The online business master’s degree is coming of age. Degrees such as the Master in Management (MiM) and other MSc’s in business have largely been campus based but are now available online as business education braces itself for the digital revolution.
The best business schools across the globe are embracing tech change. New York University’s Stern School of Business unveiled its first totally online degree this year, which marks a radical shift. Since its inception in 1900, most of the teaching at Stern has been in the flesh. But the new Master of Science in Quantitative Management (MSQM) is targeting “an entirely new market”, says Kim Corfman, a professor and Stern’s vice dean for online learning.
The program focuses on early-career professionals who want to build their business analytics skills, which are in high demand among companies, without giving up their jobs or salary.
“It provides the combined benefit of access from anywhere and convenience for busy working professionals,” says Corfman. “The program allows professionals worldwide to benefit from an NYU Stern graduate education without having to relocate, and provides the convenience of being able to learn at the time and place that works best for each student.”
To make this possible, online courses in the MSQM are self-paced within a given week and have weekly assignment due dates. Weekly synchronous online meetups with faculty are optional and recorded.
It’s still a small market for online degrees, but they are growing in number. Stern is the only top-ranked US school to run an MS in Management completely online, so it fills an important market need. But elsewhere, Arizona State University runs an online Master of Applied Leadership & Management.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in France, HEC Paris runs an online-only Master’s in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The Grande Ecole school has over 40 years’ experience training entrepreneurs, with startup education now more popular than ever, but the online element is a departure from tradition.
Marc Vanhuele, HEC Paris associate dean, says he wanted to “reach a broader and even more international audience than the one we can serve on campus”. A diversity of perspectives in the classroom enriches the learning experience since masters programs in business rely on peer-learning.
The online program, then, is a way to build the HEC Paris brand abroad which may increase tuition fee revenues. But for students the opportunity cost is far lower since they can maintain full-time jobs or entrepreneurial endeavours, and there’s far lower travel costs too.
Learning and innovating in online education is also important because students and employers are demanding more online elements. Schools cannot stand still. Many aren’t. At ESCP Europe, for instance, many of the master’s courses are blended with online and offline elements. In fact, 30 percent of students will learn at least partially online by 2022, the school forecasts. Currently, about 27 percent of students are taught fully or partially online. ESCP’s Executive Master in International Business, for instance, is an online program.
Hult International Business School also runs a blended Executive Masters in Leadership and Management that is taught both online and in the UK. Also in Britain, Aston Business School offers an online MSc in Business & Management.
But online learning is far from perfect. A lack of interactivity is a common criticism. But Corfman at Stern says, “the quality of our courses and high level of engagement are the same across online and on-campus formats”.
To create courses for the online MSQM program, Stern’s learning designers, technologists and creatives work with faculty and the school’s in-house film studio. “While the educational experience is undeniably different, the content, the student engagement, and the learning quality are not,” Corfman says.
But Vanhuele at HEC Paris does not believe technology can replicate in-person interaction—yet. “When people get together in-person, there are group dynamics that emerge that cannot be replicated online,” he says. “But, as counterpart, the self-paced nature of online education has a lot of pedagogical value, especially for more technical content.”
Beyond course design and delivery, the challenge for participants is juggling competing priorities. “For the learner, it takes more discipline and self-motivation to keep up with the schedule and the assignments,” says Vanhuele.
“Once in the program, they must structure their time for success,” says Stern’s Corfman. “Since taking an entire program online will be new to many students, in addition to giving them a traditional program orientation, we also require an orientation (online, of course) focused on how to be successful in an online program.”
Acknowledging that students’ goals and circumstances may change, the online MSQM offers a possible path into NYU Stern’s Langone Part-Time MBA Program.
But the campus is far from dead. At Stern, two short residential immersions give students a chance to network with their cohort and engage in face-to-face learning with faculty on the Stern campus in the heart of New York City, as well as connecting with classmates and the wider Stern community.
“We haven’t given up in-person interactions entirely,” says Corfman, adding: “Our goal is not to replicate the in-person experience, but to help students learn at least as much by making the best use of the many tools available in the online environment.”
Vanhuele does not see that online learning will ever replace campus courses entirely. He says: “Both will continue to co-exist.”