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Students in the new executive MBA program at Rochester Institute of Technology's Saunders College of Business listen to lectures, share ideas with their classmates and even meet with professors during office hours to review difficult concepts.
There is a difference between this and other executive education programs, however: The students are doing all these things online.
Saunders College introduced an online executive MBA program about four years ago, one based on the college's long-running on-campus program. The effort puts RIT among a number of local colleges and universities responding to student demand by offering online components within executive education courses.
These online courses-both blended ones that take place partly in the classroom and partly online, as well as the rarer programs that are fully online-are on the rise nationwide as college and universities respond to increasingly busy students.
The efforts are still in the early stages with no dominant model yet for how these online courses will look, area college officials note. The result is something of a snowflake effect: No two programs look exactly alike, and each is formed by the particular climate and circumstances.
Though they may not yet agree on a format, college officials seem to concur on the effectiveness of online executive education programs.
"People wonder if online programs can have the same rigor that you find in the traditional format, and I've read letters to the editor in the New York Times where people argue that there is a moment of truth inside the classroom that you don't get online," says Martin Lawlor, director of the online executive MBA program at Saunders College.
"But people who have actually been teaching this-the same courses and the same high-caliber students-are as amazed as I am when they see these programs. They are just as good and rigorous as traditional courses."
Online executive MBA programs are still in the nascent stages in Rochester. While many colleges have begun to add online components to undergraduate programs and at business colleges, efforts at the executive education level have been introduced mostly within the last five years.
RIT launched its online MBA program in 2009, basing it on the executive MBA program at Saunders College. It is entirely online except for two residencies. All students in the program come to Rochester for three days at the beginning of the program for an immersion into RIT and later take an international business trip together. These trips have taken them to places like Dubai and Prague, where students tour businesses and hear lectures about the business climate in that particular location.
Though the course work between these in-person sessions is online, Lawlor says the online executive MBA program is built to mirror the college's 21-year-old on-campus program.
It is rare to find programs that are entirely online with no in-person component, he says.
RIT's program is carefully crafted to give students many opportunities to interact with professors, says Kristi Mitchell, assistant director of the online program.
"We make it so they are very engaged with professors," she says. "Each class has a primary and secondary instructor, and they even have office hours so students can talk to them online or have a review session."
There are already some advantages to online courses, Lawlor says. Academic leaders at RIT found that some components of online courses, especially live lectures when students can interact with professors, can actually foster more student involvement than classes on campus.
"We're now starting to bring back some of the things we're learning in the online world to our regular classes," he says.
At the University of Rochester's Simon Business School, which has the second-oldest executive MBA program in the nation, a new online component is intended to enhance the classroom experience. In fall 2014, the school will add a blended program using online models meant to free up classroom time for other goals.
The goal is to go over some of the concepts through online lectures and presentations so classroom time can be dedicated to interactive work, says Carin Conlon, assistant dean for executive and professional programs at the Simon School.
"For executive programs, the networks students build and the interactions between students are critical," she says.
The program also will free up time for students by taking some time away from on-campus work and moving it online. The blended course will be roughly one-quarter online and three-quarters in the classroom, Conlon says.
The right conditions
Online curricula do not just appear naturally in programs, especially executive MBA programs, says Daniel Petree, founding dean of the School of Business Administration and Economics at SUNY College at Brockport.
A number of factors are required, he says, before an institution will consider adding an online component to these programs.
"There is still a very substantial and well-supported traditional model in many markets that will sustain it, and for programs to institute online components, it usually requires a critical mass of potential candidates," Petree says. "It also takes an institution willing to accommodate the sort of requirements that these students have for their programs."
He worked in executive MBA programs at two posts before coming to SUNY Brockport.
Some outside factors are pushing institutions toward online programs, he says, including the changing needs of the corporate world. Petree notes a decline in the willingness or ability of large employers to support executive education programs for their employees, and those that do impose stricter requirements.
"For a lot of these high-potential individuals who would be enrolling in executive education programs, their responsibilities are now 24/7," he says. "Even if a company is happy to invest money in executive education, they can't spare the time for the more traditional model."
At the same time, the number of executive MBA students attending on their own dime has increased, Petree notes. These students are usually still working and need a flexible course schedule that allows them to attend classes only on evenings or weekends. Such conditions have led astute business schools to begin offering either fully online or blended programs, Petree observes.
It took a lot of work for the online program to replicate RIT's in-person executive MBA program, Lawlor says.
"The difficult question is, how do you create an online program that has the same rigor and attention to detail as the in-class program?" he says. "That's something that actually took us a few years to really figure out."
The answer came in part from involving faculty in the creation of the online program. They were not adjuncts selected haphazardly to develop the curricula, Lawlor says, but instead the same instructors who have been involved in executive MBA programs for many years.
For academic leaders at business colleges, there are lessons in other academic areas. At St. John Fisher College, the Weg-mans School of Nursing was the first institution in New York State with accredited fully online programs and hybrid online and in-person courses.
Like business colleges, the Wegmans School was responding to the needs of students who are increasingly crunched for time. There is a push among health care institutions to require baccalaureate preparation for nurses, so many of the students entering the program are also working full time at hospitals, with overnight or daylong shifts.
Dianne Cooney Miner, dean of the Wegmans School, says officials quickly learned the importance of having the right professors and curriculum leaders.
"We weren't exactly early adopters, but we were certainly among the first tier of schools to be doing this at St. John Fisher," she says. "The first thing we did was hire a full-time faculty member whose work was in Web-enhanced pedagogy that developed the course work; then we hired an educational technologist who has a unique set of skills that enhanced our online capacity."
Having the right faculty is critical to the success of an online executive education program, and it is one of the first considerations for a college or university considering adding one, Petree adds.
"It takes a different set of skills to be ready in an online environment or a blended course environment," he says. "Not every faculty member would necessarily be equipped to be ready at the moment, so they need to find out what their abilities are and if they would need training or maybe new faculty."
There is still a lot of work to be done in developing online executive MBA programs, Lawlor says. Colleges and universities have yet to settle on a standard model, and many formats being tested.
"It's kind of like when the typewriter first came out," Lawlor says. "You had dozens of companies all with different models of how it looked and where the keys were placed.
"The difference is I don't think we'll ever have just one model of online learning. There will be different types of programs that will be appropriate for different students and different programs."
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