Lights, Camera, Action! Behind The Scenes Of UC-Davis’ Forthcoming Online MBA

Robert Yetman is heading the effort at UC-Davis to create an online MBA program


Besides, for just about all the faculty, online teaching was something entirely new. “The problem is being willing to engage with new technologies and being comfortable doing so,” says Brad Barber, a finance professor who also serves as associate dean. Barber acknowledges that faculty are trained to be critical, to see the flaws in any argument. So it is inevitable that tough questions arise, even when there is general approval. “I am in my 50s and there has been enormous support for going in this direction. Yet you still see people saying it will cheapen the degree or change the student experience. It’s true it is changing the student experience but it will not be worse. It will be different.”

Victor Stango, who teaches finance and economics at Davis and serves as academic director of the school’s existing full-time and part-time MBA programs, echoes that feeling. “Two years ago, I was in the category of being vehemently opposed to online education, partly for reactionary reasons,” concedes Stango. “But I’ve come around since then for two reasons. First, this won’t be completely online. It’s not a canned program that is pre-recorded. And second, the pedagogical tools have advanced so that I can do things I can’t do in a real classroom. It has the potential to be just as good and better in some ways. The other thing I’ve learned is that the way students learn has changed. I have gotten to the point where I am one of the old guys and we just need to recognize that the world has changed. The romantic notion of us scribbling away on a chalkboard may not be the best way to do it.”

His colleagues agree. “A lot has happened in the last ten years,” reasons Elsbach. “It used to be that online education was seen as a dumbed-down version. But now there are really high quality programs from top schools so the stigma associated with online programs has faded. And I don’t think it will cannibalize our regular programs because the students we’ll get can’t afford to take two years off of a job to go to a two-year I think we will reach a new audience.”


After a series of meetings to educate the faculty on the benefits of an online option, the group took its first vote in June on whether to pursue the idea. Surprisingly, it was unanimous. For Yetman, the vote represented an early victory but far more hurdles remained. Among other things, there is also a campus approval required for the program as well as one for the courses. And there is an off-campus review by the UC system involving external views. All told, the approvals can take in excess of a year’s worth of time and effort.

“The UC system is a bureaucratic behemoth,” concedes Yetman. “They want to be sure they are getting the highest quality. But when the UC system finally blesses something, you can have confidence it is pretty good.”

One early decision was whether to develop the program in-house or to seek an outside partner. With limited internal resources, the school leaned toward having a partner who could bring the best technology to the game. Yetman interviewed five or six external players in the online space. “What you look for there is trust,” he explains. “If a company promises something, can you trust that they will deliver?”


2U Inc., he says, passed the trust test. The publicly-traded online higher education provider had already built an impressive portfolio of online MBAs with a range of business schools, including UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. But it can take 60% of all the revenue from an online MBA program.

“I felt we developed that trust with 2U rather quickly,” adds Yetman. “I feel they reciprocated in the trust they have with us. They are high class, top notch. They know what they are doing. They constantly challenged me with their expertise. They have hit every one of their marks and have kept every promise they made. The 2U platform is rich with vehicles that allow students to connect with each other. Students don’t have to be in the same place to talk to each other. They can be anywhere and that can create a cohort.”

2U, moreover, would not only help lead the faculty through the grueling paces of putting their courses online, it also had the studio to do production quality video. The firm would also aggressively market the program, recruiting most of the applicants, even booking hotels and arranging food for immersion sessions. There’s 24-7 tech support for faculty and students. “They even hire a makeup artist to make someone like me look better in front of a camera,” says Yetman. “Sure, they take a cut and it’s not trivial but if you saw from the inside the work they put into that, they deserve every penny of it. Many other schools told us that.”


After clearing the inevitable administrative hurdles, the biggest task ultimately comes down to planning out the curriculum and redesigning the school’s MBA courses for the online world. Half the program will be asychronous where students sit at their computers, watch videos, perform assignments and engage in discussions. All of those sessions are being prepared by UC-Davis faculty. The other half of the program is composed of synchronous content where students are in a virtual room, visible to each other on squares of a computer screen, with a faculty member conducting the live class.

“When they have a question,” explains Yetman, “a little box lights up. If I want to form four groups out of the 16 people in a class, I can do that and give them ten minutes to work on a project. I can watch them in a virtual room. Ten minutes later, each team can do a presentation, all online. This is pretty cool.” The synchronous sessions will not always have a current professor running them so Davis will have to expand its adjunct faculty to accommodate all of them.

The biggest difference is how the same material will be taught. “They have you script your class in chunks of time,” says Barber. “The way students can interact online is through video lectures, readings, quizzes, exercises and discussion boards. There is a whole menu of ways to engage online, and there is research on how you maintain people’s attention in an online environment. One of the misnomers is that you do not tape your 90-minute lecture and post it online. You need to chunk material with clear objectives in five-to-ten minute segments on the video side because attention is lost after that time.”


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