Demand for Online MBAs Climbs Despite Return to Campus

Last updated June 29, 2022

Megan McDonald decided to pursue her MBA when she had a full-time job in Alberta’s public health system, two children aged three and five, and a husband working unpredictable shifts. Despite her demanding schedule, she wanted to learn business skills to help her take on leadership roles.

She chose the University of Fredericton’s online MBA program since an in-person MBA just wasn’t practical in a life stage where flexibility was a must. She squeezed in study hours after her kids fell asleep.

Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, her work responsibilities included establishing COVID-19 assessment centres and vaccine clinics. At the time, she was learning how to fix bottlenecks in her operations management course.

“My work was very uncertain and quite challenging. But what was really incredible was that nothing changed in terms of my school,” McDonald said. “I was able to apply it in real world scenarios.”

Continuity was a major benefit of online learning during the pandemic. While many colleges and universities had to overhaul their programs overnight, exclusively online institutions like the University of Fredericton were, in a way, pandemic proof. As everyone was thrust into virtual learning, it became clear to previous skeptics that it could be done – and done well. The perception of online MBAs continues to rise two years after the lockdowns fast-forwarded online adoption.

“In 2021, 36 per cent of Canadian business school students considered pursuing graduate studies online, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.”

UFred started its MBA program 15 years ago, long before Zoom meetings became the norm for work or for school. The idea to offer a fully online program came down to flexibility for working professionals who simply couldn’t commit to being on campus, said Michael Hobeck, the University of Fredericton’s Dean of Academics. The program has since offered live virtual classes, interactive discussion boards, student-to-student and professor-to-student feedback and learning – all online.

“You no longer have to be physically present in a certain place and time to get the same quality education,” Hobeck said.

Back in the early 2000s, there was much more skepticism about whether an MBA could be offered in a purely online format, he said. But the pandemic changed our society’s perception of online communication as many people found themselves working from home and seeing their colleagues on screens instead of in boardrooms.

People have become far more comfortable with online communication in the past two years, and more accepting of online learning as a viable alternative, Hobeck said. He’s noticed that students are more comfortable turning on their cameras.

“There’s just no doubt that peoples’ perception has shifted for the positive, particularly since the onset of the pandemic,” he said.

Enrollment numbers seem to reflect that shift. UFred reported a 38 per cent increase in interest in online programs for the 2020-2021 academic year compared to the year prior.

Hobeck attributes the noticeable rise in enrollment in part to the increasing comfort with online learning. He also noted that uncertain times often inspire people to seek further education, especially if they had extra time if working from home meant not commuting.

“It’s so bizarre to say, but it was literally status quo,” Hobeck said. “That’s what we’ve always done and that’s what we’ve always done well.”

Digital transformation is speeding up across all industries, including higher education, consultancy McKinsey & Company noted in an article in December 2021. Online learning capabilities are becoming mainstream. “The question is no longer whether the move to online will outlive the COVID-19 lockdowns but when online learning will become the dominant means for delivering higher education,” the article stated.

“Two million Canadian postsecondary students — 1.2 million at universities and 800,000 at colleges and polytechnics — had to shift to remote learning during the pandemic, according to data from UNESCO and RBC Economics.”

Canadian institutions are among the pioneers in online business education. Athabasca University bills itself as the first in the world to offer a fully interactive online MBA. These programs tend to appeal to people with years of work experience who want to upgrade their skills without pausing their careers. It’s a different demographic than the traditional in-class university model, which tends to attract a younger crowd able to dedicate at least a full year to the program.

As Canada starts to treat COVID-19 as endemic, the majority of higher education institutions that switched online have returned to in-person learning. But the pandemic inspired online learning initiatives that are here to stay.

Adam Fremeth, faculty program director at the Ivey Business School at Western University, said some faculty members were hesitant about online learning before the pandemic, unsure if they could replicate lively discussion virtually. Now they take advantage of technology like Zoom, which enables professors to invite business leaders, no matter where they are in the world, into the classroom to discuss cases at the centre of lessons. It’s a great opportunity to leverage Ivey’s global network, Fremeth said.

There has also been a substantial increase in applications to Ivey’s Accelerated MBA program, which offers a split between virtual and in-person learning. A subset of students that are used to communicating online are gravitating towards that blended learning model, Fremeth said.

“The accessibility to online learning and what you can get from online learning has opened up greatly,” he said. “This is just consistent with the overall shift to accessing more materials digitally.”

That said, Ivey has been excited to return to its face-to-face cohort model. And Fremeth has been surprised to see how quickly corporate recruiters are keen to get back to in-person meetings.

The desire for in-person learning isn’t going away, but people appear to be getting more comfortable with the idea of online education.

Back near Edmonton, Megan McDonald reflected on her perception of online MBAs now that she’s done her degree and using the knowledge in her role as Alberta Health Services operations manager for public health in Westview, Spruce Grove and Evansburg.

She was originally hesitant about doing her online MBA due to concerns about whether the quality of the content and educators would be the same. Those concerns evaporated after she met her first professor at UFred, who she described as an excellent educator with a doctorate from Stanford. She also praised the responsiveness of student services and the chance to connect and collaborate with people across industries and around the world.

“I ended up shifting my mindset. I absolutely 100 per cent would say it’s an excellent experience,” she said.

Emily Jackson

Emily Jackson is a freelance journalist, writer and podcast host based in Toronto, Ontario. She has spent the past decade reporting for top Canadian newspapers, including roles at the Financial Post, where she is the host of the "Down to Business Podcast," The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and The Vancouver Sun. Emily holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Queen's University and Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.

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