Is Illinois’ ‘iMBA’ The Future Of B-School?


Kevin Harms, left, and Al Harms are members of the first Illinois iMBA cohort who sing its praises. Courtesy Perspectives magazine

Kevin Harms, left, and Al Harms are members of the first Illinois iMBA cohort who sing the program’s praises. Courtesy Perspectives magazine

A story in the summer issue of Perspectives, the Illinois College of Business magazine, illustrated the redefinition Echambadi talks about. The story profiled a father and son who joined the iMBA’s first cohort in January: retired Navy Admiral Al Harms and his eldest son Kevin, a Navy aviator for 20 years. Both are graduates of Illinois, both are married to graduates of Illinois, and both are life-long learners. Now both are seeking their MBA online.

Al Harms told the magazine that he always loved the challenges that being in the military offered. When he learned about the iMBA, the new challenge fascinated him, he said, even though learning online was unfamiliar to him. But since taking his first class in January, Al has grown to be more comfortable — and knowledgable.

“The iMBA program expands your capability to operate in today’s global business community,” Al told Perspectives. “The learning experience mimics today’s business environment because our cohort includes people from around the world. There is an extraordinary diversity of cultural and educational backgrounds that the group brings to the learning environment and the team projects. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to learn with and from such a diverse and talented group.”

Added Kevin Harms, who transitioned to the civilian workforce in 2012: “My previous educational endeavors had been primarily technical and professional military education. I look at the MBA as an opportunity to get a solid grounding in economics, finance, and marketing and as a way to round out my knowledge and skills so that I can make stronger contributions to my company and my community.

“Colleagues in the cohort and those teaching and administering the program are a very motivated group. It’s professionally rewarding to interact with people with various life experiences and who bring those different perspectives to the conversation.”


The Harmses are among the 270 students from 23 countries accepted so far into the Illinois iMBA, out of 1,200 applications from 45 countries. As Echambadi tells Poets&Quants, the program’s “stackability” and partially free content have opened the world of business school to the wider world of those who may never have been exposed to it.

“Truly what we have done is create a global classroom, and one part of that is the 23 countries,” Echambadi says. “But one other important part is that, by definition, we know that MBA students are ‘birds of a feather that flock together.’ But through the Coursera platform you’re going have an executive from New York integrating with an entrepreneur who’s sitting in Bangladesh and who is not an MBA student. So that’s part of our appeal — not only is it a global classroom in terms of 23 countries, it’s also a global classroom in a different way because we are not fenced off from the world — we have integrated it with the larger world, if you will. And that is what is shown in the numbers.”

Also shown in the numbers — especially the nearly 1 million people who have explored the Illinois iMBA in some capacity — is that the program’s “basic content” is available to all. And besides a great deal of goodwill, a real benefit arose from that offering.

“We realized we have a fundamental role as a state university,” Echambadi says. “Not a lot of universities can do this. We said, ‘We are in the business of education. Our job is to educate people. Of course have to worry about revenue, but that shouldn’t be the driving force.’ So we decided that part of the content we are going to give away for free — and this is what we call the basic content — so that people can see it, assimilate it, and become productive workers the next day. And they don’t have to come back to the University of Illinois or Coursera.

They don’t have to, but the feeling is, they often will. “We realized if we provide 18 or 20 courses online and students can take all these courses online, the free version on the Coursera part, then there is a very natural progression for them,” Echambadi says. “If they want to have knowledge for knowledge’s sake, that’s fine, but the more important part for us was our presence in the larger world, our ability to touch people and enhance societies around the world.”


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