The advantages of virtual learning environments for Business Schools

Online MBAs offer flexibility and diversity that benefit both Schools and students

This article was originally published in AMBITION magazine (June 2019) and re-published on the Vlerick website with the kind permission of AMBA. Author: Steve Muylle (Academic Director of the Online MBA and Professor of Digital Strategy at Vlerick business School)

Distance learning is not a new concept. In fact, in 1892, the University of Chicago became, arguably, the first provider of distance learning when it offered correspondence courses at centres outside its actual campus. Since then, as technology has rapidly evolved, so has the way in which distance learning has been provided. We have seen education delivered via radio, television and now, in the present day, it can be delivered via online platforms.

It was not until 1994, when access to the internet became widely available to the public, that the first online MBA programme was launched at a Business School.

Since then, more Business Schools have decided to offer their own online MBA programmes, having noted the benefits they can bring, not only to students, but also the Schools themselves.

However, there are still many well-known Business Schools that do not offer online programmes. In the 2018 online MBA ranking from the Financial Times (where, to rank, Schools must have provided a programme for a minimum of three years) only 20 Business Schools featured.

But as time goes on, these technologies continue to evolve and broaden capacity, ever improving the standard of online learning. The best online MBA programmes offered today are arguably just as good as an on-campus MBA, and can prove a better fit for a number of students. Online education can offer great benefits that an on-campus MBA is unable to provide, and in today’s fast-paced working world, this method of teaching can really appeal to potential students.

Flexibility and convenience

Students take online MBAs for a variety of reasons, though flexibility and convenience are most-cited. This benefit allows people to continue working alongside their course, within their role and industry, and makes programmes accessible to those who live too far away to visit a campus regularly, or who cannot commit to set days a month. Students are not restricted to specific timings or locations on online courses. They can fit their MBA studies around other commitments. The fact that online MBA students do not often need to visit the campus particularly appeals to professionals who travel a lot and are constantly crossing countries or continents.

Freedom to study at a time that suits the individual has proved a popular feature of the online MBA at Vlerick Business School. Activity on our virtual learning platform is busiest between 22:00 and 00:00, showing that many students really do fi t in their studies at unconventional times.

Despite this, the course schedule keeps students on track to complete their degree in two years, and a fast track is available for students to obtain their degree in about a year.

A more diverse student group

The flexibility and convenience of online courses attract a different type of candidate to traditional on-campus MBAs; for example, entrepreneurs, who are unable to leave their young ventures to pursue education. This means the rate of entrepreneurship during and after these programmes is likely to be high.

There is also cultural diversity; students who are experts in doing business in their specific countries bring a lot to their course and can provide advice to their peers. The online programme is also accessible to those based in remote destinations, who are unable to travel to study, creating an even more diverse cohort. Students get to understand a greater number of cultures, encounter a wider range of perspectives and gain more in-depth knowledge of other markets.

More immersive content

The evolution of technology has improved online content. Business Schools can offer compelling material that is easier to deliver at scale online than in a classroom. For instance, Vlerick's online MBA offers an online primer known as the finance and accounting simulation tool (FAST), a computer simulation game designed to immerse students in a virtual business world, learning about balance sheets, cash flow and profit-and-loss statements. While this was available offline prior to the creation of the online MBA, as a virtual game, it has become much more engaging and interactive.

The digital design of materials creates a more immersive experience that is not available in a classroom. Virtual delivery brings tools to life, giving students more realistic scenarios and equipping them for projects in the real world.

Not only does delivering content online make it more realistic, but Schools can also be more creative in its design. Returning to the FAST example, this was originally a board game transformed into a single-player online game where students ‘work’ for a yacht company, gaining investment and growing the business. Delivering this online allowed us to produce interactive videos of Professors at an actual yachting harbour, to simulate the business environment online. This would not be as realistic or creative if delivered in a classroom.

When such tools are delivered online, they can also be made more consistent and responsive too. Due to algorithms built into these simulations, Professors are able to give students immediate feedback on their performance, which, of course, would be impossible for a single Professor teaching a large class of students face to face. This feedback is also always consistent, and to the best standard possible, due to it being built in at the game’s creation.

Addressing the downsides

One of the criticisms of fully online courses is that they do not facilitate proper and regular student interaction (with one another or faculty) meaning that candidates do not get to benefit from the expertise of their peers or teachers in the same way that on-campus students do. However, there various ways to combat this.

When creating an online MBA, Business Schools must emphasise the importance of social learning and networking, to ensure that students really get to know one another, without necessarily having to meet in person. This can be done by developing teamwork modules that require students to interact and work with each other on a personal level.

It is also important, however, to encourage students to interact outside of actual work modules. One way in which we have done this at Vlerick is through our online learning environment, which is also available via a mobile app. This not only includes information about the programme, assignments and modules, but also has a messaging service and a profile page which students have to fill out in the induction phase. This is a great way for students to get to know each other in a new professional manner.

Outside of the scheduled synchronous sessions, which are run in the morning or afternoon to accommodate students in different time zones, the online learning environment also serves as a service for students and faculty to communicate at any point. There are no set working hours for faculty, and they are encouraged to be as flexible as possible. Making the online learning environment available through the mobile app allows them to interact with students at any time and from any location.

Benefits for Business Schools

Many of the benefits of the online MBA for students are equally advantageous to Schools.

The flexibility and convenience of online programmes are huge positive for Professors, minimising, or even eradicating, their classroom teaching. They can be based anywhere in the world, yet are still able to interact with students and deliver modules at a time that suits them, in keeping with the course schedule of the synchronous sessions. Business Schools are able to attract a greater number of students to online courses, and cohorts are more international and diverse, often representing a wider range of industries, cultures and roles. This diversification can be very helpful to Business Schools.

Finally, offering an online MBA boosts the brand of the School significantly. Schools that currently deliver these courses immediately stand out as market leaders in this field, reaching out to a larger audience of students around the world. This is great way of promoting your Business School brand in diverse and untapped markets that were previously unreachable.

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