While distance learning has been around for a while, it is only recently that advances in technology have truly narrowed the gap between online and face-to-face courses.
The quantity, quality and depth of sports-related undergraduate and graduate degrees offered via the internet has increased dramatically in the past few years.
The fact that our number one-ranked postgraduate sports management course in the world, at Ohio University, has been operating its own online programme for seven years is indicative of the way even top-end schools are seeking new and more flexible ways to reach their students. Norm O’Reilly, chair of the department of sports administration at Ohio, says the course was established because “all the trends are towards mixed delivery”.
Since 2011, Ohio has offered a course which mixes online teaching with an in-person work placement residency programme. “It continues to grow in terms of student quality and strength,” says O’Reilly.
The Johann Cruyff Institute operates one of Europe’s biggest online sports MBA programmes and the course leader, Víctor Jordan, believes the benefits to the online degree make it a hugely valuable alternative to in-person learning.
Due to the way the course is treated by the Institute, distance students get “even better attention” from their professors than those on campus, because of the university’s commitment to respond to “every email, request or question within 24 hours,” says Jordan. “Even those on campus don’t have 24- hour attention!”
Back to school
One of the biggest drivers behind online learning has been the way it has allowed mid-career professionals – either from within the sport industry or outside it – to return to their education without disrupting thing careers.
“The students in the class tend to be in their 30s, 40s, 50s – they’re up-and-coming professionals, mid-career professionals, senior leaders in their organisations and they’re coming back to get better,” says O’Reilly.
Jordan says the same is true at the Johann Cruyff Institute, noting that “92 per cent of our online students are working, and more than 60 per cent work in the industry.” There are, he says, two kinds of industry professionals who enrol in online classes at the school. “People who have five or six years in the industry and need to upgrade their position, and we also have senior people, sometimes coming from working in the sports industry who need to come back to school and understand what is happening, because sometimes they are just focused in one area and not understanding what is happening in the global market.”
Lisa Delpy Neirotti, director of sport management programmes at George Washington University, concurs, explaining that students’ “increasing desire for flexibility” has been the driving force behind her own school establishing an online component – although it is married to a rigorous work placement programme. “We try to get them into work positions and internship positions and some of those are 40 hours a week, so they may not want to come to campus three or four days a week and it gives them the flexibility.”
While the sports management degree at GWU is not available exclusively online due to the constraints of the work-placement, the school does offer a full-time online MBA, which students can take with a sports focus, picking modules from the sport management course. “It’s about having different options for students so that if they’re not on campus or can’t get here physically, they can still study with us,” she explains.
Not all are convinced by the value in distance learning, however. Kevin Tallec Marston, academic projects manager at the International Centre for Sport Studies, says that he and his faculty “believe very strongly in face-to-face learning”, and currently have no plans to introduce an online-only or majority online course.
“The nature of this course is really that it’s building a community of people through a higher education degree, and doing that faceto-face is the only way,” Marston explains. “We think its key to have everyone together, working on developing their professional relationships as well as their knowledge of the industry.”
Jordan ultimately believes that online learning will form a part of all education in the future, even if the face-to-face component will remain invaluable. The trick is in getting the balance right and ensuring online learning is more than just students reading off a screen or watching a video, but actively engaging with their subject.
“I’m a 44-year-old guy, and in my generation we used to learn by reading and going to some place where a guy who knew more than us would give us information,” says Jordan. “Right now, we have the possibility to learn 24 hours a day, feeding students from different sources, and perhaps there are too many sources and we need more guidance in the way how we transfer this information into real projects, by getting students in work placements. This is a way where the student is not just listening but doing, and receiving feedback from a guy who is running a club, or who is managing a company.”
This article features in the 2018 SportBusiness Postgraduate Course Rankings report. Browse the sections of the report or download the full PDF version here.