Common complaint: some online MBAs can offer few opportunities for conversation and networking © Getty Images

Jennifer Smith is walking round the campus at Durham University Business School, showing off the classrooms, pointing out the library and the alumni relations office.

We are not, however, actually in Durham. Or even together. We are meeting online and the tour is of a virtual campus on a platform called Gather Town — a 2D world for meetings and collaboration, not dissimilar to The Sims, the life-simulation video game.

When using the platform, each person is represented by an avatar on an on-screen map and, when you face another avatar, your camera and mic turn on automatically, so that you can chat, as you would in real life . . . or “IRL”, as they say.

It is being used to address one of the main complaints about online MBA programmes: the lack of opportunities for conversations and networking. Nearly half of prospective students believe online programmes fall short in providing the same networking opportunities as in-person degrees, according to a survey published last year by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the business school entrance exam administrator.

Some business schools — such as POLIMI Graduate School of Management in Milan and Imperial College Business School in London — are responding by increasing the opportunities for face-to-face contact, with more time on campus at the beginning or end of their online programmes. But others, like Durham, are looking for tech solutions that might improve the experience of networking online.

Using Gather Town, students taking Durham’s online MBA can see who else is “on campus”, walk up to classmates to discuss a project’s next steps, or join a casual “water cooler” conversation that they might have missed if working solely via conferencing platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Community building: Durham uses is virtual campus to enable learning and networking

“It allows for more natural, informal conversation, whereas interactions in Zoom or Teams can feel very formal,” explains Smith, an instructional designer at Durham who came across Gather Town at a conference exploring the role of play in learning.

“Joining and leaving breakout groups on Zoom, for example, is not a natural or fluid movement,” Smith points out. “But, with Gather Town, you literally walk to a group, join in a conversation, and walk out when it’s finished.”

Durham has used it for orientation and induction activities as well as one-off masterclasses, live Q&As with guest speakers, and networking with course colleagues and faculty.

However, Michael Anthonisz, associate dean of MBA programmes, sees greater potential for building community among online students who do not have the same access to social or sports clubs that their on-campus counterparts do, as well as for teaching and learning activities across the online programme.

“In previous years, there was a reluctance or inability among online students to engage on a personal level,” he says. “Induction week is a time for learning more about the people who’ll be going through this two-year experience with you, but we found that interactions tended to be very one-directional — mostly us giving out information.”

Since using Gather Town, student feedback has been strongly positive, with 90 per cent of the cohort using it across induction week. “I want to build meaningful connections during my online MBA,” says Aom Phornroong Huangboonrod, a Thai MBA student enrolled at Durham. “Gather Town actually feels like a real-world gathering and makes a refreshing change from the traditional video conferencing tools we’ve become used to.”

Networking is an often underestimated yet vital aspect of business school programmes. It can provide access to industry professionals, mentors and even future business partners. A comprehensive alumni network can open further doors to serendipitous career opportunities.

But there are challenges to delivering effective networking online. Conversations online often come across as awkward or forced, frequently interrupted by poor broadband connections, or diminished by participants who are “camera off”, or multitasking while absent-mindedly hopping on the call.

This is one of the reasons why blended MBA programmes are proving so popular: students perceive time in the classroom to offer greater networking opportunities than purely online study, notes Andrew Crisp, owner of business school consultant CarringtonCrisp.

Students particularly appreciate networking with alumni. In CarringtonCrisp’s latest Alumni Matters report, when asked what would improve their relationship with their school, 44 per cent of business school graduates said they wanted more opportunities to use the alumni network. And 42 per cent wanted to make it easier for alumni to connect with each other. Only “better career services” ranked higher in importance.

To facilitate these connections, some schools have already made changes to the amount of time their online MBA students spend on campus, in-person. At POLIMI Graduate School of Management, the online MBA programme has been redesigned to include two weeks of community-building and networking activities. It is also more heavily weighted to group project work.

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“It gives our students more opportunities to develop soft skills, as well as maintain an ongoing relationship with each other during the programme,” says Antonella Moretto, associate dean for open programmes at POLIMI. “It removes the detachment that sometimes happens to students taking an online degree.” Students also have their own mentorship track, ensuring continuous connection throughout the programme.

Likewise, at Imperial, online students attend campus for an induction week that includes faculty and guest speakers as well as face-to-face networking opportunities. They return again to spend time on a culmination project, in what is known as a “capstone week” — working in teams to address a business innovation problem.

Imperial’s senior manager for online programmes, Gavin Symonds adds that the school also offers a student clubs and societies platform, called IBConnect, where online and on-campus students build communities with shared interests and objectives. It creates “a buzz of activity and meaningful connections,” he says.

“Networking is undeniably crucial for students,” he stresses. “So much so, that one of our electives courses aims to teach just that: how networks help us and our organisations to create value.”

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