The ‘meta benefit’ to earning an online MBA: Better remote workforce prep

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 07, 2021, 11:00 pm
Working from home in San Francisco during the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2021.
(Carlos Avila Gonzalez—The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)

The remote workforce is growing—and growing fast. By 2025, an estimated 36.2 million Americans will constitute the virtual workforce, which is an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels, according to Upwork’s 2020 Future Workforce Pulse Report. 

In a similar wave, more business schools are making moves toward a virtual curriculum. The University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which Fortune ranks as the No. 12 program in the country, announced in early August its flex program in which courses will be offered both online and on campus, and Howard University (ranked No. 30) grew its business school by launching an online part-time MBA program and online executive MBA program. Overall, 84% of online MBA programs reported an increase in applications in the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2020 Application Trends Survey.

With a growing remote workforce and online education space, how are business schools adapting to better equip students for their postgrad career? Fortune spoke with online business school experts to find out whether the online MBA might better prepare students for the virtual workforce.

What online MBA programs do to prepare workers

Online programs prepare MBA students for remote work both intentionally and unintentionally. Some programs offer courses that specifically discuss the demands and challenges of the virtual workforce, and the nature of earning a business degree online also serves as hearty prep for a remote job.

Miriam Burgos, an associate professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California (Marshall), teaches an online MBA course designed to get students to think about how to lead and how to collaborate in virtual teams. Students discuss findings from studies on how Zoom and other virtual technologies have altered the idea of leadership and collaboration.

“We’re taking a magnifying glass to the real impact of COVID on workplace dynamics,” she says. “The added benefit of the online MBA is that you get all of the traditional curriculum of an MBA program, but—layered on top of that—you get this ability to incorporate technology into your leadership style, into your communication style.”

Deb Adair, the executive director and CEO of Quality Matters, which provides quality assurance services to the online education industry, agrees. Because group work is ingrained in MBA culture and curriculums, the opportunity to practice teaming online has its benefits.

“There’s a meta benefit you get when you’re having to do the learning online,” she says. “You get that experiential learning of working together remotely—it’s sort of baked into it.” 

Adair, who earned both her master’s degree and Ph.D. in management from the University of Arizona, anticipates that even more classes about the remote workplace will be included in the MBA curriculum. She says more MBA programs need to “step up into that and begin to provide some frameworks and skills and practice” about working in virtual and hybrid teams. 

The future for online MBAs

Remote work is not going to go away, says Salil Pande, CEO and cofounder of VMock, an artificial intelligence–powered platform that helps job candidates prepare professional materials and practice remote interviewing.

“You’ll be better prepared if you do an online MBA today; you’ll be better prepared to really deal with the world that we all are staring at,” he argues. “If you’re prepared for the virtual world are you not prepared for the physical world? Not really.”

Both online and in-person programs have their advantages and disadvantages, though, Adair says. All programs, regardless of modality, provide a set of experiences, like networking—and not just curriculums. 

Speaking from personal experience, Adair has put most of what she learned in her strategy courses as part of her traditional MBA toward how she approaches the remote workplace. An important emphasis, however, will need to be placed on encouraging students to practice effective virtual communications, especially if they plan to work remotely following graduation.

“You need this skill nowadays,” agrees Phil Griego, USC Marshall’s assistant dean for online learning and online MBA program director. “You need to be able to lead a virtual team. You need to be able to collaborate, operate, communicate with employees and clients around the world.”

Business schools need to prepare for change as well. With more programs offering online options, Pande says there will eventually be a survival of the “brandest” effect, in which schools with a stronger brand image will take a stronghold in the online business education space. “I think institutions have to become tech institutions,” he adds.

Assessing online MBA program quality

Look beyond just the curriculum when assessing online MBA program quality, Adair suggests to prospective applicants. Programs should also offer plenty of co-curricular and extracurricular events, networking, and time with professors, she adds.

Pande recommends taking a deeper look at program delivery—whether it’s synchronous (live) courses or asynchronous (recorded) content. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, so Pande says often a mix of both is best. Synchronous options give a classroom-like experience, while asynchronous materials allow students to return to material again and again for review.

It’s also important to look into how the program approaches remote networking. 

“You cannot so easily create strong networks online today,” Pande says. Online programs do, however, have the power to create boundless opportunities for prepared students.

Imagine online education “as the competitive advantage for people,” Pande suggests.

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.