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The ability to “work a room” has long been considered crucial to a successful business career. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 86% of recent graduates reported networking as a primary activity in their job search. However, the very term “networking” is evolving rapidly. The prevalence of electronic communication and social media networking is changing the nature of how professional relationships are formed and maintained.

One of the major criticisms of online MBA programs is the lack of face-to-face interaction and networking opportunities with peers. However, students in an online program who utilize the available resources of today’s technology may actually develop stronger and more relevant business communication skills than their on-campus counterparts. Online education places a strong emphasis on modes of communication commonly employed in today’s international business climate. Regular use of email, teleconferencing, and instant messaging with faculty and peers gives students experience building professional relationships as they would in real-world situations.

In addition, most top online MBA programs will have several institutes spaced throughout the program to allow students to meet and mingle face-to-face. For example, the University of North Carolina’s online MBA program incorporates global immersion sessions that act as capstones at the end of each quarter of study. These also allow students to meet, interact, and actively discuss global business solutions in locations around the world.

However, these institutes are not the only opportunity to build solid relationships with peers. Many people underestimate the online classroom as an important site of networking. Distance education students are often viewed as isolated, but those who make the most of the online classroom may find they are more involved in discussions than they would otherwise be in a large lecture hall.

To truly succeed in an online classroom setting and get the most out of your distance education, here are some tips for networking within the online classroom setting:

  • Read instructions and guidelines before diving in to the discussion. If you are unfamiliar with the mode of communication the institution uses, reviewing archived discussions can be helpful in this regard.
  • Be clear and courteous in communicating. Avoid sarcasm or comments that could be subject to misinterpretation. Always proofread your comments and consider their tone before posting.
  • Pay attention to others and take notes. If other students have posted their bios, be sure to read through them and possibly keep a record of them for future reference. Also, make note of where other students are from; you could find global as well as local connections.
  • Don’t dominate a discussion. Make sure your comments are thoughtful and add something to the discussion rather than just taking up space.
  • Encourage others to talk about their academic and professional experiences. This includes professors as well, who typically have a wealth of knowledge and connections.

The term “networking” is quickly evolving along with modern technology. The use of Facebook groups allows students to become acquainted with each other before classes even start, and tools like LinkedIn and online alumni networks are expanding graduates’ opportunities far beyond just the local job market. According to a survey conducted by NACE, 37% of 2010 graduates reported using a social networking site in their job search. While this is still a minority, it is a significant increase from the 16% reported in 2009.

Most will still agree that a combination of online networking and face-to-face meetings is best, but times are changing quickly. For example, across a variety of industries, there is a movement away from paper business cards. In fact, in 2011, LinkedIn – a popular business-oriented social networking site – surpassed 100 million members. This site, used by 69% of Fortune 100 companies, is becoming more and more popular as a way to form and maintain work relationships and partnerships.

In addition, online alumni networks can be an important resource as well. Schools such as the University of North Carolina and Duke University allow online MBA students full access to these databases. Here, students can search through a list of alumni who are willing to be contacted. Conducting informal interviews and asking alumni about their industry experience is a highly valuable resource that not all graduates fully utilize.

Sometimes knowing how to make initial contact with someone for networking purposes can be a stumbling block. Here are some key things to include in your contact with them:

  • Who you are and how you know them or got their information, plus some basic information about your background.
  • You can include where you went to school and your specialization. If you have relevant professional experience, you can include this here as well.
  • Why you are contacting them. For example, you are looking for a specific type of position or a career in a certain industry.
  • Asking for their help should be presented politely. For instance, you might ask them: “Do you have any advice about pursuing a career as a X?” or “I’d welcome your thoughts on what is happening in X industry.” You should open up the field of discussion without being too blunt or forceful.

Opinions about online education and networking opportunities are changing from even just a few years ago. In a recent poll conducted by the Economist, 63% of people believed social networking could be positive for educational efforts. In addition, studies show that online education may actually provide a more tailored and interactive learning experience for students. So, as opinions change and the use of online networking sites becomes more and more prevalent, the idea that online MBAs are at a disadvantage proves to be an outdated notion. By utilizing the resources available, online students can be just as successful when it comes to networking, especially as the age of paper business cards fades away.