IE Attempts To Reinvent The Online MBA

A class at IE Business School

A class at IE Business School

It has been 15 years since IE Business School launched its first blended MBA program, combining virtual learning online with face-to-face sessions on its campus in Madrid, Spain. When the program debuted in 2001, it was the first online MBA in Europe. There were any number of European competitors who thought there was little chance the program could ever succeed.

But IE now boasts a portfolio of a half dozen blended master’s degrees, including MBA options with partners as diverse as the Singapore Management University and Brown University. Those blended programs have 2,901 alumni from all over the world.

Today, competitors are everywhere. Some 167 business schools now have online MBA programs ranked by U.S. News, which counts as many as 229 offerings in the U.S. alone. In the years since IE launched to a first skeptical audience, online learning has become widely accepted and vastly improved. The school has made good on its early start, however, earning the top ranking for online MBA programs by the Financial Times for the past three years in a row.


Martin Boehm of IE Business School

Martin Boehm of IE Business School

So it is not surprising that the school is now in the midst of a major overhaul of its offerings, hoping to leapfrog the competition again. The revamp will include some far-reaching changes, including hologram clone teachers, virtual reality, and facial recognition software to track how deeply engaged students are during a classroom session.

“We’re completely redesigning how we teach our blended programs,” says Martin Boehm, dean of programs at IE Business School and a marketing professor. “We discovered this opportunity early on, and we took some of the right decisions. But at the same time, we don’t want to become the Nokia in the market and get disrupted. Nokia taught us that this can happen faster than you can imagine. So we are pushing the limits of blended education.”

The result: a full-scale review of where the school is against its competitors, what new technology is now available to reinvent the model, and a plan to get IE clearer differentiation in the market. Boehm hopes to significantly increase online collaboration and online creativity by moving to a new platform and the latest technology.


“For us, it means providing a platform for students that allows for co-creation and creativity,” Boehm says. “Imagine you are going to a dinner party with 12 people. The great advantage is, you can walk around and interact with everyone at the party, but it is always bilateral. You can’t really communicate with 12 people at once. Technology can now facilitate many conversations. The richness and the result of those conversations is superior to anything we have seen in the physical classroom. That social learning piece is the first stage of the changes.”

IE is working closely with a Spanish startup, MashMe, on a new learning platform that facilitates video collaboration. “It will allow everyone to be at the same level and co-create. You can take brainstorming to a new level,” Boehm says. The school plans to implement the new platform next year, first in its blended Global MBA program, where 70% of the learning occurs online.

The 15-month Global MBA program, with a price tag of roughly $50,000 (€44.700), starts every September and April and features three weeks in Madrid, along with a one-week international immersion. The rest of the learning occurs online via lectures, simulations, games, and tutorials. The school’s mobile apps allow students to access content and its virtual campus from just about anywhere there is an Internet connection.


The second and third phases of the changes will focus more on what Boehm calls “immersion.” “We are going beyond what we see in the physical classroom, looking more from the faculty side. We are thinking of building a video lab that allows the faculty to interact with all the students at the same time, a little like HBx Live,” says Boehm, referring to Harvard Business School’s new video classroom (see Harvard Business School’s Classroom of the Future). “We hope to have this up and running on campus in September. By the end of the year, we would have two classrooms up.”

Dubbed “The Wow Project,” the new technology will also be used to better connect IE’s Madrid and Segovia campuses. “If the faculty member is in Madrid, we’ll have a hologram clone teaching in Segovia,” says Boehm, who believes that part of the new approach will debut in December.

IE expects to be the first business school in Europe to use Microsoft’s Hololens, described as the first fully self-contained, holographic computer, enabling users to interact with high-definition holograms. “No matter where the students actually are,” Bohm says, “we’ll beam them into the class so they are left and right of each other from countries all over the world. We’re also planning software that can read the faces of students and determine if they are engaged or falling asleep in the class, to let the faculty know if they are getting through to students or if the students are checking Facebook.”


After using the new tech in its Global MBA program, IE expects to spread the use of the new platform to its other blended offerings, including its Global Executive MBA program and its Global Master in Finance.

IE is pouring investment dollars into its blended programs at a time when the school believes the more traditional MBA market has become saturated. “The MBA market is mature,” believes Boehm. “The overall market seems to be shrinking based on GMAT data. We still think that with an attractive offering you can gain share. You just have to outwit and outsmart your competitors.”

To that end, Boehm says a redesign of IE’s MBA program to teach students to be more comfortable with ambiguity and risk taking, two elements he believes are central to an entrepreneurial mindset. “We are moving away from content to competencies, and we label this team-based learning. It’s about collaborative learning, practical hands-on learning and it focuses more on the process rather than the data or the inputs.”

The new MBA curriculum is now split 40% vs. 60% between core courses and electives, a change from the 80% devoted to core courses and only 20% to electives earlier. IE has also introduced more labs—mini-modules where students learn basics to bring into experiential learning projects. “It’s moving in the direction of executive education. These are small knowledge pills, if you wish. It’s very hands-on and very pragmatic. This is what students want and this is what recruiters want now. More applied learning allows our graduates to hit the ground running.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.