Chile Ahaghotu chose an online MBA program that is tailored for senior managers.

Local graduate schools have a message for potential students: When it comes to distance learning, a tailored program with a small student-to-faculty ratio offers the best education.

This stands in stark contrast to the massive open-to-all online courses — typically free — that have exploded in popularity recently. That’s exactly the distinction some universities want to make.

It’s a distinction students in the smaller programs are very aware of. “I do know about the open access programs being offered around the country. I’m not sure those kind of offerings have all the skin in the game there,” says Chile Ahaghotu, 49, a professor of urology at Howard University who is a student in the inaugural class of Howard’s online executive MBA course.

Howard and a growing number of schools have recently started, or plan to offer, custom online graduate degrees targeting specific demographics.

“There is a real hunger for high-quality online education,” says Paul Schiff Berman, vice provost for online education and academic innovation at George Washington University.

Howard’s online executive MBA is tailor-made for those who, like Ahaghotu, are in upper management and have at least seven years of professional experience. The curriculum includes financial accounting, marketing strategy and strategic communications.

In the past year George Washington has launched an online MBA program as well as an online masters of public health. The school also plans to launch online degrees specifically for military families and veterans coming out of service.

Marymount University offers an online course of study for professionals interested in going into Catholic-school administration.

And starting this May, American University is taking its masters of international relations to the web. Successful applicants will specialize in sustainable international development or global security and conflict resolution.

Administrators are selling this breed of distance learning as a cut above the rest. With a rigorous curriculum and a technology that enables the development of a real community (see below), nobody will be able to tune out, they say.

“It is intensive; it’s not an easier program” than the campus option, says Kim Wells, director of Howard’s online MBA and executive education programs. “You are going to have to really put the time in with the research.”

And in some cases, these smaller online classes can offer a bespoke learning environment that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional classroom.

“We are able to tailor the content based on individual students,” Berman says. “For the MBA, for example, if there is a student who has more background in basic statistics, they can move faster.”

Part of the appeal of these masters degrees, students and administrators say, is the close-knit community that emerges.

“You bond with your cohort, and we communicate almost constantly,” Ahaghotu says. “We do a lot of video conferencing.”

“What I have experienced is a new kind of relationship-building,” Ahaghotu says.

Other students feel the same.

“I still keep in touch with some of my classmates and run into them at conventions and workshops,” said Tom Opfer, 35, a vice principal at Paul VI Catholic High School, in Fairfax City, Virginia. Opfer graduated in 2006 from Marymount’s licensure program that specializes in Catholic school leadership. The degree qualifies graduates for Virginia endorsement of administration and supervision in pre-K through 12th grade.

Though they don’t have to sacrifice community, studying remotely also allows students to keep their full-time jobs.

“I’m at the stage of my life where a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom wouldn’t have fit into my schedule at all,” said Shaka Hislop, also a student in Howard’s online executive MBA program. Hislop grew up in Trinidad, currently lives outside of Boston, and used to play professional soccer in the English Premier League.

Now he’s an ESPN commentator with an erratic schedule that wouldn’t be compatible with a traditional education.

Allowing professionals to keep their jobs while advancing their education is key, Berman says.

Prospective students “want to be able to get an education as they continue progressing in their career,” Berman says. It’s “crazy to ask that person to sacrifice their current job in order to get those skills.”


A Social Classroom

Online education used to mean studying at home all alone in your underwear. But with improvements in technology, the gap between a traditional classroom and a virtual classroom is closing, education professionals say.

“When a student logs onto the platform, it looks similar to the Brady Bunch, they will see all of the other students with them,” says Donovan Fox, a spokesman for 2U, the company powering the technology platform behind American University’s new online Masters in International relations.

With the new technology, students can even “raise” their hand, Fox says. “It’s supposed to mimic the exact experience a student would feel if they were on campus.”

If a professor wants students to work in groups for a period during the class, social media features enable that to happen, Fox says.

It’s not just the software that creates a stronger sense of community, but what students do on their own time as well, says Kim Wells, director of executive education at Howard University.

Howard’s online learning classes use Blackboard as a platform, but students also connect through Google Hangouts, Wells says. Interacting through the technology “just becomes a part of the fiber of what you are doing,” he says.

This is not to say that technology is a perfect substitute for human interaction.

Shaka Hislop, a student in Howard University’s online executive MBA, says it would be helpful to have a professor at hand, especially when there is a difficult concept. ”I miss having a professor right there to go to,” he says. E.K.