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Weighing the Benefits of In-Person vs. Online Learning

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Debra Ringold, Willamette University

In-person learning cultivates the competencies that c-level executives want.

Debra Ringold is dean and JELD-WEN professor of Free Enterprise, Willamette University MBA.

C-level executives routinely tell me that communication, decision-making, and relationship management skills are lacking in the ranks of middle management. I have been admonished more than once to “produce” graduates who can write and speak well and who exhibit intellectual and emotional maturity.

It is often the case that these executives see delivery of traditional management “freight”—accounting, economics, finance, management, marketing, operations, quantitative methods—as table stakes that any AACSB or NASPAA accredited program will accomplish.

But when deciding on a graduate business program, consider that programs should do more than simply deliver freight. At Willamette MBA, one of our goals is to develop the ability to integrate disciplinary content and apply it strategically when making decisions. This ability to integrate and decide strategically separates great managers from mediocre ones and can be developed with practice.

Another attribute that distinguishes the great from mediocre is the ability to work well with, and for, others. The ability to deliver candid, constructive criticism, reassure and motivate, and help people reach their potential can be developed with practice.

Sometimes online teaching is effective in delivering some freight, but many online management programs are not AACSB or NASPAA accredited—so, buyer beware!

What is clear is that online teaching can do less to foster the ability to integrate disciplinary content and make good decisions under uncertainty. Moreover, online programs are at a significant disadvantage in helping managers develop the interpersonal bandwidth central to effective management.

In-person teaching and learning can do more than simply deliver freight. It is our experience at Willamette that integration, decision-making, and interpersonal competencies are best acquired with practice in the company of other human beings. 

Individual and group work in client organizations and the examination of that work by classmates, instructors, and clients is rich and real. Debate, formal presentations, spontaneous challenges, questions, comments add to the learning environment. Purposeful human interaction cultivates the competencies that c-level executives want and career success demands.

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