Do undergraduates and MBAs differ online?: initial conclusions from the literature.

Author:Arbaugh, J.B.


To date, online learning research in business and management education generally assumes that degree program level does not affect effective online learning practice. However, the few studies that have examined both undergraduate and graduate business students have found differences in the learning outcomes of those groups. Because research samples tend to be exclusively either graduate or undergraduate students, researchers and practitioners of online business education are left to speculate regarding potential differences between these student populations. This article reviews the online business and management education literature and proposes differences between undergraduate and graduate business students and courses based on student and instructor characteristics, course design characteristics, technological characteristics, and preferences for and performance in courses delivered at least partially online, relative to classroom-based courses. Some of the primary conclusions from the review are that consideration of learning styles, student demographics, and perceptions of the course management system are more important in undergraduate online courses, and that ensuring effective participant interaction is a larger issue for instructors and course design in graduate online courses. The article concludes with preliminary recommendations for researchers, instructors, instructional designers, and degree program directors for developing and designing courses that are suited appropriately to these student populations.


e-learning, undergraduate students, MBAs


To suggest that undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in business and management education constitute different learning environments would not be news to most management educators. Student differences in age, maturity, self-discipline, and work experiences typically warrant different pedagogies and instructional styles in these settings for teachers who work with both undergraduate and MBA students (Barker & Stowers, 2005). However, although many professors are able to identify such differences anecdotally, reliable evidence for the effectiveness of differing approaches for these student populations generally is lacking. Given recent calls for the increased use of evidence-based approaches in management education (Klimoski, 2007; Rousseau & McCarthy, 2007; Rynes, 2007), such a state of affairs should be grounds for significant concern for management educators.

This lack of evidence on which to base instructional differences between these student populations is evident particularly for technology-mediated learning (TML) environments. Research to date suggests that there are degree program-level differences that influence learning outcomes in technology-mediated management education settings (Benbunan-Fich & Hiltz, 2002; Lemak, Shin, Reed, & Montgomery 2005). Although some conceptual models imply differences in content, delivery, and instructional roles in technology-mediated business and management education environments (e.g., Ivancevich, Gilbert, & Konopaske, 2009; Leidner & Jarvenpaa, 1995; Proserpio & Gioia, 2007; Rungtusanatham, Ellram, Siferd, & Salik, 2004), and some researchers have inferred that online education may be more for graduate than undergraduate students (e.g., Close, Dixit, & Malhotra, 2005; Zhao, Lei, Yan, Lai, & Tan, 2005), such differences are next to impossible to verify empirically because there are almost no studies in management education that examine undergraduate and graduate business students simultaneously. However, because of the explosive growth of the technology-mediated business and management education literature in the past decade (Arbaugh et al., 2009; Sitzmann, Kraiger, Stewart, & Wisher, 2006), there is an increasingly abundant pool of studies that use either undergraduate or graduate student samples. Therefore, it is possible to compare studies that focus on either of these student populations to propose ways that they are likely to differ. Such comparisons would lay groundwork that scholars can use to design studies to create evidence-based approaches for the design and conduct of TML environments appropriate for undergraduate and graduate business students, respectively.

This literature review compares findings of studies of undergraduate and graduate business students in TML environments. In doing so, we build on previous reviews of this literature by using research findings to help us frame specific research questions for future study (Arbaugh & Stelzer, 2003; Salas, Kosarzycki, Burke, Fiore, & Stone, 2002; Wan, Fang, & Neufeld, 2007). The focus of our review is on studies for which at least some of the interactions between participants in a course are conducted online using a dedicated course management system (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004; Martins & Kellermanns, 2004; Piccoli, Ahmad, & Ives, 2001). After a brief discussion of the protocol for selecting articles for the review, we review findings pertaining to participant characteristics and behaviors, course design, perceptions of technology, and course outcomes in purely online and blended learning environments, with particular emphasis on research within the past 10 years. From this review, we propose ways in which undergraduate and graduate business students are likely to differ in these learning environments, provide suggestions to instructors for differentiating content and delivery in these settings, and recommend directions for future research.

Literature Review Protocol

This article is developed from a literature review that focused on articles that examined virtual learning environments where the course content and participant interaction is conducted at least partially online. Therefore, studies that focus primarily on TML tools such as simulations and Web-based games were not included in the review. An initial comprehensive search for peer-reviewed articles pertaining to "on-line learning" in business courses that were published after January 1, 2002, was conducted between September 2006 and October 2009. Databases examined in the review included ABI/Inform, Business Full Text, Business Source Elite, and Lexis/Nexis Business. Particular terminology used in the search is provided in Table 1. To supplement this search, articles on technology-mediated business and management education published before this time period cited in Arbaugh and Stelzer's (2003) and Salas et al.'s (2002) reviews also were included in this review. Finally, the primary journals for each business discipline, as identified in the journals database recently published in Academy of Management Learning & Education, were examined dating back to 2000 (Whetten, 2008). This protocol identified 182 articles that examined online and/or blended learning in business and management education from January 2000 through April 2009.

Similarities and Differences in Course Participants and their Behaviors

One of the challenges of considering how MBAs and undergraduate business students and courses might differ is that almost no studies have samples that explicitly include representatives from both these populations (see Landry, Griffeth, & Hartman, 2006, for an exception). However, there are now enough studies of each of these populations available to identify some commonalities and differences between them.


Undergraduates. The research to date suggests that, relative to graduate students, the behaviors of undergraduate business students in online environments may be more peer driven than self-motivated (Baugher, Varanelli, & Weisbord, 2003; Benbunan-Fich & Hiltz, 2003; Hwang & Arbaugh, 2006; Martins & Kellermanns, 2004), in part because undergraduates may be less self-disciplined (D. N. Clark & Gibb, 2006). Other research of undergraduate business students suggests that personality and learning styles differences are important predictors of student success. Initial evidence also suggests that online environments may be friendlier to introverted undergraduates than to extroverts (Fornaciari & Matthews, 2000; Schniederjans & Kim, 2005). The literature also raises the need to consider learning styles as a primary element of designing undergraduate learning environments. It has been suggested that course content should be presented in a variety of formats and multiple types of assessments should be used to offset possible disconnects between learning styles and course organization and format for undergraduates (Granitz & Greene, 2003; May & Short, 2003).

Although the concept of tailoring instructional approaches to student learning styles is not new to management education or online learning (Armstrong, 2000; Hiltz & Shea, 2005; Riding & Sadler-Smith, 1992), research that directly examines the effects of learning styles in online business and management education is surprisingly limited. In one such study of a predominantly undergraduate sample in which business students were one fourth of the respondents, Eom, Wen, and Ashill (2006) found that self-motivation and learning style predicted delivery medium satisfaction, but only learning style predicted perceived learning. These concerns about discipline, motivation, and learning style have prompted some schools to provide screening and training for undergraduates before they are allowed to participate in online courses (Cheung & Kan, 2002; Parnell & Carraher, 2003; Schniederjans & Kim, 2005).

Another emerging area of research in online undergraduate management education examines gender effects. Several studies have found that women tend to perform better than men in technology-assisted courses and/or have more positive attitudes toward online learning at the undergraduate level (Cybinski & Selvanathan, 2005; Friday, Friday-Stroud, Green, & Hill, 2006; Silberg & Lennon, 2006; Simmering, Posey, & Piccoli, 2009). Hwang and Arbaugh (2006) found that men were much more likely to seek feedback by...

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