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Why Blended Courses—A Mix of Online and Offline Learning—are Gaining Traction

Why Blended Courses—A Mix of Online and Offline Learning—are Gaining Traction

Blended MBA courses—done partly online and partly on-campus—are cheaper and more time flexible than regular degrees without compromising on the rigour. But are they for everyone?

Not everyone lived up to the typical Indian parental expectations of becoming an engineer or a doctor. Or even getting an MBA degree.

While it may be too late for the former two, pursuing an MBA is still on the cards. Even—or should we say, especially—if in a full-time job. And these are not degrees from some fly-by-night operators but from India’s premier B-schools, such as the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA).

IIMA’s e-mode postgraduate programme (ePGP) in management is, like most MBA courses, two years long. But it requires students to be on campus for just five weeks. The rest of the course is administered over more than 850 hours of live virtual sessions in designated classrooms across various cities (the programme shifted completely online during the pandemic).

These so-called blended degree programmes don’t skimp on the syllabus, covering everything from management theories and economics to soft skills and the practical application of analytical tools and techniques. Often confused with distance learning or part-time MBA programmes, a blended MBA degree course is neither. Firstly, it is certainly a full-time course and secondly, it has a lot more student-teacher interaction (whether virtual or face-to-face) unlike a distance learning course. A blended MBA is an amalgamation of virtual and face-to-face sessions—or residencies or immersions, as they are known in university parlance. The programme typically begins with a residency for a week or so, during which the students meet and get to know their peers and instructors in a traditional classroom setting. This sets the programme in motion for the virtual classes, which comprise about 80-90 per cent of the course. Some programmes bake in a residency every few months to maintain the interest and engagement levels of students.

In a nutshell, a blended MBA course covers the entire general management syllabus, with the branding of a reputed university and without the need to attend full-day classes. Also, these courses have their own entrance or aptitude tests, and aren’t subscribed to the gruelling CAT/MAT tests that are mandatory for B-schools. This makes it ideal for working executives as well as students, whose numbers far exceed the availability of regular seats in top B-schools. The total enrolment in higher education rose to 38.5 million in 2019-20 from 37.4 million in 2018-19, according to the latest All India Survey on Higher Education. Of the total count, 11.1 per cent enrolled for distance learning.

“Degree seats in top universities and colleges are limited, forcing hundreds and thousands of students to opt for lower-quality institutions,” says Raghav Gupta, Managing Director, India and APAC, Coursera. “A blended model allows universities to scale, combining the benefits of on-campus and online programmes to serve a vast student population. When students learn in-demand skills from well-ranked institutions, they’re well equipped to succeed in the job market.” Coursera also helps institutes move online without investing in technology infrastructure.

So, while blended MBA degrees are the exception today, they will very likely be the norm tomorrow, especially given recent developments. For one, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the acceptance and adoption of online learning. But more importantly, India’s National Education Policy, launched in July 2020, reinforces the importance of digital learning and application-oriented outcomes. That means blended MBA courses will have the same rigour as those in institutions, including the IIMs. For instance, like IIMA, IIM Raipur too offers a two-year blended MBA programme.

“The formal two-year degree programmes in the blended form are very new to India. In fact, across the globe, the first blended MBA was offered only 17 years ago by IE Business School in Madrid, Europe, followed by UCLA in the US in 2013,” says Jaskiran Arora, Dean-School of Management, BML Munjal University.

With no rules defining blended MBAs yet, it boils down to what the institute offers. The reputed ones focus on live sessions—rather than recorded videos for self-learning—allowing students to have discussions, clear doubts and ask the faculty questions. This flipped classroom model is not only flexible and self-paced but also economical.

“Although not a new concept, blended MBAs will only get mainstream,” says Arora.

And that’s without even considering the cost of these courses. “Blended courses are cost-effective, which makes them a viable option for aspiring students with limited financial resources,” says professor Ashutosh Dash, Lead-GP Admissions, Management Development Institute (MDI) Gurgaon. Not only on the course fees, but students also save on relocation costs and other overheads. Depending upon the programme and the university, a blended MBA can cost anywhere between 10-40 per cent less than an on-campus course, according to education experts. The cost-saving factor holds true even for blended courses from foreign universities.

