Building an Online Program

Four ways that business schools can ensure the success of their online curricula.

ACCORDING TO THE National Center of Education Statistics, the number of students taking courses online has grown to 5.4 million—or one in four students—and most schools are offering digital programs to meet that demand. At the same time, some reports show that online course adoption is slowing down somewhat. Thus, it is more crucial than ever for schools to distinguish themselves in the online marketplace.

While the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania has been providing specialized online programs for eight years, 18 months ago we decided to broaden our offerings by launching our first online MBA program. During that period, the program has grown from zero to 153 students, while another 106 students have enrolled in our new online master of science in analytics.

We believe the key to delivering excellent online education is to provide the same high standards and commitment to community we offer in a traditional campus program. Here are four lessons we learned that other schools might find useful as they launch their own online programs.

Online education is not an inexpensive proposition. Universities need to invest in high-quality delivery tools, and the investment is significant. In addition to the technology itself, schools must invest in training for faculty and staff to make sure they can provide a seamless experience for students. At times, an online degree program can be more expensive than its on-campus counterpart for both the university and its students. For example, technology and delivery costs mean VSB’s online MBA costs about US$240 more per credit hour than the on-campus program.

Flexibility trumps distance. Despite the fact that a student from anywhere in the world can sign up for an online course, the “brand radius” for a new online program can be fairly close to home. At VSB, about 74 percent of our online MBA students live within 250 miles of the school. By contrast, our part-time on-campus MBA program, which focuses on working professionals, typically draws people from a 50-mile radius of Villanova. So while we have extended our brand significantly, the majority of students are still from the East Coast.

It’s important to provide the same level of services to both online and on-campus students. Some schools turn their online programs into watered-down versions of their existing on-site programs.

While such a program might provide short term benefits, it will ultimately have a negative impact on the school’s reputation. At Villanova, our online MBA features the same faculty who teach in our campus program, as well as the same curriculum, experiential classes, and admission standards. We make sure that whether students receive their degrees online or on-campus, they receive the same education. We feel we must remain true to our brand if our online program is to flourish.

Community still matters. Community building happens naturally in on-campus programs as students spend time with professors and classmates, but it’s more difficult to build and sustain a community of learners in online classes.

One way to create community is to bring students together for experiential learning. At Villanova, we’ve done that through our MBA leadership challenge and our international immersion trips. The leadership challenge brings online students to campus to solve real-world problems and present their solutions as a team. The immersion experience takes students to an emerging economy such as Turkey, Argentina, Chile, Vietnam, and South Africa. There, they meet and exchange ideas with senior executives. Not only do they gain global business perspectives, but they have an opportunity to build relationships with their peers.

Graduate students want their degrees to represent the effort and intellectual capital they spent achieving them. That’s why business schools should offer online programs that rely on the same admissions standards, use the same faculty, and follow the same curriculum as their on-campus programs. When schools couple a rigorous education with a strong sense of community, they will make sure their online students become invested in their own success—as well as the success of the program and the university.

Daniel Wright is interim dean of the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania.