Despite a lingering stigma, the prevalence of online learning is increasing, and some local skeptics have changed their perceptions about the value of taking classes via computer.
Michael Owens, assistant dean of graduate programs at UTC's College of Business, said that he and some of his colleagues weren't sold on online degrees or had concerns about how an online program would work.
But after they learned more about online learning, they saw the value. And starting in January, the College of Business's MBA program will be available online.
"I think it's going away," Owens said of the stigma. "The proof is in the pudding."
Click here to apply or learn more about the program.
Applicants must take the GMAT and have three years of professional experience.
According to Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of the country's colleges and universities now offer online classes.
And one in four college graduates have taken a course online.
Of the schools that offer online courses, 58 percent offer degrees for which all the requirements can be completed online, also according to Pew surveys.
But only 29 percent of American adults surveyed said that the value of an online course is equal to traditional classroom learning.
UTC's online MBA
Owens said that officials started talking about an online MBA about two years ago. Dean of the business school Robert Dooley came from a college where there was a strong online program, Owens said.
Dooley started the conversation, and UTC officials formed a committee to study the possibility.
There is a 12-course curriculum, and the semesters are broken down into "structured" seven-week mini-terms, Owens said.
Students will use online tools to communicate with professors and fellow students and to work in teams, he said.
That may involve options such as chatting online, conference calls or Skyping.
The benefits of working toward an online MBA include flexibility and accessibility, he said.
UTC's traditional MBA program is designed for people who work full time, so classes start at 5:30 p.m.
Single parents and people who live in surrounding counties or work nontraditional work schedules might not be able to make it to the traditional classes, he said.
Although some of the criticism about online classes is that a computer can't replace real interaction with a professor, Owens said that some students may be more likely to engage in group discussions via chat.
"When you teach typical classes, 10 to 20 percent [of students] are active in discussions," he said. "The others are passive. Some are reluctant or shy. They will just listen. In the online environment, all barriers are gone."
Officials said that the online program can be completed in 16 to 24 months.
Like its traditional part-time and executive MBA programs, UTC’s professional MBA is fully accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
The online MBA program is a 12-course curriculum, which will be taught by current professors in the business school.
Fees are $2,100 per course for Tennessee residents and $2,232 per course for out-of-state residents.
UTC's MBA costs more than traditional courses.
That might not always be the case, but it's costly to start a new program, officials said.
"It costs more money to run the online program, especially when you're having to develop it," Owens said.
Al Clark, general manager of Management Recruiters of Chattanooga, said that—from an employer's perspective—someone who has an online MBA is more qualified than someone who doesn't have an MBA.
But someone who got a traditional MBA might have the edge over someone who got one online, he said.
It's comparable to the difference between someone who went to any local college versus someone who got one from Harvard, he said.
But the further away professionals get from the university experience, the less important the degree becomes, Clark said.
"After eight or 10 years, it's a lot more important what they have done in that job," he said.
In working with his recruiting agency, he hasn't encountered many businesspeople who don't want to hire people with online degrees except perhaps in the pharmaceutical industry, he said.
And like with traditional colleges, some people are going to be looking for accredited online degrees.
The student experience
Chattanooga resident Kristen Kozinski, 26, is working on her bachelor's degree in Web design and development, and she's getting it online from Full Sail University.
For her, the online option made sense because, when she enrolled, she had a 1-year-old child and was working part time.
"My income was still important and child care is too expensive, so it seemed like the best option," she said via email.
For her program, she takes one class a month for 27 months. She averages about 15 to 20 hours of classwork a week.
Her teachers are available via email and chat, and most offer meetings so students can ask questions or collaborate with other students, she also said.
She has assignments due every week, but the flexibility also allows her family time, she said.
And she can do her schoolwork while her son plays or eats dinner.
"The main benefit to doing my degree online is having the flexibility of doing schoolwork around my schedule," she said. "I work full time during the day, so I spend the majority of my nights and weekends doing school. Not many traditional on-campus degrees offer that kind of schedule."
But there can be drawbacks to working online, she said.
Kozinski said she's a very visual learner. Most of her teachers make videos to go with the lessons, but if they don't, understanding the material can be more difficult.
And if she has a question in the middle of her assignment, it can sometimes take a day to hear back, she said.
Getting an online degree also requires a great deal of self-discipline.
"In my experience, many people pursuing online degrees work full time," she said. "In that case, you have to learn how to budget your time. It doesn't take long to get behind. There is not much room for error when you only have one month per class. Each assignment is a large percent of my grade. Some will be 20 to 30 percent, so I can't slack off even for a couple days, or it could majorly affect my grade for the class."
Another local resident, Steve Bryan McKnelly, got his associate's in business administration online from Johnson County Community College.
He's also currently working on his bachelor's in business administration from Fort Hays State University.
He moved back to Chattanooga in 2012 and is currently a paralegal for a bankruptcy/Social Security disability attorney.
McKnelly said that taking the courses online allowed him to take the classes he wanted without driving 45 minutes one-way to get to school on a daily basis, he said.
And even though he had to work daily to keep up with the classes, doing them online allowed for more flexibility about which order he would tackle them, he said.
The online format also helped eliminate anxiety surrounding class participation, he said.
"I feel anxiety performing in front of others," he said via email. "Taking classes online allows me some separation from the other students. So I sat down and considered my options relative to that concern, and taking classes online was the only solution. My successes in obtaining my online degree, however, did lead me to returning to the actual classroom to receive my paralegal certificate from Johnson County Community College."
Sign up for our email list to get your morning news delivered directly to your inbox. All we need is your email address.