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Eduvantis in Poets & Quants: Benefits of Hybrid MBA

We’re pleased to share Poets & Quants recent post “Face Time Key To Hybrid MBA Battle” that features contributions from Eduvantis founder Tim Westerbeck:

Business schools have fought each other for students ever since Grok opened the Paleolithic Commerce Institute right next door to Trog’s well-established School for Counting Rocks.

Eventually, the teaching and learning moved from caves into classrooms, and students and professors became a bit more, well, evolved, but for millennia, not a whole lot changed in terms of how business education was delivered: teachers stood in front of students and told them what was what. Students asked questions, received answers, sometimes broke up into discussion groups, and between or after classes discussed course materials and helped each other with homework.

But this century’s quantum leaps of communications advancement are bringing many schools into a new battleground: the hybrid zone, where age-old pedagogy meets modern-world technology.

Today, with teleconferencing, video chats, and live-streamed lectures, learning can take place over the Internet, across vast distances.

CAMPUSES TO GO THE WAY OF THE WOOLY MAMMOTH?

Caves, classrooms, campuses will soon be relics of business education’s past. Or will they?

As MBA programs evolve, they must do so in accordance with a key reality – a holdover, perhaps, from the Stone Age, but one well supported by data and anecdote: many students have a profound affinity for face-to-face learning.

Even as online education explodes in popularity, most people still want a significant amount of their education to be delivered in person, in the company of other students.

Hence the appearance in business schools across the land of hybrid MBA programs blending in-person teaching with internet-delivered learning, to meet the demand for campus time while offering the convenience of online education. Elite institutions have yet to embrace hybrids, but several schools in the bottom half of the top 25 are now offering them.

HYBRID MBA MOVEMENT ‘AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE’

“Hybrid delivery is going to continue clearly to be an unstoppable force,” says Tim Westerbeck, founder of the business school consulting firm Eduvantis. “Hybridity will be a centerpiece of the market no matter what level of institution or what type of student.”

The hybrids allow schools to extend their reach, to lure students from further afield. UCLA’s Anderson School of Management in 2012 opened its 27- to 33-month “MBA Flex” hybrid program, requiring students to attend campus only one weekend per month, compared to all day every Saturday or for two weekday evenings in the school’s regular part-time MBA program. Of Anderson’s most recent entering Flex class, 75% came from outside the Los Angeles area, compared to 34% of non-Flex part-timers. Almost 30% of this year’s entering Flex students are from outside California.

Says Westerbeck, “The market will segment around the issue of how much campus time (students) want, need and can afford.  The key is that schools are going to need to offer choice and flexibility in terms of how students will access their programs.  Some people will naturally self-select into programs that have more on-campus time, because they really value that type of experience. Other people may just not want that or be able to pursue that approach for a variety of personal or professional reasons.

“The key is choice and the quality of the experience that is offered to hybrid students when they do have periodic interactions on the campus.”

Westerbeck cites moves by low-end education institutions DeVry and the University of Phoenix as evidence of institutional response to a market yet clamoring for education with face-time. “There’s a reason that some of the big online educational providers such as Phoenix and DeVry have opened up so many local campuses,” Westerbeck says. “They know people are much more likely to get an online degree if there’s a location within 50 miles of where they live.”

Data from the Graduate Management Admission Council supports Westerbeck’s contention. A 2014 GMAC survey revealed only 13% of those surveyed who were considering an MBA wanted a fully online program. On average, respondents wanted 75% of their classes on campus, and 25% online. And 61% wanted their program based within 50 miles of their home.

Eduvantis’ own numbers, produced for client institutions, reflect similar desires among students, says Westerbeck, who would only speak generally about the data as it’s proprietary. “We are increasingly asked to look at how the online dimension of a school’s portfolio is performing from a student’s standpoint,” Westerbeck says. “You consistently hear that people really value the fact that the institution through which they’re experiencing this product is local, so they can engage there if they want to, so they can attend face-time education.”

Surveys reveal that students specifically interested in online/on-campus programs want a half and half mix, Westerbeck says.

SOLELY ONLINE PROGRAMS’ MARKET SHARE QUESTIONED

“This to me is why there are questions about how fast market share will be taken, if you will, by purely online players,” Westerbeck says.

It is this demand in the student market for on-site learning that’s pushing schools into battle not at the extremes of purely online or purely on-campus delivery, but into the middle area between education by man (and woman), and by machine.

Online course delivery typically involves live-feed and recorded lectures, group work via video and text chat, plus discussion boards in which students and professors interact.

Underlying the attraction of online education is convenience. Learning can take place during down-time from work. Students can do assignments while sitting on a recliner in pajamas. But fully online delivery removes the element of direct professor-to-student interaction, and interaction among fellow students.

“One of the common things we hear about purely online experience is that the full value of that experience is not readily achieved,” Westerbeck says. “People know that a campus-based environment is kind of the center of activities, like clubs, the social and cultural aspects of the educational experiences.

“The personal interaction with faculty members is something that’s been a cornerstone of education for a very long time and something that people clearly value.”

FEDERAL GOVERNMENT RESEARCH SUPPORTS HYBRIDITY

A 2009 U.S. Department of Education report concluded that in general, instruction mixing in-person and online delivery “had a larger advantage relative to purely face to face instruction or instruction conducted wholly online.”

