional working experiences and connect them to course learning which mad the class material even more engaging and transferrable. It was intriguing to learn from the professional experiences of classmates with varying educational backgrounds, different industry experiences, and unique problem-solving approaches to further my personal and professional development.”
Maria Ilundain, Arizona State (W. P. Carey)

With regards to an MBA, I was surprised about the amount of team-based exercises in the curriculum. Despite students being spread out all over the globe, there’s a lot of collaboration. As such, this definitely puts your time management and communications skills to the test.
Richard Maness, University of Arizona (Eller)

2) Stronger Engagement: “I wasn’t sure how engaged I would be with an online class, but I was pleasantly surprised that the learning environment was just as interesting and engaging as in-person sessions. Most of our lecture material was recorded, which we could watch asynchronously, while our classes were reserved for discussions, allowing us to hear and learn from both the professor and the students.”
Svetlana (Sveta) Vodicka, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)

Paul Cornwell, ’22 graduate of MBA@UNC (Kenan-Flagler School)

3) Greater Student Commitment: “The most surprising thing about my online experience was a (nearly) universally high level of commitment. Students in this program have a million things going on in their lives. Combined with the fact that UNC doesn’t assign GPAs for graduate programs, this might tempt us to take the path of least resistance to the degree. Despite this, I found most of my group members to be eager to learn, responsible and committed to doing good work. Reflecting on my experience now, I realize how critical it is to have a motivated and engaged cohort.”
Paul Cornwell, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

4) Mix of Learning Styles: “I was really surprised at how the mix of asynchronous and live learning was very effective. The pre-reads and asynchronous videos appealed to my traditional learning style, but I enjoyed the fact that class time was not spent in lecture, but rather in really digging into the content, applying it, discussing with peers, and cementing my understanding of concepts. The time spent in class was not busywork, but rather intentionally designed to engage me and provide opportunities for connection. Ultimately, I’ve decided that I much prefer learning in this modality than the traditional in-person environment.”
Sarah Wingfield, Indiana University (Kelley)

5) Greater Openness: “Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so surprising, given what we know about social media, but in an academic context I think a lot of people felt less inhibited asking ‘the stupid question’ – which is great. It opened up some of the more interesting class discussions.”
Jamie Patton, Warwick Business School

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