Published on 2015/07/28

Creating Personal Connections Central to Standing Out for Online Business Schools

With Cassandra Shaw | Program Director for Entrepreneurship, American Public University, Marie Harper | Program Director for Management, American Public University and Tom Schaefer | Program Director for Marketing and Economics, American Public University

The EvoLLLution | Creating Personal Connections Central to Standing Out for Online Business Schools
Quality of faculty, flexibility and richness of the learning environment are the major factors that can help an online business school differentiate itself in an increasingly competitive market.

The business school marketplace today is more competitive than it has ever been, and this is true not just for on-the-ground providers but for online providers as well. The number of online business education programs has exploded in the public sector, creating a highly competitive landscape for the institutions that traditionally occupied this space. Now more than ever, it’s critical for business schools operating online to identify and highlight their differentiators to set themselves apart. In this interview, Kathleen Irwin, Cassandra Shaw, Marie Harper and Tom Schaefer reflect on the elements that help the American Public University School of Business stand out.

Click here to read key takeaways.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What competitive advantages do face-to-face business schools have over online providers?

Kathleen Irwin and Cassandra Shaw (KI/CS): Face-to-face programs may be able to develop more personalized relationships with their students. However, online programs provide students with the convenience and flexibility that face-to-face programs are unable to. Face-to-face may also provide more of a sense of community, whereas online offers a sense of independence.

Tom Schaefer (TS): As technological tools continue to advance, many of the factors traditionally considered a competitive advantage for face-to-face schools are being eliminated. The main advantages that remain are the local community linkages that attending a school in your community provides, and the ability to network, communicate and learn with your classmates in person.

Marie Harper (MH): Face-to-face schools tend to be brick-and-mortar institutions, therefore, they probably have the flagship business program as well as an online presence. As a result, there tends to be more variety for a student going to a local campus. They may have the option to take face-to-face courses when they need special attention on a topic, online courses when they face time constraints, or a combination of both. Tom makes a good point about the ties to the local community. I agree that local brand gives those institutions an extra leg up when making a choice. Finally, local alumni, especially in my area, are very active in contacting their HR departments about supporting schools that they attended.

Evo: What are some of the most common misconceptions students have about online business school offerings?

KI/CS: One of the most common misconceptions is that an online program may be less rigorous, or that a program may not be offered online, such as entrepreneurship.

TS: First, it’s important for online students to understand that online does not mean easy; the academic rigor of most online courses is at, or higher than, what is expected in the face-to-face classroom.

Secondly, online students often believe they will never hear from their instructors. Of course, online course are highly interactive, and the typical student finds that the instructor is more assessable than in face-to-face environments. Finally, online students tend to believe they can complete their online studies on their own schedules. Although online learning does provide additional flexibility because there is not an assigned instructional time in a physical classroom, there still are deadlines and interaction requirements that are enforced.

MH: Business students have a number of misconceptions about the online format. Among them, they believe the degree isn’t valued the same as an on-ground degree, that the reputation, rigor and quality of the institutions and programs aren’t the same, and that online programs are not fully accredited.

Evo: What are the differentiating factors that can convince students to enroll in an online business school over a local institution?

KI/CS: Flexibility and convenience are the two main factors that attract adult learners to online programs. At APUS, we are an affordability leader, so this is also a factor.

TS: Flexibility and multi-model learning are our significant differentiators. Online schools are designed with working adults in mind. Being online allows the student to participate in and complete the coursework as it fits into their busy life. However, this does not mean that the courses are self-paced.

Online schools also have the ability to get beyond lecture (live and recorded) and discussion by allowing the incorporation of learning simulations, game play, path-based learning, and other forms of interactivity not typically part of traditional classroom instruction

MH: There are two major factors that can convince students to enroll in an online school over a local institution: the success and achievements of graduates, along with their testimonials and faculty reputation.

With the increasing competition from public institutions with an online presence, the differentiating factors need to focus on what makes us unique and why we are the best choice

Evo: How do you market and highlight these differentiators to ensure prospective students understand the differences?

KI/CS: Academics works closely with the advising and marketing groups to ensure students are aware both before and during the enrollment process.