UpGrad, for instance, has tied up with Liverpool Business School in the UK for a blended MBA course that is completely online, except for an (optional) week-long on-campus immersion programme. UpGrad also offers the ‘study abroad’ model in which students can pursue half of the course from home and the other half on-campus abroad. “This helps learners save up to Rs 50 lakh in tuition fees plus living expenses as compared to the offline model, attain a globally recognised degree at one-tenth of the offline cost, and get global mobility as a bonus,” says Ankur Dhawan, President-Study Abroad, upGrad, which became a unicorn this August.

The cost factor likely holds more allure for the student, while the pull for a working executive is the flexibility of a blended MBA course. However, education experts point out that in their current form, these courses favour working professionals more than students. They can advance their education without having to take a career break, as well as use their workplace as a ready platform to apply and test the concepts they learn.

“Management education has always lent itself well to the blended form of learning. The learner—usually a postgraduate student—has the opportunity to learn the basics online, discuss and reinforce the relevance and appreciate the application in classrooms with cohorts, and, finally, apply it in practice in their workplace/projects,” says Narayanan Ramaswamy, National Leader-Education and Skill Development, KPMG India.

The on-campus sessions also allow students to network with peers and faculty—an extremely vital social component factor in MBA schools—for a few weeks. That is perhaps enough for working executives further along in their careers but not for those just starting out. And certainly not for students, for whom the campus life and an immersive experience are critical.

“The key differences between blended and totally in-person programmes are the networking opportunities, community- or student-faculty interactions, career support and recruitment opportunities,” says Jyoti Jagasia, Associate Professor-Information Management, S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR).

That means institutes will have to ensure that their blended courses bake in sessions that allow all participants, whether students or working executives, to have face-to-face interactions, say education experts. “Institutions offering blended MBAs will need to create a structure that enhances collaboration and creates multiple networking opportunities during the duration of the programme as well as after graduation,” points out Raj Mruthyunjayappa, MD and SVP-International Operations, EMEA & APAC, Anthology Inc. The US-based firm provides tech solutions to educational institutions.

Mruthyunjayappa’s point about networking after graduation assumes more importance if you consider that blended MBA programmes are missing a vital component that on-campus programmes offer—campus placements. Even the ePGP courses from IIMA and IIM Raipur don’t offer campus placements. This means that while working executives get a leg up in their career after the course, freshers have to start job hunting. “Blended MBAs rarely offer placement services,” says Ranjan Banerjee, Dean, BIT School of Management (BITSoM). “Since they are targeted more at currently employed people, the target audience is different and, hence, not strictly comparable.”

Be that as it may, there is another factor that freshers have to ponder as they go job hunting—does a blended MBA degree hold the same value in the job market as a regular one?

“When it comes to blended MBA, freshers will probably be at a disadvantage as most companies will probably not give as much value to elected or online as offline, assuming that both are coming from equally represented institutes,” says professor Pradyumana Khokle, Organizational Behaviour, IIMA. “But if we talk about working professionals, we see a large number who have had professional growth sometimes halfway through the programme, sometimes immediately after the programme.”

While it may seem that blended MBA courses are better suited for working executives, some experts say it’s a matter of time before the stigma of an online degree vanishes.

“With the progression of digitisation in higher education and more and more top-ranked B-schools offering blended MBAs in specialised fields, duly approved by regulatory authorities, recruiters are going to give equal importance to the blended master’s degree in the future,” says professor Dash. It’s a viewpoint that BITSoM’s Banerjee concurs with.

India’s higher education system is the third-largest after China and the US. But access to higher education, especially equitable higher education, remains difficult for reasons ranging from unaffordability to lack of opportunity. If not the solution, blended MBA courses are, at the very least, a step in the right direction.

After all, as the famous American educational reformer John Dewey said, “If we teach as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.”

@nidhisingal