Head Of The Class

Whether it's to get an M.B.A. or to learn new technology, students are filling up virtual classrooms

When Pleshette Johnson decided to pursue an M.B.A. in 1999, she faced an important decision. “At the time, I was a pricing analyst with ExxonMobil and the position required a great deal of travel,” she explains. “I ran the risk of missing a number of classes, which could ultimately extend the time needed to complete my coursework.” This was a major concern for Johnson, 30, who was seeking a degree for self-fulfillment and potential career advancement.

Johnson decided to pursue her M.B.A. through the Independent Study M.B.A. (iM.B.A.) program at the Syracuse University School of Management in Syracuse, New York. Launched in 1977, the program is one of the oldest distance learning programs in the country. Earning an M.B.A. through the iMBA program, however, involves a mandatory time commitment, but it’s one that Johnson was able to plan for well in advance. Johnson, who works from ExxonMobil’s Fairfax, Virginia, offices as a business and performance analyst, takes two classes per semester (a total of six credit hours).

Unlike most M.B.A. distance learning programs that are conducted entirely online, Syracuse’s students attend one-week on-campus residencies. The school offers residencies in January, May, and August; each combines group project work with a concentrated class and lecture schedule.

“The residencies are a prized experience in themselves,” says Johnson. “We get to brainstorm on projects for class assignments, as well as corporate projects for the organizations we work for.” She applies what she’s learned to her work at ExxonMobil.

Johnson compares her residency classmates to an extended family. Because of its unique structure, Syracuse University’s iM.B.A. program attracts a global mix of students. Johnson’s classmates include individuals who live and work in Japan, Africa, China, and Russia.

“In order to make [it] in today’s corporate environment or to even become a successful entrepreneur, you must have a broad knowledge of not only the business, but the people, their cultures, and their diverse backgrounds. This is for the benefit of your employees, clients, and those whom you lead,” says Johnson, who anticipates having her post-graduate work completed by June 2003. ExxonMobil reimburses her for tuition, which costs $647 per credit hour.

Despite the enthusiasm, distance learning, or e-learning, is not without its skeptics. Not surprisingly, the strongest criticism has come from educators who say there’s no substitute for one-on-one interaction in a classroom environment. And human resources departments sometimes do not recognize degrees that were acquired online. But the popularity of virtual learning has inspired some well-respected universities, such as George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to take to the Web.

Additionally, technological advancements have improved e-learning. Programming for distance learning provides the student with many options in both technical configurations and content design. Educational materials are delivered primarily through live and interactive classes online via telephone (one-way video and two-way audio), two-way video or graphics interactivity, two-way computer hookups, or response terminals. The goal of these programs is not necessarily to replicate face-to-face instruction, say the schools, but to enhance it.

While interest and acceptance of online degree programs is

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