University of Wisconsin, the Donald Zahn Interview

Dr Donald Zahn, Associate Dean, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, explodes some of the myths about online MBA courses to Adrian Holliday


Critics of online Masters of Business Administration (MBA) courses usually have a ready list of the drawbacks when undertaking such programmes. How do students network – a key advantage of many conventional classroom-based MBA programmes – if you’re sitting at a computer at home, hundreds of miles away from fellow students? Isn’t it easy to de-fraud your college with easy internet plagiarism tools? And isn’t the online teaching experience widely thought to be rather less than rigorous? Dr Donald Zahn, associate dean of the University  of Wisconsin- Whitewater counters each criticism head-on, while tearing up some easy prejudices en route.

“There’s a lot of misconception in people’s mind about online MBA learning,” he says. “Everyone likes discussion and interchange between students and teachers, as well as between students and students. But I’d say there’s more discussion in online classes happening than in conventional classroom environments. Typically you would have perhaps four or five students, often the more confident ones, participating in classroom discussions and the rest sitting back listening to the interplay of what’s going on. That’s not true in an online class. Everyone participates.” Dr Zahn’s argument is that when the more competitive personal environment of a classroom is withdrawn, a more inclusive online learning experience is introduced.

MBA online learning comes of age
Dr Zahn claims the UW-Whitewater online MBA programme is one of the best available. Indeed, UW-Whitewater has been named in the past as one of America’s best colleges. placed UW-Whitewater as a Best Buy in 2004 and 2006 and the college, unlike some other MBA online establishments, has full Advanced Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation. MBA online courses certainly seem to be approaching a level of maturity and recognition they lacked in previous years, partly because college learning via the internet was slow, especially with a dial-up connection. But public perception takes time to shift, as Dr Zahn readily admits. “When I talked to prospective students back in 1997, yes, there was a perception issue. Learning needed a physical environment for many at that time.” Since then, Dr Zahn says US students have predominately been more open to distance learning than other students based elsewhere – but this is changing. “Certainly in Europe and Asia, students are starting to see the advantages and benefits. Afghanistan, Germany, India, you name it.”

Are there, then, certain types of student particularly suited to an online MBA? And how does Dr Zahn filter the application process to make sure he only admits the most determined? “Self-discipline is hard to determine,” he freely admits. “Are they going to be motivated to psyche themselves up to their computer to do the work? Everyone is enamoured that they don’t have to go to class with an online learning course. They save seat time and driving time. And some, when they get to a class, may procrastinate at the computer, putting off assignments. They might well need the motivation of having to physically turn up to some place once a week. But I haven’t found the formula or questions that give me certainty that everyone I admit does have the discipline and motivation needed.”

But perhaps the figures speak for themselves. So far, Dr Zahn says around 90 percent of all students of online MBA programmes finish their course – a very high success ratio.

Value for money and choice – the ace cards of online MBA learning
Another reason for UW-Whitewater’s success in attracting students might be for sheer cost reasons. Dr Zahn says classes cost $550 per credit, roughly 50 percent of the cost of what someone in the UK would pay. Although some MBA online programmes have a measure of face-to-face meeting time built in, the UW-Whitewater MBA online programme has none whatsoever.

The sheer choice of UW-Whitewater specialisations must also swing some students their way. “We offer a choice of eight different specialisations,” says Dr Zahn. “Whereas others offer ‘plain vanilla’ MBA programmes without any of the advantages of specialising in, for example, finance, supply chain management or marketing.” Dr Zahn says roughly 25 percent of their total online MBA student intake has had online educational experience before, though many haven’t.

Improved networking opportunities
What of the two issues that continue to be concerns for online learning: networking and plagiarism? How are they tackled in the new global online learning environment? As far as networking goes, Dr Zahn says online MBA networking opportunities are greater than in any conventional classroom environment, no contest. “In your typical classroom environment at Whitewater, the majority of people in a class are from a surrounding 30-45 mile radius. But online, the class is not only bigger but 30-50 percent of students are outside Wisconsin. So you have much more opportunity to strike up different conversations and contacts that can help create real opportunities.”

And the vexed issue of plagiarism? Dr Zahn acknowledges the worry; but then again, this anxiety is equally concerning in a classroom environment too. “We don’t have a voice print or a scanning technology to ascertain the legitimacy of each student’s work. But in a campus class I don’t have that certainty either. And yes, some companies do make big bucks providing papers for undergraduate online students.”

But given most MBA students know that plagiarism ultimately helps no-one, least themselves, its acceptability amongst peers in the MBA learning environment is likely to be low.

What of, finally, work experience opportunities? Are they as widespread for online MBA students as they are in the physical classroom? Dr Zahn thinks that work experience is not such an issue for online learners. “Around 85 percent of our MBA students already work full-time, so they’re not really looking to change jobs on completion. And these students who do job searches can use our careers service, which has an online component to it, and place their resume online. It’s not the same as attending graduate fairs, but many, don’t forget, may also be looking for jobs electronically anyway.”

Plainly, an online MBA programme is fast becoming a radical, flexible – and most importantly, credible – alternative to established learning routes. Are the doubters, then, so sure of its disadvantages? The rewards, on the other hand, appear clear enough.

For further information, contact
Associate Dean Zahn
Tel: +1 262 472-1945

University of Wisconsin- Whitewater online MBA: the facts

All University of Wisconsin-Whitewater faculty members have a PhD.

The UW-Whitewater MBA online programme is accredited by the Advanced Collegiate

Schools of Business International (AACSB). Some MBA online programmes are not.

The UW-Whitewater MBA online programme started in 1998 – it now enrols almost 400
students, many of them international.

Students are not expected to buy any special software for the MBA online programmes.

Windows Media Player is sufficient to view many files, which are also re-playable, allowing students to absorb the coursework at their own pace.

Although many students have access to broadband connections, broadband capability isn’t necessary. All online UW-Whitewater MBAs can handle older computers and dial-up connections.

Most students complete their MBA online programme in two years. Twelve courses are offered every semester; tuition costs $550 per credit.

UW-Whitewater is exceptionally well resourced: it has a staff of 1,200 with an annual operating budget of $120m.