What Do We Really Know About Online Delivery in Business Schools?

by J. Ben Arbaugh, PhD

Consider the following observation:

Private-sector intrusion is a real risk for business schools. Cable operators and telecommunications companies are aggressively developing virtual classrooms, often without university involvement. Publishers and software houses are developing multimedia products that will substitute for, rather than complement, traditional classroom education. The business school’s own faculty, working independently or as consultants for other entities, represent another serious threat…. one can imagine well-known professors marketing and delivering personalized courses from their homes, with or without an institutional affiliation. The new electronic infrastructure also allows the best-known institutions to establish a local electronic presence in new markets.

Quotes such as the one above underscore concerns about the “disruptive” potential of online delivery of management education. This point of view can be seen in a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek article that suggested the potential for elite business schools to use platforms such as MOOCs (massively open online courses) to pressure regional and other non-elite business schools to outsource their graduate operations to the elite schools.

Although such a scenario may seem a likely possibility to casual observers of business schools, there’s a problem with this conclusion. The opening quote was actually taken from an article published in the MIT Sloan Management Review by distinguished information system scholars Blake Ives and Sirkka Jarvenpaa – in 1996! This suggests that with some notable exceptions, like early adopters Arizona State University and Indiana University’s Kelley Direct programs, much of the expansion in use and research on effective delivery of online business education has come from regional and non-elite business schools, not from the elite business schools. Ironically, it seems that it is the elite schools of business who might want to look toward outsourcing online delivery of management education, rather than the other way around.

In the midst of the current climate, it would be helpful for to take a step back to really see what we know and don’t know about online delivery in management education. Much of the research on online delivery to date can be comprised in three themes:

  1. Most studies suggest no difference in learning outcomes between classroom and online environments. With the possible exception of economics, most of the comparative studies between online and classroom settings suggest no difference in student outcomes between these delivery modes. In fact, this finding appears to be so common that scholars have called for a movement away from such comparative studies toward comparisons to determine optimal blends of classroom and online delivery within courses and subjects.
  1. Instructors matter, but not as talking heads. Prior research suggests that rather than solely being disseminators of content, instructors in online management education play three critical roles: course designer and organizer, discussion facilitator/moderator, and content expert (Arbaugh, 2008; Daspit & DeSouza, 2012). The extent to which these roles are emphasized likely depends on several factors, but initial research suggests that instructors in quantitatively oriented courses need to emphasize the content expert role, while those teaching less quantitative courses should place greater emphasis on the facilitator/moderator role.
  1. Technology matters, but not as much as people. A myriad of studies over the last decade indicate that the mode or the features of the delivery technology are not as important as the ability to connect with fellow learners and relevant content. Therefore, approaches that lead with emphasizing the technology and then consider how people use it as a second step (if at all) may be misguided.

Overall, these findings suggest that online management education may resemble what John Naisbitt referred to as a high-tech, high-touch environment, or people using technology to build a community of inquiry. I do hope that this recent increase in interest in online delivery from high-profile business schools motivates research that helps determine whether these findings will be true for them as well.


Dr. Arbaugh is the John McNaughton Rosebush Professor of Business Strategy in the College of Business at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He is the former editor of the Academy of Management Learning & Education Journal and author of the book “Online and Blended Business Education for the 21st Century.” Follow Ben @JBenArbaugh


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