When Anthony Yu's wife, Wanda, was nearly ready to give birth to the couple's third child, he was in the midst of finishing his MBA from the University of Fredericton's Sandermoen School of Business.
The situation wasn't unusual – there are lots of mature students completing higher education to get further in their careers while juggling family duties – except that Mr. Yu lives in Calgary.
And Fredericton is, of course, in New Brunswick.
But for Mr. Yu, that didn't matter. He's one of a growing number who has taken his or her MBA online.
"I always joked with my wife, 'I might be bringing my computer with me into the hospital room,'" the 40-year-old bank branch manager says with a laugh.
It's an increasing trend for schools to offer at least some portion of an MBA degree online. This doesn't just mean schools such as virtual Fredericton or Athabasca University, the first in Canada to offer an online degree. Harvard Business School and Queen's School of Business in Kingston are among the traditional, elite institutions giving students an opportunity to take classes from a distance over the Internet, too.
For someone like Mr. Yu, it was a perfect opportunity.
"This [was] a better route for me, for my family, and for work-life balance," he says. "You still need to participate in your [live online] lectures and readings once a week [but], really, this was the route for me because of the flexibility it gave."
Which is exactly what the University of Fredericton is all about, explains Peter Mersereau, the director of operations at the university.
"The main thing that sets us apart is how our programs are designed," he explains. "They are created for working professionals; thus, students can study from anywhere in the world, at any time, completely online. The program provides students the opportunity to continue their education without sacrificing career momentum."
This is what drove Mr. Yu to get his MBA. Admitting he was limited in "strategic thinking," he realized he needed more education to make an impact at work. With a young family, the online MBA fit perfectly with his lifestyle.
Another online MBA option is Athabasca University's program. Alain May is the MBA program director, and she says times have changed for her as an administrator.
"When I first started going to conferences five years ago, once they found out you were from an online school, they would turn around and not talk to you, because they didn't think you had a lot to tell them," Dr. May says. "When I'm at those same conferences now and you say you're online, suddenly you're the most popular person in the room."
She says the online MBA program at Athabasca is all about flexibility and access. Students can complete the program from anywhere, and it's more collaborative than people think because of the technology.
"I think there's an impression of online education that it's a person sitting in a room all by themselves, working on their own," Dr. May says. "The reality is, we are very effective in networking the students so they can collaborate and build. Students work closely together and learn from each other constantly."
Athabasca has graduated 3,178 MBAs and has another 731 currently enrolled in studies.
With technology moving at an ever-quickening pace, both Athabasca and Fredericton are trying to stay on top of their students' needs.
"As technologies move, we're trying to move, as well," explains Dr. May. "We're moving toward providing mobile applications for students. We try to innovate all the time."
Mr. Mersereau says the University of Fredericton is enhancing its online educational offerings – beyond the MBA stream – because "it's how work gets done today."
"If someone sees an online MBA as second-rate, they are not prepared to do business in the 21st century," he continues. "We live in a virtual world today, so I see no reason why someone would need to stop their career momentum to attend a physical location."
Employers and recruiters are starting to feel the same way. In a recent study by the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, half the employers surveyed said a degree's format would not be a significant factor in their decision to hire or promote a job candidate. As long as the degree program was properly accredited, that's all that mattered.
Paresh Mistry has been working in recruitment for 17 years. Now the vice-president of the David Aplin Group, a recruiting agency in Toronto, he says his clients aren't that concerned with how a candidate gets his or her MBA and is noticing the rising popularity of online MBAs.
"The working professionals aren't readily willing to give up a full-time job for school purposes," he says. "In all the years I've been doing this, I can never recall a client turning down a candidate because of the circumstances surrounding their MBA. I don't think that's going to become an issue."
For people like Mr. Yu, an online MBA was the only way he could climb to where he is now, career-wise. Online education is a trend that he hopes continues.
"It's going to make this easier for a lot of students. If technology didn't evolve to where we're at today, I'll tell you right now I wouldn't have completed my MBA," he says. "It would not have been possible."