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With a quarter of college students enrolled in at least one online course in 2008, it is clear that online education has moved far beyond late night infomercials and the correspondence courses of old. MBAs continue to be among the most popular degrees available online. In fact, estimates there are over 11,000 students at some 90 accredited schools are currently earning their MBAs online.

However, despite its growing influence, many potential students may find they still have questions and even concerns about online education. More specifically, their apprehensions center around queries like when programs are designed, and what types of students do they have in mind? What is the experience really like? And can schools maintain quality in their online course offerings while sprinting forward to meet student demand?

Students, Mistakes, and Misconceptions

One of the biggest draws of earning an MBA online is the opportunity for students to continue working while going to school. Cindy Atchley, a professor at Benedictine University, classifies online MBA programs as “adult-centered learning.” A solid curriculum is typically aimed at helping students, often with full-time jobs and families, advance their education through the flexibility of online learning platforms and interaction with faculty who are experienced, real-world professionals.

Typically, an online MBA program will require applicants to have at least two years of work experience, sometimes more. But even mature students may be subject to certain misconceptions and mistakes when entering an online program for the first time. One of the biggest misconceptions of incoming students, and the general public as well, is that an online MBA program is easier than a traditional on-campus program.

While it is true that online students save on travel time and have the convenience of being able to complete coursework from a variety of locations, many underestimate the level of discipline necessary to be successful in this type of program. With a full-time job and a family life to balance, adding schoolwork to the mix is not always an easy task. “It’s often the third major thing in their lives,” said Atchley. Furthermore, she encourages students to “make sure that they are ready for the time commitment, and talk to their families” before diving into an online program.

Online courses typically require regular participation in discussion forums and collaboration with student teams several times a week. Professor Brian Janz, who teaches both online and on-campus MBA courses at the University of Memphis, warns students that, while convenient, online communication takes more time and effort than merely talking face-to-face. When students become pressed for time and don’t have a professor standing directly in front of them, it can seem easy to let things slide until the very last moment. However, trying to hide in the back of an online classroom is much more difficult than students imagine. “Professors know you’re out there, and that you’re choosing not to engage,” said Janz. In a learning environment where so much depends on students’ self-motivation and effort to communicate, this can be extremely detrimental.

With this in mind, students need to prepare themselves to make the most of their education. They need to do “a gut-check to make sure they have the motivation to do well, as well as the discipline to get the learning done without having someone constantly reminding them to stay on task,” said Janz.

Students who do best are “people that enjoy learning and know how to learn” he asserts. Being self-motivated, disciplined, and organized is crucial. If students put in the time and effort necessary, the world of online education opens up doors for individuals who might not otherwise have pursued higher education due to job, travel, or family constraints.

The Future of Online Education

However, it’s not just students who are benefitting from online programs. Many schools are shifting a portion of required courses to online platforms in order to address recent budget crunches and overcrowded classrooms. But this fast paced innovation poses a question – can schools maintain quality in their online course offerings when trying to meet growing demand?

The answer is yes, but be careful. “The better programs really understand the nature and quality of their traditional product, and take great pains to try to provide an equivalent learning experience for their online students. Lesser online programs will look an awful lot like the correspondence schools of old, and these should be avoided,” Janz said.

As the prevalence of online and blended courses increases and more professors have experience teaching in this capacity, opinions are also changing. A recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education estimates that about one-third of professors have taught some type of online class, with over half stating that personal and professional growth was an important motivating factor in their decision to do so. In addition, Atchley believes her personal experience as an online Ph.D. student enables her to be more attentive to the learning needs of her students. “It makes me a better teacher. I’m more sympathetic,” she said.

With experienced faculty and staff, schools will be able to implement innovative models of learning that place a strong emphasis on flexibility, affordability, and quality for both the benefit of students and the institution. More and more online and hybrid programs will emerge in the coming years, and with a more comprehensive knowledge of these educational models, students will better be able to identify quality programs that fit their educational needs and professional goals.