Chelsea Samantha

Shifting Perceptions towards Online Business Courses 


Diverse modes of education ranging from online to hybrid and short courses to MOOCs have proliferated during the pandemic, ushering in a new era of education that is marked by extensive digitalisation and high flexibility. 

Enhancements in virtual learning have made it an increasingly popular choice amongst students, especially those who would otherwise have limited access to education.

In response, universities have doubled down on expanding their portfolio of online business programmes. Within just two years, US-based online programmes in Business and Management increased from around 1,500 to 2,500 on the Studyportals . Meanwhile, listings from the UK, which has been dominating the online space from a student demand perspective, have gone from 705 to 1000.  

Universities in Ireland, Switzerland, Spain, and Germany also contributed to the 9.6% increase in page views for online programmes during the pandemic.  

Online programmes in Business and Management

 AACSB cited a dramatic increase of 158% in enrolments in online programmes in Business and Management during the 2020-2021 academic year.

Initial interest in online programmes was likely due to campus closures and travel restrictions, but while those are soon finally becoming a thing of the past, the rising popularity of online programmes is showing no sign of slowing down. 

As universities continue to ramp up their efforts towards refining their online offerings, and as hybrid models of working expand their reach across every sector, both students and employees are changing their minds about online education. 

In a recent interview with Studyportals, Vivienne Stern, Director at Universities UK International, noted that our collective experience of working from home for the last couple of years has contributed to the shift in perception of online learning as being inferior to traditional, on-campus programmes: “Every single employer has had to shift some of their business interactions online, so it kind of breaks down the idea that online is passive and not interactive.” 

She said: “I think we have been demystifying online and getting away from the idea that when people talk about online, they’re talking about a form of mass education that’s totally unresponsive, not interactive and not personalised.” 

Echoing this view, a survey by GMAC (The Graduate Management Admission Council) revealed that more than a third of respondents indicated that their employers now viewed virtual and face-to-face as equally effective.  

Students today also prefer to have the option for both in-person and online delivery for their courses. 

Perceptions of online learning

Has online learning managed to place itself on entirely equal footing as traditional education? Not quite according to the findings by the business school organisation. 

Those who disagree that their employers view both modes of education equally still make up almost half of the respondents (47%).  

Furthermore, the level of acceptance and openness towards online learning varies depending on the sector and might be lower in one than the other. While recruiters in finance and accounting were most likely to say they agreed or strongly agreed that their organisations viewed online and face-to-face learning equally (41 percent), those in consulting were least likely to say the same, at only 25 percent.

GMAC’s Prospective Students Survey also shows that students still place a high value on the learning and networking advantages of in-person education. This is likely to especially be true for courses in business and management.

 More so than other sub-disciplines, programmes in business and management such as the MBA are known for placing a stronger emphasis on developing networking and soft skills. Prospective business students see the value of gaining sufficient hands-on experience in those areas as part of their education.  

According to the survey, students seem to have a less favourable view than employers of online graduate business education. Among over 2,000 respondents who took the survey between January 2021 and June 2021, only 14 percent agreed or strongly agreed that online business education offers the same value as on-campus programmes. 

91% of students who answered that they would choose on-campus over online learning attributed their choice to “less interaction/networking with peers”.  

Other major reasons include concern about the quality of online education, employer perceptions of online programmes, and the availability of internships.  

University reputation

Although only 14% agreed that the quality of online education is on par with that of on-campus programmes, survey participants took university reputation into account. Forty percent of students who were surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I would choose to pursue a graduate business degree online at a higher-ranked school thank an on-campus degree from a lower-ranked school.” 

Students interested in business master’s programmes in their home countries were most likely to agree with the statement (47%), while those least likely to agree were those interested in pursuing their education abroad (35%). 

This shows that students interested in studying internationally still view the experience of learning from their country of interest as an important aspect of their education aside from the quality of the curriculum itself. 

Access to international education

Although online learning might never entirely replace traditional classrooms, there is an opportunity in distance learning to expand access not just to education in general, but to international education.

student StudyPortalsIn his keynote address at Studyportals’ Global Student Satisfaction Awards, UNESCO’s Dr Francesc Pedro discusses the topic of international student mobility and how the pandemic affected the flow of international students pursuing their education overseas.

He described international education as a “transformative experience” that is critical in today’s globalised world, and which, unfortunately, is now still a privilege accessible to only a small minority of 3 percent of the world’s population.  

Dr Pedro noted that if international education is adding so much value, then universities must ensure that they develop resources, policies and arrangements that allow the majority of students to enjoy that opportunity. 

To him, the hybridisation of face-to-face and virtual components can readily enhance the experience of mobility: “The future should be blended. Having the right balance between physical mobility and mobility for everyone is a good direction to explore in the future.” 

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