Digital degree

Distance-learning options offer business school students flexibility

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

When he’s not working more than 50 hours a week, Anthony Anticole is a business student. He takes online classes at his Washington, D.C., home, zipping e-mails to professors, watching lecture videos and collaborating with far-flung classmates on projects.

In an age of digital communications, Anticole’s situation doesn’t appear unusual — except for the fact that the 36-year-old Corporate Executive Board employee is earning an executive MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. Yes, Darden — the classic example of the discussion-intensive, case study approach to business education. As much as 30 percent of course content in the school’s 4-year-old executive MBA program is now provided through online instruction.

Anticole still makes the 120-mile trip once a month to spend about three days in class at Darden’s Charlottesville campus. He was unsure at first about taking some coursework online because he wanted as much exposure to the Darden faculty as possible. “Quickly, though, I was very happy that I ended up in a program that was a little less travel intensive,” he says.

The fact that Darden, a top-tier graduate business school, has embraced technologically enhanced “distance learning” is a good measure of just how mainstream the concept has become.

The primary reason for its acceptance is students’ need for flexibility and convenience.  Distance-learning tools “are not necessarily going to replace the classroom for us, but it’s at least going to supplement it,” says Paul Simko, associate dean for Darden’s executive MBA program. He notes that the leaders of Darden’s traditional, residential MBA program also are considering adding some technology-based components to its core courses.

“Just think about the new generation and how tech-savvy they are,” Simko says. “It’s how they learn. It’s what they’re comfortable with. And to have a university or business school that does not embrace that as part of its teaching is, I think, very risky. We’re operating under that assumption.”

Distance learning, or “technology-delivered education,” as it’s sometimes called, is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The concept can involve various types of media — from conference calls and e-mails to one-way video streaming and collaborative online whiteboards, says Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the College of Business and Public Administration at Old Dominion University. And, she notes, there are different degrees to which schools can incorporate this technology.

Many Virginia universities offer degrees through true distance-learning programs in which the student is totally absent from the brick-and-mortar classroom building. For example Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business offers an online master’s degree in information technology through a partnership with Tech’s College of Engineering. Likewise, ODU offers business degree programs through TeleTechNet, a satellite network that broadcasts videos of class sessions to community colleges and other sites across the state. Students often never set foot on the Norfolk campus until graduation. Two-way video streaming, in which faculty and students can see each other and interact, also is available at ODU’s three higher education centers.

Liberty University, meanwhile, has devoted an entire division to distance learning. Started four years ago, LU Online now has 39,600 students enrolled in 40 programs. By comparison, Liberty, the state’s largest private unviersity, has 11,000 students at its Lynchburg campus. Each online class has 20 to 25 students, who can participate whenever their schedule allows.

Anita Satterlee, associate dean for online business programs, says that 16 percent, or 6,300, of all Liberty online students are pursuing business degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Part-time LU Online undergraduate students pay $300 a credit hour versus the $533 a credit hour charged to part-time students attending classes on campus.

The online program allows Liberty to expand its reach without making the expensive investments in infrastructure, says Satterlee. Her business students live throughout U.S. and in several foreign countries. Some are military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Satterlee says her online business program staff, including faculty and advisers, has grown from 50 to 200 in just three years.
“Things have just exploded,” she says.  “And it’s really a sign of the times. People have careers, families, children. So what option do they have when they need a degree to get ahead in their job or to get a new job? This is really the answer.”

Online classes were definitely the answer for Bryan Corley, despite the fact that he lives in Lynchburg and works full time at Liberty’s Career Center. The online option offered him the flexibility his packed schedule required. Besides pursuing his MBA, the 32-year-old father also coaches varsity basketball at a local high school. “If I’d gone through a traditional program, I would have had to give something up,” says Corley. “With this, I don’t have to sacrifice anything — other than sleep.”

Taking the middle ground
Despite the success of the Liberty and ODU distance-learning programs, many business schools are more comfortable with taking a hybrid approach like Darden’s.  Students still attend classes but learn some of the coursework using online resources. Supplementary material could include: podcasts, links to recorded presentations or film clips, online reading materials and collaborative tools for study groups. Most of ODU’s business school instruction, in fact, involves a mix of traditional classroom lectures and online learning.

One example to the hybrid approach is Paige Wolf’s core undergraduate management course, “People and Organizations,” at George Mason University in Fairfax.  Wolf, an associate professor of management, posts her recorded lectures online so students can watch them whenever they have time. She requires students to be on campus once a week, where the class of more than 500 is broken into smaller groups under the direction of teaching assistants.  “Students absolutely love the convenience,” Wolf says. “I think the opportunity to have some of this available online is very valuable to them.”

Online technologies also allow professors to leverage their time and resources, Bagranoff says.  The ODU business school dean recently posted a video clip of one of her accounting lectures on YouTube, where it received thousands of hits. “Faculty put a lot of work and development into their lectures, so once you’ve got it, you’ve got it, and then it’s available for reuse by your students in different semesters or by other professors,” she says. “That’s a great feature and very efficient.”

Planning amid pitfalls
For all of its benefits, distance learning is not without its pitfalls. At GMU’s School of Management, Wolf is currently the only professor to adopt the practice.  “No one’s really averse to the idea, but it’s just not that high on the priority list right now,” she explains.

Major hurdles in implementing distance learning include taking the time to choose the most effective technology, finding ways to pay for it and identifying which courses and faculty are the best fit.
Online degree programs must be carefully designed if they are to deliver the same level of instruction found in the classroom, says Parviz Ghandforoush, managing director of Virginia Tech’s online Master of IT program and director of the part-time MBA program in Northern Virginia. “The technology needed to deliver such programs cannot simply rely on e-mails to teach courses,” he states. “Instead, a virtual environment should be created to make the online course look and feel the same as a traditional in-class course.”

Liberty’s Satterlee agrees. “It’s a different learning style, and because everything is online and the course basically scheduled out, it’s harder to get feedback from students as to whether they’re understanding the concepts,” she says. “So it’s important to have online assignments and quizzes even at the graduate level, so the professor can see where students are at and, if necessary, adjust.”

At Darden, Simko says online courses pose a learning curve for faculty and some students. “It doesn’t all go without some problems,” he acknowledges. “If you want to run a pure case decision-based discussion, the conversation does suffer relative to having people in the classroom, but I think both faculty and student recognize that tradeoff.”

For his part, Anticole doesn’t feel like he’s being shortchanged. He believes online tools make students better prepared when they are in the classroom. “When you’re finally with your professor and classmates, I think there’s a much higher level of conversation because it’s not about, ‘Let’s go over what a balance sheet or an income statement is,” he says. “We’re always ready to have conversations and discuss cases at a level that is, I think, a step above what it would be if we had to go over fundamentals and foundations of everything.”

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