Inside IE Business School’s Global Online MBA

Tony Hodson had been working as a consultant in Accenture’s Washington, D.C., office for nearly seven years when he decided to go for his MBA.

He didn’t want to quit the job he loved, however, or go heavily into debt to finance his education. And because his work experience largely dealt with the federal government, Hodson wanted the chance to join an international MBA program to gain more of a global mindset.

“I had to keep my day job because it was too good to give up,” he says. “And I was looking for a reputable school. I didn’t want to go the path of the University of Phoenix or a brand I didn’t recognize. I knew that Accenture’s strategy group hires from three European Schools: IE Business School in Spain, London Business School, and INSEAD (in France). So that was a seal of approval that made IE very attractive.”

As it turned out, IE Business School had the blended equivalent of an evening and weekend MBA program online. Since 2001, the highly ranked, Madrid-based school has granted master’s degrees in business to about 1,000 people. The 15-month program has four 32-student cohorts a year, three in English and one in Spanish. With the exception of two one-week residencies at its main campus in Madrid, the entire program is online. The cost: about $50,000 for an MBA.

David Bach, associate dean of MBA programs at IE, says admisson requirements are exactly the same as the full-time MBA program on campus. The average age of a student in the online program is 31, compared to 28 in IE’s campus program. The typical online student has six and one-half years of work experience, versus four and one-half for the campus MBA student. The total class features 34 nationalities, with 19% of the students from North America, 14% from Asia, 8% from Asia-Pacific, and 5% from the Middle East.

The school enters 64 students in two English cohorts in the fall, and then an English cohort in the spring along with another group in Spanish. No group is larger than 32 students “to insure that interaction is intimate and everyone gets a chance to engage,” says Bach. Hodson started in September of 2009, showing up on the Madrid campus to meet his fellow online classmates for a residential period of a week and then returned home to the states for the core of his MBA education.

Hodson was given a personal access code that allowed him to use the school’s virtual campus at any time. Once logged in, he had access to forums devoted to the two subject he would study at any one time. Students also have the use of private forums for group work and a virtual café, a space where all class members can gather. Every Saturday, (either from 11 to 14:30 Madrid time or 16:00 to 19:30) the two class sessions are held. Each one lasts 90 minutes and attendance is mandatory, allowing students to maintain weekly face-to-face contact with the professor and his classmates. Between Monday and Thursday, sessions take place on the discussion forums. Each student is limited to five contributions per discussion.

On Mondays, students often meet in teams of five to six to prepare cases in separate forums. On Tuesday mornings, the professor opens the forum to discuss a case and asks a question. Then students weigh in with responses. The professor typically connects again at noon or so and raises the next question, asking them to push harder on a point. Until Friday morning, the students work their way through a case until the professor draws it to some conclusion.

Unlike a live class where students compete for air time and every comment is on the fly, all the student perspectives tend to be more thoughtful and considered. “The professors have outlines for what they expect and three to five posts a week are considered normal,” says Hodson. “Almost all of the posts were of a high quality. It’s not the kind of thing where you can log in and in 10 or 15 minutes knock out a post. You have a lot of reading and thinking to do before you can put up a meaningful post. It’s really challenging. At the end of one week, we had about 150 posts from the class. And you can’t just read them; you have to digest them.”

All told, there were about 100 videoconferences and another 100 forums.

IE is largely a case study business school so over the 15 months, students will have engaged with some 150 cases in 20 courses, each running about six weeks long. Students give IE’s professors very good reviews. “The faculty was great,” raves Hodson. “They were focused on this entrepreneurial spirit. They were fun and engaging and experts in their field. There were no language barriers. We could tell the professors who had been with the online curriculum because there is definitely a different way of teaching an online class and almost all of them settled into that groove nicely.”

The quality of teaching is especially important in an online program because the technology, believes Bach, is secondary to the learning experience. “The key is the interaction,” he says. “So much of it is about the professors and their commitment and training to allow them to deliver the same quality. They come to it a little skeptical and then a large number really like it. It’s a little like my kids and vegetables. You have to try it once and if you don’t like it you don’t have to do it again. It’s the same thing with our faculty.” Surprisingly enough, Bach says that student satisfaction in IE’s online programs are actually higher than in the school’s face-to-face programs.

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