Interview: Andrew Atzert at ASU WP Carey’s Online Program

Andrew Atzert, ASU WP Carey

Are online MBA programs comparable to classroom-based ones? We asked Andrew Atzert, assistant dean and director of the W.P. Carey MBA – Online Program at Arizona State University

Is online a compromise?

We developed our distance learning MBA program using the faculty who teach in our regular program and the same curriculum in our regular program. We’ve always had the philosophy that our MBA program is the same program as our regular MBA program in terms of the actual degree and knowledge you get from the program.

But at the same time, it’s different. What potential students think is that there’s a trade-off when you choose an online program. And the trade-off is that most people want face-to-face interaction.They want the ability to network with other classmates and faculty. So they accept the convenience of an online program, but they also feel like they’re trading off that interaction. The challenge for us is to try to not have as much of a trade-off, and to offer more interaction.

That’s one preconception about online programs: that there are fewer opportunities for face-to-face interaction and networking. Is that the reality?

In a paradoxical way, online can be more interactive.

Face-to-face classes tend to be dominated by the most talkative people in the class, and so participation in live classes tends to be uneven: some people may not think of the best thing to say while they’re sitting in class, they may not think of it until they go out into the parking lot, or later on when they’ve thought about it a little more. So if you’re the kind of person who processes and doesn’t immediately jump into a discussion, classrooms can be challenging.

What happens in a distributed environment, like in our online MBA program, is that everybody can participate equally. So if your first language isn’t English and for that reason you can’t jump into the conversation as quickly as others, or if you just tend to process, it doesn’t matter. You can jump into one of these threaded discussions at any time. And as a result of that, across the class, the amount of participation per student tends to be more in online than it is in a class.

It’s very hard to be anonymous, oddly enough, in an online class, because you have the opportunity to be electronically present at any time. You can’t say that somebody interrupted you because it’s impossible to be interrupted, and there’s no time limit. You can be on there 24/7.

Do students get better jobs after graduation?

Because our online program is designed for working professionals, they already have a career going, and they’ve chosen to do an MBA because they feel it will advance their career.

Most company leaders would never expect a senior person to go through an online MBA program; they’d want them to go through a peer-based program where they’re with other senior leaders. When you get to the more senior levels, the skills that you need are less technical and more based on your ability to influence others. It’s more the soft skills, and those can be best dealt with in a live classroom environment.

But for mid-level people, the fact that they got their MBA from a really good school that has an online program versus a school that has a good face-to-face, may not matter. Employers may not think that you can adequately teach interpersonal skills for leadership in an online program, and that’s a challenge for us in designing online programs. We’re trying to make it more possible to work on those soft skills in an online program. But where online programs excel is in their ability to duplicate everyday interaction in a normal working environment.

How could an online environment duplicate everyday business interaction?

The simple fact is that even senior level people, on a daily basis, may relate to a lot of other people in their companies in an electronic environment: they send email, they’re doing webconferencing, because the way that the business world works is electronically mediated. So what we try to do in our online program is use technology in a richer way so that individuals can project a richer presence.

We use webconferencing tools, have groups work together online, and use established technologies that still work really well, like phone conferencing – all of this that mirrors the way that people work in a distributed business environment.

So it’s possible, using those tools, to teach leadership skills in the program. All the students in our program are put in small study groups, and they’re responsible for doing group assignments and group cases. We use that group setting to discuss their leadership skills.

And in the business world, that kind of distributed interaction happens everyday: people have to call their Hong Kong office from Los Angeles, or their office in Azerbaijan from Houston and communicate with those people. In the real world, global businesses do projects that are distributed all the time. And so we ask people to do in our program what they will do in their jobs.

Is online a compromise?We developed our distance learning MBA program using the faculty who teach in our regular program and the same curriculum in our regular program. We’ve always had the philosophy that our MBA program is the same program as our regular MBA program in terms of the actual degree and knowledge you get from the program.

But at the same time, it’s different. What potential students think is that there’s a trade-off when you choose an online program. And the trade-off is that most people want face-to-face interaction.They want the ability to network with other classmates and faculty. So they accept the convenience of an online program, but they also feel like they’re trading off that interaction. The challenge for us is to try to not have as much of a trade-off, and to offer more interaction.

That’s one preconception about online programs: that there are fewer opportunities for face-to-face interaction and networking. Is that the reality?

In a paradoxical way, online can be more interactive.

Face-to-face classes tend to be dominated by the most talkative people in the class, and so participation in live classes tends to be uneven: some people may not think of the best thing to say while they’re sitting in class, they may not think of it until they go out into the parking lot, or later on when they’ve thought about it a little more. So if you’re the kind of person who processes and doesn’t immediately jump into a discussion, classrooms can be challenging.

What happens in a distributed environment, like in our online MBA program, is that everybody can participate equally. So if your first language isn’t English and for that reason you can’t jump into the conversation as quickly as others, or if you just tend to process, it doesn’t matter. You can jump into one of these threaded discussions at any time. And as a result of that, across the class, the amount of participation per student tends to be more in online than it is in a class.

It’s very hard to be anonymous, oddly enough, in an online class, because you have the opportunity to be electronically present at any time. You can’t say that somebody interrupted you because it’s impossible to be interrupted, and there’s no time limit. You can be on there 24/7.

Do students get better jobs after graduation?

Because our online program is designed for working professionals, they already have a career going, and they’ve chosen to do an MBA because they feel it will advance their career.

Most company leaders would never expect a senior person to go through an online MBA program; they’d want them to go through a peer-based program where they’re with other senior leaders. When you get to the more senior levels, the skills that you need are less technical and more based on your ability to influence others. It’s more the soft skills, and those can be best dealt with in a live classroom environment.

But for mid-level people, the fact that they got their MBA from a really good school that has an online program versus a school that has a good face-to-face, may not matter. Employers may not think that you can adequately teach interpersonal skills for leadership in an online program, and that’s a challenge for us in designing online programs. We’re trying to make it more possible to work on those soft skills in an online program. But where online programs excel is in their ability to duplicate everyday interaction in a normal working environment.

How could an online environment duplicate everyday business interaction?

The simple fact is that even senior level people, on a daily basis, may relate to a lot of other people in their companies in an electronic environment: they send email, they’re doing webconferencing, because the way that the business world works is electronically mediated. So what we try to do in our online program is use technology in a richer way so that individuals can project a richer presence.

We use webconferencing tools, have groups work together online, and use established technologies that still work really well, like phone conferencing – all of this that mirrors the way that people work in a distributed business environment.

So it’s possible, using those tools, to teach leadership skills in the program. All the students in our program are put in small study groups, and they’re responsible for doing group assignments and group cases. We use that group setting to discuss their leadership skills.

And in the business world, that kind of distributed interaction happens everyday: people have to call their Hong Kong office from Los Angeles, or their office in Azerbaijan from Houston and communicate with those people. In the real world, global businesses do projects that are distributed all the time. And so we ask people to do in our program what they will do in their jobs.

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