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Virtual networking truly clicks at Indiana University, where students of the online MBA program collaborate and communicate across time zones and oceans, using breakneck technology and scheduling savvy. Hmmm … sounds a lot like global business today.

The graybeards running America’s most esteemed business schools spend countless years analyzing, dissecting, and replicating the workplace. They pen case studies, organize simulation exercises, and judge business-plan competitions, so that MBA candidates can learn to compete in a real-world setting. As they work to reproduce reality, however, the nation’s B-schools have become mired in a fantasy. Things just don’t work that way on the outside, professor.

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The fact is that few professionals enjoy the simple pleasures of a handshake, a reliable schedule, and a consistent home base anymore, let alone the luxury of working face-to-face in teams, as many B-schools demand. Thus, long-distance collaboration is more taxing, decentralized — and crucial — than ever.

Rich Magjuka, associate professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, saw the quickening pace of global work as an opportunity for his school. So in 1999, he introduced an online MBA program designed to foster collaboration within a mobile learning environment. At the outset, Magjuka — now chair of the Kelley Direct Online MBA Program — experimented with simply posting professors’ lectures, class syllabi, and chat rooms online. But he’s been working ever since to pair the collaboration and networking of a traditional B-school with the real-world constraints of distance, compressed workloads, and Little League games.

Last week, the Kelley School welcomed 120 new online MBA students from at least six countries who will compose various working cohorts — some collaborating on class projects across 10,000 miles and numerous international borders. One member of the incoming class will work from an American submarine, another from the deck of a U.S. destroyer.

After its in-person orientation in Indianapolis last week, the class of 2003 will not meet in the same place at the same time for an entire year — then perhaps never again. Here, seeing isn’t believing — learning is.

(Do) Talk in Class

The 15 students who composed Kelley’s first graduating e-class came together out of coincidence, convenience, and curiosity. Brian McConnell, 27, was admitted to his alma mater’s traditional in-residence MBA program shortly after he accepted a lucrative job offer at Harris Communications in Cincinnati. When McConnell called to decline the B-school admittance, Kelley’s admissions director suggested that he consider the school’s brand-new online program, which caters to working students. Skeptical at first, McConnell spoke with Magjuka at length before deciding to join the class of 2001.

“When you tell people that you’ve been earning your MBA online, they assume you’re enrolled in correspondence classes. But Kelley’s not like that at all,” says McConnell, who was promoted to regional sales manager one week after graduating from Kelley. “I was interacting with my classmates daily; I just wasn’t doing it face-to-face. And that’s really how the business world works today.”

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Indiana’s two-year online curriculum includes core classes, such as “Operations Management” and “Developing Strategic Capabilities,” as well as an “Integrative Capstone Course” that breaks students into groups that compete against each other in a business-simulation exercise. Initially, the school offered only lectures, course materials, and chat rooms to its inaugural online class. But by the end of their first year, McConnell says that his colleagues were using “streaming video, Internet telephony, and conference bridges” to collaborate on class work and to network casually with each other.

“At the outset, the biggest challenge Indiana faced was replicating the interactivity and the group work of the in-residence program for its online students,” McConnell says. “In the end, I think we attained a skill set that the in-residence graduates don’t have.”

Rubbing E-Elbows

Jim Slevin mastered more than Excel and Outlook Express during his stint with the Kelley online program. He learned to forge personal connections with colleagues a world away. An Englishman working at BAA in London, Slevin, 31, couldn’t find an MBA program in the UK that suited his hectic travel schedule and high academic standards.

Then Slevin heard from a colleague working at BAA in Indianapolis who had enrolled in a Kelley program and thought the school’s flexible online curriculum might suit Slevin’s needs. “I live and die off of email, so learning through technology didn’t intimidate me,” Slevin says. “Indiana’s online program is designed for independently minded people. There isn’t a lot of hand holding and career development, but there is a huge payback for time invested in the course work and the collaboration.”

Though it stretched across the Atlantic, Kelley’s first online class was hardly a global sampling of students. Fourteen of the fifteen were men, and only Slevin lived outside the United States. But with members scattered between Silicon Valley and New York, the class of 2001 still faced a formidable challenge when orchestrating conference calls. Slevin, for one, dialed up his classmates at 1 AM and 2 AM (GMT) on more than one occasion.

It’s worth noting that many early-morning and late-night conversations did not revolve around statistics problem sets and General Motors case studies. The graduates of 2001 — all of whom held full-time day jobs while enrolled in the online MBA program — also used Kelley’s communication tools to seek real-time answers to real-life business questions.

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“When the economy started to take a downturn, we were all required to share stories about what it meant to our companies and what we were personally going to do to fix related problems within our own work,” McConnell says. “I can think of two internal proposals that I made based on my teammates’ help.”

Close Encounters Still Matter

The solidarity demonstrated in Kelley’s online chats was not born out of thin air. Each August, all members of Indiana’s program meet for a weeklong orientation — a time to swap stories, throw back pints, and forge personal bonds. Turns out that good, old-fashioned relationship building can’t be totally replicated online.

“The residential weeks at the start of each academic year were absolutely critical,” Slevin says. “Oftentimes, electronic communication can be misconstrued or misinterpreted because humor or sarcasm doesn’t come across in text very well. Meeting each other eye-to-eye allowed us to put later conversations into context. Our online interaction would have fallen apart without that initial introduction in Indiana.”

McConnell says that one-on-one contact later helped him overcome his greatest challenge at Kelley: learning to accommodate his classmates’ outside commitments and work-life balance requirements. “We rescheduled a lot of conference calls because someone had to coach his son’s softball game or take his daughter to the dentist,” he says. “It would have been easy for me to become frustrated each time someone needed to watch a Little League game, rather than work on a collaborative project. But the experience actually taught me a great deal of tolerance.

“As a new manager at Harris, I now know that my team can accomplish all its goals and accommodate its members’ family needs at the same time with a little flexibility and patience. That’s been an important learning process for me.”

Now all that’s left is the reunion — a real, live graduation party scheduled for September in Indianapolis. “You can’t really celebrate properly online, can you?” Slevin asks. No, a virtual hangover simply won’t do.

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Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about Indiana University’s Kelley Direct Online MBA Program on the Web.