The rise of online learning platforms like Coursera and Edx has not only made learning easily accessible for everyone, but has also created opportunities for students to form cross-border friendships. Those enrolled in online programmes have found that the chances of getting to know people from around the world in cyberspace can be amazing.
But there is still a limit to how much one can share and say in chat rooms. Having acquaintances or virtual classmates is different from having real contacts. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) do connect a vast number of people from across continents. Modern technology makes possible what was once inconceivable. But it is another question how effective MOOCs are in cementing ties between learners. That is where the hybrid model of online learning, which combines virtual classrooms with face-to-face interaction, can come into play.
MBA@UNC, run by the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is one innovative model. It makes the school’s courses available outside America and attempts to diversify students’ learning experiences. Global immersion programmes held in different cities allow students to meet and explore issues together. Last month, 84 students convened in Turkey for an immersion trip with the theme of “east meets west”. Participants shared their feelings online following the trip. One wrote about her enhanced understanding of the “region, culture and the opportunities and challenges Turkey is facing today”. Besides cultural exposure, the immersion experience provided a chance to socialise. Casual conservations and dinners with fellow MBA students added colour to the trip. “We spoke on a range of topics, from the recent protests to religion, education and hopes for the future. These conversations were enlightening and helped me realise that we face several of the same issues as young people,” the same student wrote. Another noted that the opportunity to reconnect with students met on the previous immersion in Singapore and to make new friends.
Face-to-face interaction is an important component in education and obviously helps in building contacts and personal networks. Forging such ties is essential for any business professional. Immersions, on-site company visits, and class reunions are desirable extra elements for any online MBA programme. That is a limitation of leading platform providers such as Coursera. They have such a large student base that it is virtually impossible to organise meaningful “out of classroom” activities. From another standpoint, these platforms are merely intended to let people learn without leaving their home. It is up to the individual to form ties. But this also means online programmes may not be the best choice for MBA-level students.