If you're working full-time, an online MBA is often your most convenient option for pursuing an advanced degree, especially now that the quality of an online degree is equivalent to one on a physical campus. For many business professionals, an online MBA can open up a world of professional opportunities, including getting a promotion, breaking into a new industry, or taking on greater management responsibilities.
Yet concerns remain that distance learning hold students back from connecting with fellow students and taking an active role in the academic community.
In the past, online degrees carried a certain stigma that the learning experience was somehow "incomplete" without robust, on-campus interaction. As many employers will now attest, this stigma is wrong. According to U.S. News & World Report, "most" employers are receptive to degrees from reputable institutions with proper accreditation and reputation.
But while employers may be as happy with an online degree as an on-campus one, some would-be students are still hesitant to enroll. They're concerned that their physical distance will make it more difficult to connect with classmates and the greater school community.
I spoke with Jim Mahar, an associate professor of finance at St. Bonaventure University. Mahar is passionate about helping his online MBA students become more involved in their school community. "One of the benefits of getting an MBA is to network and meet new people, Mahar said. "Even with an online MBA, there are definitely many ways to get involved as part of the community."
He explained that online MBA programs typically offer dedicated program channels for virtual communication, including instant messaging platforms and web discussions. Students can also Skype their teams to discuss a big project or even participate in a giant group WhatsApp chat.
And that's not counting all the emails sent back and forth. What about connecting with MBA peers outside their coursework? If you yourself are an online MBA student, Mahar suggested four ways to maximize your online MBA networking and make the most of their degree program:
1. Form online study groups.
Your peers in an online MBA program are excellent academic and professional resources. One of the best ways to get to know them -- and strategically balance your coursework -- is an online study group. Like traditional MBA cohorts, online study groups are small, informal groups that connect to discuss coursework, share assignments and collaborate on group projects.
In addition to refining valuable teamwork and leadership skills, you'll form deeper connections with your peers beyond simply sharing the same degree program. There's nothing like pulling an all-nighter together before a big project to bond as a team!
2. Join online speaker broadcasts.
Even if you can't make it to campus for an in-person speaker presentation, Mahar noted that many degree programs, like the one at St. Bonaventure, will broadcast speakers live via an exclusive weblink. As happens with TED Talks, online students can participate as listeners and learners in these lectures.
While the speaker session may require additional time outside of standard coursework and class hours, you'll hear from plenty of speakers at the forefront of their fields. Online viewing is an opportunity to ask them questions and later discuss their responses with your fellow peers.
3. Join student groups for a worthy cause.
Mahar is the coordinator for BonaResponds, a volunteer organization first formed as a response to Hurricane Katrina. Maher said that many online MBA students volunteer time in this organization and have coordinated volunteer disaster relief efforts everywhere from Haiti to Houston.
4. Participate in student travel opportunities.
As businesses continue to place a high value on hiring professionals with international experience and a global business mindset, online MBA programs are responding by offering exclusive travel programs.
Traveling abroad can help online MBA students network during an intensive one- or two-week trip. While itineraries vary depending on the program, students typically meet with local business leaders, tour local companies and attend presentations at local universities or partner MBA programs. In certain programs, students may be challenged to solve a series of business problems for an international client and then present the solutions in person during the trip, according to the article in U.S. News & World Report.
Most international MBA travel programs are not mandatory and may even take place during an off period on the academic calendar, like spring break. But, mandatory or not, such travel opportunities are a great way to connect with peers and form lasting bonds. Two weeks in Thailand certainly beats a quick "meet and greet" at a networking event.
Acquiring the business expertise you need to level up your career can require a significant investment in time and money. Online MBAs can help diminish this resource investment. Even though you may not physically be present in a classroom with your fellow students, you'll be wise to take advantage of the opportunities available to build a robust network.