TS: Student advisors and recruiters work with prospective students to ensure they are comfortable, understand the environment, and are prepared to be successful. Roundtable discussions are scheduled throughout the year to allow additional interaction and discussion between students, potential students, and members from the academic staff/faculty on program content, value, and career outlook.

MH: I use two approaches to highlight our differentiators. First, I make sure that they know me as a person. As a result, they equate the caliber of the institution with my accomplishments. I have had the opportunity to discuss APUS with individuals who have contacted me via social media.

Secondly, I actually present the school on the basis of its history versus its online presence. I’ve seen the number of graduates from my area increase in the last two years. Why? Our advertising and more “word of mouth” referrals from locals who have decided to give us a try. When having a conversation with someone that knows about APUS, they are excited about our roots in educating service members as American Military University.

I think this is an effective format when you live in an area where most of the schools have an online presence. It goes back to my comment of “what makes us unique.”

Evo: How do the expectations of online students differ from those of face-to-face students, and how does your team work to meet those expectations?

KI/CS: Online students expect to work independently, with flexibility, and with knowledgeable faculty to enhance an engaged learning experience. We hire only high-quality faculty that meet stringent qualifications, follow all accreditation standards and ensure faculty meet all training guidelines before entering the classroom.

TS: Online students expect the effective use of technology, and to be able to reach staff and faculty on a timely basis. Online faculty members go through extensive training, mentoring and job shadowing prior to stepping into the classroom. Faculty members are taught best practices in the online classroom, the effective use of the tools available, and the standards to which the university expects them to perform.

MH: Based on my experience, there is no difference.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Online business schools offer flexibility and richness in the learning environments with which traditional institutions have trouble competing.

  • Though prospective students have a number of misconceptions about online business schools, creating personal connections between the applicants and institutional staff and leaders is a great way to overcome those challenges.

  • Quality of faculty directly impacts quality of program, so it’s critical for online business schools to use only top faculty.
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Readers Comments

P.J. Allen 2015/07/28 at 12:01 pm

That personal contact is essential and we have found that prioritizing that goes most of the way toward dispelling myths and getting rid of perceived roadblocks to enrollment. In the end I think it saves us a significant amount of money to just make that level of attention the norm from the start.

    Marie Gould Harper 2015/07/31 at 9:53 pm

    P.J., I agree, and believe that if you have have two schools equal on most factors, the potential student will go with the one that made him/her feel special. Adding that personal touch can make the difference!

Morgan Hendrie 2015/07/29 at 4:09 pm

We’ve recently created an alumni association specifically for our online programs and have begun leveraging graduate stories and testimonials. So far the response has been fantastic, which makes a lot of sense. Prospective students want to hear from those who have been there, not those whose jobs depend on them enrolling.

    Marie Gould Harper 2015/07/31 at 9:59 pm

    I am happy to hear that the alumni association has been helpful. I know graduates who look forward to those events. Not only to connect with fellow alumni, but to give back to their alma mater by spending time with potential students. Potential students get to “see” the end result. In addition, they get to hear how someone made it through the process.

Christian Onuoha 2015/08/06 at 5:26 pm

This is great piece. I even recognize K.I. who was my professor during my MBA program. I too believe there are many misconceptions about the legitimacy, accreditation, and quality of an online business school. Prior to my applying I did a great deal of research on different schools and ultimately how the name of an online business school would impact my resume – i.e. career advancement. Having experienced both avenues of education and completing my undergrad on-ground I can speak from each side. I felt my online MBA was challenging and made me work that much harder as I was force to interact and engage my professors and other students to get to the finishline. I could not just sit in the back of the class quietly the whole way through.

However, since graduating in August 2014 I have found it to still be very difficult to advance in my career, even with the added certifications I have acquired. This has led me back to the importance of networking, which might not be as prevalent in the online community. The more and more I learn about corporate America I find its not about what you know, but who you know. When dealing with hiring managers or recruiters that may or may not hold advanced degrees, perception becomes reality and they only see a name. Therefore, prestige of an institution comes into question. My online MBA program with APUS was rigorous and made me accountable as it was my responsibility to meet deadlines and stay motivated as I worked independently on most occasions. There are many programs popping up becoming mills for issuing out degrees, but APU isn’t one of them. So I guess that’s one of the uphill battles I face on my quest in life post grad.

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