Demographics will also play a role in take-up of online business education, Westerbeck says. Non-traditional students – including parents, people working full time, and those delaying post-secondary education – and older students represent a growth area in higher education, Westerbeck says. And while younger people are accustomed to doing everything online, older people have not necessarily adjusted to digital-dominant living.

Educators and industry experts argue over the speed at which online education will cause major disruption in traditional education. Business schools’ quest to maintain and increase student numbers will always be subject to the vagaries of the U.S. and global economies and their effect on labor markets and demand for higher education. But the real battle lies ahead, where traditional bricks-and-mortar education runs up against the digital frontier.

CARNEGIE MELLON’S TEPPER HAS THE HYBRID FORMULA RIGHT 

In institutions’ fight for market share, those who do the best job of balancing the flexibility and convenience of online learning with on-campus education will have the advantage, Westerbeck says. Further, schools offering hybrid programs must ensure their students receive the non-academic benefits that come with campus-based education, such as access to recruiting fairs and alumni networks, so that “students that are not . . . physically on campus as much are still given first class citizen status in accessing those services,” Westerbeck says.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, which opened a hybrid “FlexMBA” program last year, addresses students’ desire for on-campus time by incorporating into the program “Access Weekends” every two months of the 32-month program, in which students attend CMU locations around the U.S. to work with peers, professors and alumni.

“What Tepper is doing through its immersive ‘access weekends’ is giving students who prefer the hybrid flexibility and learning style the best of both worlds, including some time networking with peers in person, having intensive discussions with faculty, walking around a campus,” Westerbeck says.

GLOBE-TROTTING FOR FACE TIME

The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School uses “Global Immersions” to provide online “MBA@UNC” students with human-to-human education interaction. Of four trips offered annually to cities such as New York, Johannesburg, Singapore, Sao Paulo, and London, candidates must take at least two during the 18- to 36-month program. Course work during these three-day events mixes students with professors and business leaders.

UCLA Anderson School dean Judy Olian, in an article on the school’s website about its MBA Flex hybrid program, say that “students may absorb theory from their computer screens, but on campus – whether in groups or in class – they’ll discuss the ambiguity of case studies, or challenge each other’s strategic recommendations in vibrant debate.

“You don’t want to compromise that essential ingredient when the goal is deep learning.”

However, Philip Regier, dean of Arizona State University, whose Carey School of Business launched an online MBA in 2003, contends in EDUCAUSE Review Online that more non-traditional learners are flocking to higher education because online learning allows them to get degrees without serious disruption to their lives. Regier believes success of online programs hinges largely on training professors to teach effectively over the internet. Students in Carey’s online MBA program are required to make only one campus visit, a three-day orientation at the start of the two-year program; all other education is delivered online.

The University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management has been adding online content to its part-time MBA program for the past several years, in response to student demand, and by next year, students will be able to complete the program entirely online, says Carlson dean Sri Zaheer. While school officials’ want to give students as much flexibility and convenience as possible, Zaheer says she’s not convinced an MBA delivered completely over the internet can match one that includes campus work and on-site projects.

“Our intention is not really to create an online program,” Zaheer says. “Online can get you up to a certain point, but I don’t know if it can deliver the full goods.”

Carlson’s “enterprise” programs that see teams of MBA candidates hired out to companies are an example of on-site education that would be difficult to replace via the internet, Zaheer says. She questions whether it’s possible to teach leadership, judgment of unclear situations and teamwork as effectively online as in person.

Penn State’s iMBA takes students away from their computers for two week-long residencies, one doing on-site analysis of organizational structure and strategy at a U.S. firm, and one on campus involving teamwork on a business simulation project.

ELITE TRADITIONAL PROGRAMS TO RETAIN ATTRACTION

Paul Danos, dean of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, predicts that students who can get into the “very best residential programs in the world” will continue attending them.

“For candidates who don’t get into the best programs, however, or for mid-career professionals or others who can’t leave their cities, a hybrid program could be very appealing,” Danos writes on the Tuck website.

Danos sees elite schools possibly providing the educational fodder down through the ranks, thanks to technology.

“A relative handful of top professors could create highly produced online courses that other schools would pay to use as part of their degree programs,” Danos muses. “The elite schools are likely to be producers rather than consumers in this market, but the non-elite schools will feel great pressure to accept courses designed and produced by the most highly regarded experts in their fields.

“Schools would have the option to outsource courses, or even whole departments. An institution could choose to specialize, concentrating its resources to attract top-tier professors in a chosen discipline while relying on virtual proxies to teach other subjects.”

IS THIS BOSTON OR MADRID? AND WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE?

Letting his imagination run, perhaps a little wildly, Danos goes on to envision “a time in the not-too-distant future when virtual reality makes it nearly impossible to tell whether you’re sitting together with colleagues or in a different country altogether.”

To be sure, for some MBA students, less time on campus is better. A survey commissioned by the Executive MBA Council, a worldwide business education group, found that EMBA programs with less frequent on-campus periods produced the highest levels of student satisfaction, with programs requiring in-person attendance more often than every three weeks receiving the lowest approval ratings.

“The EMBA category is particularly sensitive to format,” Westerbeck says, “because of their professional and personal constraints.”

In the old days, of course, Grok and Trog clubbed each other silly during tug o’ wars over prospective primitives to fill their business schools. Now, the battle is fought with different weapons, on broader ground, but many would-be business students will still base their decisions about where to study on how much time they get to spend inside the cave, er, classroom.

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