A Business Technology Place

Auburn Distance MBA: Impacts of distance education on the future of academia

I recently finished a distance MBA from Auburn University as a ‘distance’ or ‘outreach’ student.  While I was reflecting on my experience, my thoughts centered around three main points of thought:

  1. What are the primary advantages and disadvantages of the distance MBA program for a student?
  2. What are the defining program characteristics of the distance MBA program for the institution?
  3. What does distance education mean for the future of academia?

This is the third of a three-part blog to record my thoughts on these questions. The first part recorded my thoughts on customer outreach as distance students. The second part talked about defining characteristics of the program. This post focuses more on my thoughts about the future direction of distance education and its impact on academia.

Q3.  What does distance education mean for the future of academia?

From a macro level, I wonder at what point does distance education growth start to take away from the numbers in the traditional on-campus education model?  It may seem far fetched to think of this happening, but consider these trends and factors:

  • High speed bandwidth is becoming accessible to more households.  As of June 30, 2007, the FCC reports 100.9 million lines in the US.  That’s a 55% increase from the previous year.
  • Owning computing devices that can access the Internet is becoming accessible to more households.  Entry level desktops can be purchased now in the $300 range and new ‘netbooks’ are being sold in the same price range.
  • Families with limited funding for higher education or that do not desire to take on large amounts of debt could opt to avoid the extra cost of room and board.
  • More schools are starting to use distance and taping technology for competitive alignment.  I see nothing to indicate this will slow down.  This trend makes the school accessible to more students.

Another thought is that this could ultimately start to move the location of the professors and staff members. Why wouldn’t it be possible to have the professor in a different location than the students? At some point in the future multi-point video feeds won’t seem like such a big deal.

This could even lead to ‘Consultant’ professors who are hired on a per course basis by multiple schools.  Imaging, Professor X is hired by three different schools to teach  Chemistry 101.  From his home he creates the lectures and then shares them with the remote class via some tool like WebEx.  The students can then use the interactive tools to converse with the Professor. Office hours? Think Skype.

A big trend in many industries these days is consolidation of businesses to afford continued growth and gain economies of scale.  Could we see colleges and universities go the same way?  As some schools with lesser budgets struggle to keep up and match the offerings of other schools do they become acquisition targets?  Is this a logical thought?  Perhaps, if you could use their existing space as a satellite campus.  Or if, just as in business, you can gain greater efficiencies of scale and profitability by using the smaller school’s resources.

As I mentioned in the first note of this series, the distance education model doesn’t fit everyone.  But this model hasn’t reached its potential.  It’s only just started to grow.  My view is that it will change some of the fundamentals of traditional education over time. It will become an industry to itself, supporting best practices, uses of technology, process work-flows, and the like. It may not directly impact you, but it will certainly be a factor to consider for your children or grandchildren.

Auburn Distance MBA: Defining characteristics for the institution

I recently finished a MBA from Auburn University as a ‘distance’ or ‘outreach’ student.  While I was reflecting on my experience, my thoughts centered around three main points of thought:

  1. What are the primary advantages and disadvantages of the distance MBA program for a student?
  2. What are the defining program characteristics of the distance MBA program for the institution?
  3. What does distance education mean for the future of academia?

This is the second of a three-part blog to record my thoughts on these questions. The first post about the Auburn distance MBA program focused on reaching out to customers.

Q2. What are the defining program characteristics of the distance MBA program for the institution?

Institutions setting up or running a distance education program must solve logistical tasks associated with the day-to-day operations of the program.  Some of the major tasks include:
  1. Development of  infrastructure for taping lectures. Possibilities include DVDs, streaming video, and satellite campus rooms.
  2. Development of a process  for sending and receiving assignments to be graded. How long will distance students have to return work?  Who will receive and grade the work?
  3. Create a system to allow distance students to participate in class room discussions.
  4. Design coursework and assignments so that they can be assigned to both distance and on-campus students.
Technology is really not a barrier for any of these operational elements.  The challenge is  in defining an efficient process that allows the education to be foremost in the minds of the students and professors. If the process is not efficient or doesn’t work then it takes the attention away from the education and the institution is not accomplishing its goals.
Once the distance education program logistics are set, the institution has a unique program offering.  The program characteristics give the institution new possibilities and challenges. Consider the following characteristics  for distance education:
  1. Creates opportunity to make the  institution name, or the brand, recognizable in a broader geographic area. More name recognition increases the potential base of prospective students.
  2. Creates opportunity to reach a broader and more diverse student audience. Expanding the reach of the institution name can help with finding prospective students for both distance and on-campus formats.
  3. Increases competition beyond the institutions immediate boundaries. Searching for distance students will increase the number of competitors for the institution by nature of expanding its marketing boundaries.
  4. Class room size is not constrained by physical limitations. The limiting factors will be determined by logistical processes to delivery classroom lectures and coursework to students.
  5. Marketing of the program will require a different strategy. Institutions should consider tools and resources used by online professionals.  If prospective students are comfortable with distance education they are most likely comfortable with standard online tools for research.  Elements to consider are search-engine optimization, video examples of sessions, video testimonials, online reviews and student comments,  documentation of program logistics, and method for remote question & answer.

