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Despite the conclusion of a 2010 Department of Education meta-analysis report on online learning outcomes, which found that online learners did as well, and at times, better than face-to-face learners, stereotypes about online learning still persist. California Lutheran University (CLU) has been offering online MBA degree programs for over six years.

Dr. Gerhard Apfelthaler, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs at the California Lutheran University School of Management discussed breaking down stereotypes, what the CLU online MBA program is all about, new concentration offerings, and honesty in online learning via email interview.

Q: Why your program?

Apfelthaler: “There are three important reasons. First, our online MBA courses replicate the quality of traditional, classroom-based courses. Using a variety of synchronous and asynchronous activities and technologies, we have created a learning experience that is both rigorous and highly interactive.

“Second, it’s about our instructors. Our online instructors are not only experts in their field, but they are all very experienced in online teaching and highly motivated to provide a high touch environment. We have internal benchmarks that require our instructors to respond to students within 24 hours.

“Third, it’s the flexibility that we have built into our MBA program. In addition to the online MBA, we have a sizeable on-campus MBA program that offers on-campus weeknight courses, compressed weekend courses as well as courses abroad and travel courses. Online MBA students are completely free to move between these formats. For instance, they could participate in one of our travel courses to China or Europe and mingle with on-campus students.”

Q: What is your peer group? Where else are students looking?

Apfelthaler: “Our peers are nowadays anywhere–non-profit and for-profit institutions, regional and national institutions. There’s an awful amount of marketing noise out there that can be confusing to applicants. We try to stay away from online only programs or institutions and compete with universities that are similar to ours, universities who have sound and successful on-campus programs on which they build online programs.”

Q: What is your target market?

Apfelthaler: “Higher education, in particular online education has become a very competitive market. However, what we have found is that even in the online space, students by and large still like to be as close to the institutions they’re enrolled in. So, from a geographical perspective, we are mainly recruiting students from Southern California. Having said that, we also have a national audience – students who like the combination of flexibility, rigor, and value-based education.”

Q: Any upcoming initiatives in your program?

Apfelthaler: “Yes. We’re looking to add new course offerings so that online MBA students have more professional tracks they can specialize in. For instance, we’re in the middle of the planning process for a track in arts management that will start on campus in the Fall of 2013 and which we’ll most likely also offer online. Also, we are improving student services for online students and will soon expand the offering of our writing center into the online space.”

Q: What are the networking opportunities for the online students?

Apfelthaler: “Most of the networking happens during the courses. As students can be quite spread out – we not only have students around the nation, but also some who serve in the Armed Forces and are stationed abroad – there’s very little chance for face to face encounters, but our instructors have gotten very skilled in using the courses also as platforms for networking interactions between students. Some of our online programs go even further. For instance, the MBA in financial planning once a year brings out its own graduates for a commencement reception and networking weekend on our campus in Southern California.”

Q: How does your program help combat the negative stereotypes about online degrees?

Apfelthaler: “There’s very little in that respect that marketing dollars can buy. As a result, we’re relying almost entirely on building word of mouth developing from our strong focus on quality.”


Related: CLU Sustainable MBA Program Built By One of Its Own | Database: Search, Sort, Compare Online MBA Programs | School Reports: Full Details on MBA Programs | Specialties: Research MBA Concentrations


Q: How do you ensure integrity?

Apfelthaler: “The strongest element in insuring integrity is our small class size. We don’t see online as a low cost way to increase the reach of our programs. We intentionally cap all of our online courses at 20 students. By the time of the second class, our instructors know all their students and their backgrounds, and by the third class they get a good feeling for their learning styles and their learning abilities. This creates an atmosphere of community and responsibility – between the instructor and each student and among the students themselves. When it comes to assessment, we’re not applying a lot of technology at this moment, but we’re relying on being ‘pedagogically smart’. Our assessments are designed in a way that strongly discourages cheating.”

CLU, which is accredited through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, offers an online MBA comprised of 15 courses totaling 45 credits (12 core courses and three electives). Online MBA courses are eight weeks in length and offered year-round. The program’s aim is to have students complete in less than two years. MBA students may take online or on-campus courses at any point during their program study.

–Alanna Stage, @AlannaTweets