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Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

An MBA is just a click away. What that means for brick and mortar schools

The future of higher learning
The future of higher learning

More people are taking their education digital.That approach, which rips a page out of "The Jetsons," may be making the grade, but it could ultimately come at a cost to sprawling university campuses.

Fueled by new technology and those hesitant to leave well-paying jobs to relocate in an unpredictable economy, more universities are offering traditional master of business administration (MBA) programs online. As it happens, the learning curve for them may not be as steep as you think.

Many of these schools are partnering up with companies such as 2U (TWOU), which provides cloud-based software to enhance the online learning experience. Live classes are conducted through webcams so students and teachers can interact.

"The horse has left the barn in terms of proving that online programs can more than match the rigor and educational experience of on-campus programs," said CEO Chip Paucek, who co-founded 2U in 2008. "The company's biggest challenge was the preconceived notions of online education, which were terrible."

Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management, which is working with 2U, launched its online MBA program just last month. Some 100 students from six countries, including the U.S., are enrolled.

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"They (2U) have a technology experience we could not have provided on our own," said Amy McHale, assistant dean for masters programs and director of experiential learning.

The average age of students enrolled in the online MBA degree is 35 years old, McHale said. Those attending traditional classes on the main campus are generally about 25 years old and have limited work experience.

More convenient, and easier on the wallet

The horse has left the barn in terms of proving that online programs can more than match the rigor and educational experience of on-campus programs.
Chip Paucek
Cultura RM/Gu | Getty Images

Syracuse calculates that it costs students more than $113,000 to complete its on-campus MBA program. The figure factors in living expenses, books and supplies, medical insurance, transportation, a technology fee and student activity, health and wellness fees. Yet tuition for the two-year online program costs little more than $72,000.

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This is the second time around for 32-year-old Christine Bergold of West Islip, New York. She is working towards an online MBA degree from the Whitman School, a year after completing her undergraduate degree via computer from the State University of New York's (SUNY) Empire State College.

"Syracuse designs the course-load for working professionals who have family, work and school to balance," said Bergold, who works in accounting at an insurance agency. "The program is designed like more of a social media site than a typical online course…Social groups are formed online by fellow students and it's easy to get involved."

The most prominent pioneer in the online learning area could be considered Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, which became the first top tier business school to unveil an online MBA program.

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Still, critics questioned the quality and the ability for students to network if they were stuck behind computer screen, as well as challenging the degree's price tag. It was set at $89,000—the same as the traditional classroom-based program.

Even though online learning is becoming mainstream, one top business school isn't jumping into the deep end of the pool—at least not yet.

Harvard Business School doesn't offer an opportunity to complete an entire MBA online. However, students can receive a pre-MBA certificate online for $1,500. It's a program called HBX Core, which is designed to give those majoring in other fields more confidence working in business.

The effort started two years ago, and Harvard created its own platform from scratch, according to HBX faculty chair, Bharat Anand. The first program was offered last summer, and consists of three courses over a 10-week period.

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"Online education is still very, very new," Anand said. "Frankly, we're just three or four years into it. We are sort of closer to the starting point than the finish line."

Yet some say universities will likely be very vulnerable if they don't adapt in the coming years. They're in a fixed-cost business with a lot of overhead costs, which include real estate taxes, building upkeep, faculty and staff salaries. Meanwhile, would-be students are searching for ways to get a good education without drowning themselves in debt.

"There is not a question in my mind that online education will be, quote, 'disruptive to the education space,'" Anand said. "Who's immune and who's not? We don't know."