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What Caused the Explosion in Online Learning

John A. Byrne


In little more than an instant, tens of millions of students all over the world were introduced to virtual learning thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Truth is, it didn’t go all that well.

In most cases, universities put technologically challenged professors in front of their laptop webcams on Zoom to teach the same lessons they would have taught in a physical classroom. The early results: Students didn’t care for it. Many found it hard to engage in those Zoom sessions. They missed the social interaction that is critical to a college experience and they groused that they should get tuition refunds on an education for which they never signed up.

And yet, the virtual genie popped out of the bottle. Many who were exposed to online learning for the first time asked why they shouldn’t just enroll in an online degree if they are going to pay in-person tuition rates for Zoom classes that are not as thoughtfully designed and executed as those in a well-orchestrated online degree program.

Online boom

That is why many online MBA programs are reporting big increases in applications and enrollments. More business schools are launching online options, including Howard University, which began enrolling online students for both MBA and executive MBA programs in May.

At Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, an early pioneer in online learning, applications to its online MBA are up 15 percent over record application volume in the previous year. The rush to remote instruction is causing more people to consider online programs as a viable option, says Ramesh Venkataraman, chair of Kelley’s online degree offerings. 

“It’s creating a mindset that legitimate and high-quality online offerings should become part of the consideration set,” Venkataraman said. “Before, some may have still had some hesitancy.”

A lot of the appeal of an online degree program boils down to flexibility and price. Students don’t have to leave their jobs and lose income while they study, and most online options are cheaper. 

Kelley’s traditional MBA program boasts a sticker price of $111,352 for tuition, fees, and books for non-residents. That is 33 percent more than its online MBA, not accounting for the opportunity costs of having to quit a job to pursue the residential program.

The new standard

In the past five years, as interest in full-time MBA programs has waned in the United States, the fastest growing MBA program in the world lives online. It is the iMBA at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois. 

In just four years, Gies went from a standing start to its current enrollment of more than 3,750 iMBA students. One highly appealing feature: it was disruptively priced at just $22,000, a fraction of the cost of most residential MBAs.

“There is more demand for online education than we have ever seen,” said W. Brooke Elliott, the associate dean who oversees Gies’ program. “The recession has displaced a lot of people and they are considering different educational paths. Many are furloughed and want to build new skillsets. They have some expectation that their furloughs can be lifted and they’ll go back to their jobs. For them, online programs are more attractive than full-time because they don’t require a two-year, full-time commitment.”

Upward mobility

Gies is predicting a 30 percent year-over-year jump in applications, a total of 2,400 candidates, for the iMBA class that will enroll in August. Elliott predicts that cohort alone will set a new record at more 1,100 students.

The same is true elsewhere. After initially hoping to attract a debut cohort of 250-300 students for its new $24,000 online MBA that starts in September, Boston University’s Questrom School of Business now expects to enroll a class of 400 students. That would be 33-60 percent above the expected target goal for the program, which would surpass the current enrollment of Questrom’s full-time residential MBA program by 100 or more.

No one expects the demand to end anytime soon. With the economy in disarray and widespread exposure to online classes and meetings, online education is here to stay.

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