More institutions are offering distance programs.  Business Week lists distance programs in their review and rankings.  http://www.businessweek.com/bschools/rankings

With the advancement of technology clearing the way for distribution of content, I expect more schools to start competing in this space in the future.  I’ll discuss what I think about the future implications of online education in part 3 of this series.

Auburn Distance MBA: Reaching-out to customers

I recently finished a distance MBA from Auburn University as a ‘distance’ or ‘outreach’ student.  While I was reflecting on my experience, my thoughts centered around three main points of thought:

  1. What are the primary advantages and disadvantages of the distance MBA program for a student?
  2. What are the defining program characteristics of the distance MBA program for the institution?
  3. What does distance education mean for the future of academia?

This is the first of a three-part blog to record my thoughts on these questions.

Q1. What are the primary advantages and disadvantages of the distance MBA program for a student?

The academic world offers many flavors of MBA degree to cater to the most important needs of the students (or really customers).  This could be traditional on-campus, weekend classes, night classes, recorded classes, or a combination of multiple choices.  Most colleges and universities are now competing and advertising through multiple media sources.  Where I live, it’s common to see advertisements on billboards, television, radio, Internet searches, print newspapers, and postal mail cards.  The MBA programs in particular have popped up on large billboards facing busy roads.  The schools are telling you that you no longer have to travel a great distance to get an education with their name brand.  You can do it on-line or you can go to a satellite campus in your area.  Specific to distance programs, the advancement of technology and the Internet is expanding the reach of this competition while bringing consumers more choices.  I chose the distance option at Auburn for the following reasons:

  1. Flexibility – I wanted to be able to complete course work around other commitments I had in life related to work and family.
  2. Credibility – The program was the exact same as that offered to on campus students.  I wanted to make sure I wasn’t receiving any shortcuts by not being on campus.
  3. Reputation – I wanted a name brand on the education portion of my resume that was widely recognized from many years of excellence in education.
  4. Cost – The cost of MBA programs varies greatly between institution and program type.  I felt the distance program at Auburn was priced to attract and sell itself as a good value for the benefits it provides.
  5. Self Discipline – I have the self discipline to accomplish tasks independently.  Meaning, I knew I would be able to work from home without letting home distractions keep me from completing assignments.

The distance program is not for everyone though.  There are certainly a number of trade-offs to consider.  Some of which are deal breakers for prospective students and they choose a different type of MBA program.  Here are a few to consider:

  1. Classroom Discussions – Classroom discussions, which provide much of the value of a MBA, are best done in real-time with other students and the professor.  Distance students can benefit by listening to the discussion, but obviously can’t participate.  There are discussions posted on an Internet message board which gives one the ability to discuss creative thought around a topic.  But these lose the real-time element that makes the discussion richer.
  2. Relationship Building – I’ve heard many people say that the real value of a MBA more in the relationships you build than the education itself.  It’s not impossible to build relationships with other students (both on campus and off) but it requires a little more work since you don’t have that face-to-face meeting during class time.
  3. Consistency – Traditional classroom education provides consistency of meeting times and a set schedule.  This benefits those who need that type of structure to keep them on task.  It’s the guided approach to getting through the program requirements.

In the end, the different programs that are offered benefit prospective students by giving them more choices.  If the institution has the infrastructure and resources necessary to offer multiple programs then they will be able to expand their product offering.  I’ll explore more on how I see the distance program being defined for the institution in part 2.