Commitment: from left, Jane Pearson, Lynsay Macdonald, Benjamin Castro and Valeria Sava
Commitment: from left, Jane Pearson, Lynsay Macdonald, Benjamin Castro and Valeria Sava © FT Montage/Getty Images

As an emergency room physician for the past 30 years, Jane Pearson never quite found the right moment to study for an MBA, despite being eager to do so.

“I was looking to broaden my horizons,” she says. But the demands of her job meant none of the programmes available when she first explored the idea — a couple of decades ago — fitted the bill. “All the people I knew that did it were really struggling to meet the demands of the coursework, travel and expense,” she recalls.

By 2018, the advent of online MBAs had opened up new possibilities, and Pearson, who is now in her 60s, signed up with the University of Massachusetts’ Isenberg School of Management.

“Being able to study online was a major factor in the decision,” she says. “As an emergency physician, you don’t work 9-5 so I could work it into my schedule in little bits and pieces.”

That built-in flexibility, with video lectures, self-study and virtual networking, is a key part of the appeal of online MBAs. Yet they are still not an easy option, given that many students have to fit their courses around work and family. The coronavirus pandemic has added to the pressure, though schools are doing what they can to help.

Benjamin Castro was in the final months of his two-year MBA at the University of Florida’s Warrington School of Business when the pandemic hit.

While online lectures could be “a bit lengthy” prior to the pandemic, the school switched to providing shorter, more digestible videos — especially helpful for students managing childcare, says Castro.

The “biggest change”, he says, was the suspension of in-person sessions. “How do you build rapport when it’s all virtual?” One thing that helped, he says, was a messaging tool called Chatter, which felt more informal than email. The school’s willingness to be flexible with deadlines was also welcome.

Under pressure

For Pearson, who had to deal with coronavirus disruption first-hand in March, flexibility was vital. “Being on the front line — and having the anxiety of possibly catching it, having to go to work and use full PPE — it was very fatiguing, very difficult,” she recalls.

That semester she had two tough modules to complete, including one on business law. The school encouraged students to come forward if they were struggling to cope, and offered the option to have classes marked “pass” or “fail” rather than being graded. It was like “a pressure valve release”, Pearson says. “I was able to relax a little.”

Lynsay Macdonald, currently studying for an online MBA at Durham Business School, says communicating with fellow students via WhatsApp and having regular Zoom catch-ups has been an invaluable support. “Just knowing that we were all in the same boat — I can’t stress how great this is,” she says.

As a full time behavioural research manager and a mother of five children — one of whom has autism — Macdonald says the online programme suited her needs perfectly.

While every week is different, she aims to study for two hours every night, and the programme’s emphasis on self-study has worked well — though for subjects less familiar to her, such as accounting and finance, she would have preferred more teaching time. “I wanted somebody to sit down and speak to me like I’m a three-year-old and take me through it step-by-step, but of course, it’s independent learning isn’t it?”

Having been at her company for eight years, Macdonald took on the MBA to learn more about business, especially since her boss is planning to retire. But, at times, she feels the pressure. “Sometimes you have a really bad week, and you’re exhausted. What keeps me going is [knowing] it’s two years out of my life, and it’s going to be a huge benefit for me,” she says.

Jorge Lengler, online MBA programme director at Durham, says he has noticed some students struggling to manage the demands of the course alongside the pressures of their work and family life during the pandemic. “People are tired but I also think they are extremely resilient,” he says. “We are learning; we have to learn.”

Sense of community

With no opportunity for students to meet each other in person, schools are under more pressure to make virtual sessions engaging and to encourage interaction between classmates.

Valeria Sava began her online MBA at the Politecnico di Milano School of Management last November, having already accepted that the in-person elements of the course would not be possible.

“The school adapted in proposing some classes to bring us together, focusing on career planning and building your brand,” she says. “Apart from this, we have meetings where we have coffees or aperitivos — so I’m really enjoying the social part, even if it’s online.”

All this requires careful time management. After realising she needed breaks to re-energise, Sava, a technical specialist at Microsoft, organises her week to include plenty of downtime. “I have my calendar in Outlook and Teams — everything is in there. I block time for breaks, what I’m doing, where I’m going,” she says. “It’s a matter of time and energy.”

FT Online MBA ranking 2021 — top 15

Find out which schools are in our ranking of Online MBA degrees. Learn how the table was compiled and view a list of Online MBA programmes in our directory Also, read the rest of our coverage at www.ft.com/online-learning.

In a normal working day, she will have nine or 10 virtual meetings before finishing at 5pm and heading out for a walk. She then catches up on course reading or video lectures before joining classes for one or two hours.

While this means more screen time, the students are keen to interact, she says. “It’s intense but we really want to engage with each other, and ask questions, because it’s our time,” she adds.

Castro feels that Warrington too did well in creating a sense of community. “There’s an interactive atmosphere online, it feels like you’re in the classroom,” he says. He has recently started a new job as a supply chain manager at Amazon, having completed his course in December, and credits his MBA experience with helping him to make this transition. “I feel like I’ve got a leg up in the business world,” he says.

Pearson similarly says she was “pleasantly surprised” with how engaging the online MBA was. “Having to study on your own and then have guided discussion afforded a deeper dive into the material. I feel I had more personal engagement with professors than I ever did [on previous courses] in person.”

Lengler believes demand for online learning will grow following the pandemic. “People want more time for themselves,” he says. “Rather than travelling long distances, they can stay and still have an excellent education.”

Having graduated with her MBA, Pearson reflects that it would have been helpful at earlier points in her career. “I wish I had known about this 20 years ago,” she says — urging would-be students to make the leap. “Don’t be afraid of it. It’s very do-able, and you can tailor it to your needs. You can get it done if you’re motivated to do it.”

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