Editor’s note: ‘Atlanta Beat’ is a regular feature on Fridays in Local Tech Wire. Virginia Barkalow is a single mother with two small children at home and a full time job as a decision support manager for Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany. Not exactly the profile of someone with time to pursue a graduate business degree.

But thanks to an online masters in business administration degree program offered by a group of Georgia Universities, Barkalow, 41, is in the middle of a 30-credit program.

By now, most states have at least one online MBA program. In Georgia, there are several, including Brenau University and the Georgia WebMBA program offered by Georgia College & State University, Georgia Southern University, Kennesaw State University, State University of West Georgia and Valdosta State University.

For students, the online courses offer what the Internet has promised for years: convenience, flexibility and affordability.

“The WebMBA program gives me the flexibility to attend ‘class’ after the children are in bed at night or when they are engaged in other activities,” Barkalow said. “This flexibility allows me to better manage my commitments at work, school, church and home. It also saves commuting time (Valdosta State University is an hours’ drive), gasoline, and wear and tear on my car. Without the WebMBA, I would not be pursuing my MBA.”

The second group of students started in January. The third starts in the fall.

Streamlined process

The program is a slightly streamlined version of a traditional MBA program: 10 courses, no electives, 30 hours, five semesters. The schools in the program are accredited through the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

“We were looking for that middle to middle management person and we wanted to reach the entire state and do it in a way that has very little location requirement,” said Joe Bocchi, director of the Georgia WebMBA program. “They can do everything online from applying to taking the course. Orientation is the only exception.”

Students enrolled are required to attend an orientation session before the semester starts. At the session, students are grouped into teams and work to build relationships that will help bridge the distance once classes start. From there, the courses take advantage of Internet technology to try and create the feel of a classroom: discussion boards, live chat and e-mail.

Bocchi has conducted research on the students who have entered the program that offers a little insight into the typical student and his motivation.

Average age? 34. Most have at least 12 years of business experience and about 7 years in management. They spend an average of 9 hours per week on the road. Some 85 percent are employed full-time and half of them are reimbursed for their tuition costs, $1,050 per course.

Limited constraints

It was that need for freedom that inspried Darryl Paden to take the course. Paden is a project manager with IBM in Alpharetta. The online format meant that he didn’t have to change his working hours, or take away as much time from his friends and family.

“The online setting gives me the ability to be with my family and structure my school time around my family time,” Paden. “I am constrained only by assignment due dates and that was a big selling point for me.”

Although Paden had taken online courses at IBM and was familiar with using e-mail and chat rooms in a classroom setting, this was Barkalow’s first foray into cyber-learning. But the ability to self-motivate is a more important skill than familiarity with online learning, she said.

“It is an ideal situation for those who are able to manage multiple commitments and who are self-motivated,” Barkalow said. “It helps to be comfortable with PCs and Internet technology, although that can certainly be developed once classes have begun.”

Richard Jordan was attracted to the course for the chance to continue his education without having to give up his full-time job as an accountant. What he wanted was a course that was professionally accredited, affordable, and efficient and one that allows him to participate in the graduation ceremony at his home institution, Georgia College and State University.

What he found after taking classes for a semester was that he also liked the ability to sit at home at his own desk and participate in online class discussions. He also doesn’t the wasted hours per semester hunting for on-campus parking spots, and lugging several pounds of books from the parking lot to the classroom.

“I work an average of 55 hours a week and I needed something flexible to work around my schedule,” he said. “Having the peace and quiet of working on my graduate classes without having the distractions of an on-campus environment is a relief itself. The absence of peer influence that would otherwise have me at some college sponsored activity or off partying with friends increases my focus on my assignments.”