Creating Personal Connections Central to Standing Out for Online Business Schools
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.
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.