In fact, the handful of new graduates of the Illinois iMBA contacted by Poets&Quants had mostly positive feedback about the degree, with some minor quibbles thrown in for good measure. Brad Lindaas, who was recently hired to be president of 95 Percent Group, an education company in Lincolnshire, Illinois, says he appreciated the rigor of the coursework, which comes “directly from the MBA catalog” and is taught by the same professors. “It is clear that Illinois made it a priority that graduates of the iMBA learn the same skills as all MBA graduates,” Lindaas tells P&Q. He also loved the community, despite never meeting other members of his cohort. “Even though we have never met face to face, through video conference, online chatting, and project work I really felt I got to know some incredible colleagues. I stay in touch with them, even four months after our final project.
“If I would change something, I wish that all faculty would embrace the possibilities of online experiences more fully,” Lindaas adds. “Some faculty seemed to struggle translating brick-and-mortar syllabi and pedagogy into our new program. A key strength of the online program is the ease of collaboration afforded by the Internet, and I felt a few classes missed the opportunity to redesign a campus class to take advantage of that. I am sure that will evolve over time.”
Kara Anderson, a first-generation college grad whose post-MBA plans are to “continue to learn, continue to push myself, and continue to evolve,” doesn’t have any complaints about the program — but does offer advice. “I would say that (students) should be cautious. They should do their homework,” Anderson says. “And they should know that the iMBA is not in any way a shortcut around earning an MBA. The program is just as rigorous and challenging as the traditional MBA program at UIUC, and as a prospective student and now an alum, that was really important to me.
“I was very specific about not wanting a degree from a private, online-only school. I did not want a degree from a program that did not test my abilities and stretch my knowledge. The iMBA was the perfect fit.”
NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES: GOOD. CLASS SIZES: BAD, SAYS ONE GRAD
Christin Gomes, the marketing professional who may soon be starting her own business, points to another benefit of the iMBA program: networking.
“The program does a great job of hosting networking events in different cities globally, and students often organize meet-ups and study groups within their locale,” she says. “I have had the privilege of meeting and learning from so many smart, talented individuals in this program, and I’m glad to call so many of them friends. I might argue that this model has been more beneficial to my real- world experience working for a global organization maneuvering and collaborating with colleagues across regions and time zones.
“One of my biggest concerns about a distance program was not having the networking opportunities that traditional MBA students have in the classroom setting. The opportunities within the iMBA program have exceeded my expectations. I work and speak to my classmates daily through live sessions, social apps, and group projects. Professors are also readily available via class and designated virtual office hours.”
But with the iMBA’s success and growth have come drawbacks, Gomes adds. “If I could change anything about the program, it would be to make the cohorts slightly smaller,” she says. “As the program has grown, so have class sizes as well, and sometimes I miss the smaller feel that it had in the infancy of the program.”
A RANKING MISSTEP
The iMBA has had one big hiccup: a misunderstanding last year that resulted in the program being dropped — at the school’s request — from the U.S. News ranking of online programs after placing 29th in the nation. According to Raj Echambadi, former senior associate dean of strategic innovation at Illinois and currently dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, Illinois submitted requested data to U.S. News in October 2016, when the iMBA was less than a year old and therefore not qualified to be ranked. Nevertheless, to the surprise of school officials, U.S. News ranked it.
“We were seven or eight months old when we submitted the data,” Echambadi told Poets&Quants, “and we had incomplete data by the U.S. News parameters for inclusion in the ranking. We had only one-fourth of the data.” The school requested removal, received it, and remains unranked in the latest U.S. News ranking a year later. Nor was Illinois among the 25 online MBA programs ranked in Poets&Quants‘ inaugural list in February.
That will probably change with time. What is unlikely to change — for the better, at any rate — is what participants consider the biggest trouble area for the program. Indeed, Christin Gomes’ concern about the size of iMBA cohorts is not a voice in the wilderness. It was echoed half a year ago in the comments section of the Poets&Quants story about the ranking snafu published in February 2017, by a reader who said they enrolled in the iMBA in the fall of 2017. “DB” criticized the “chaotic” pace of growth in the program, saying in the first weeks of the fall semester the administration “is overwhelmed and cannot respond to student requests.”
“They do not provide students with a roster, so you don’t know who you are in the program with other than figuring it out through the social media sites, perhaps because they do not want you to know how large the program is,” DB wrote. “Also the ‘high engagement’ portion of the core classes through U of I (not Coursera) are way bigger than I had expected (and bigger than what admissions told me) — for example, there are 500 students in my current class. With less than a thousand in the program, I’m not sure how this can be. I think it’s because these classes include students who are not enrolled in the degree program — anyone can enroll. Hardly high engagement, it might as well be a Coursera MOOC.” He went on to critique the program’s use of the Blackboard online learning platform as “clunky.”
Responding to DB, another iMBA student, Roberto Martinez, agreed that the iMBA was expanding too quickly but added that “I have not seen any negative effects bleed into the quality of the program.” A member of the fall 2016 cohort, Martinez said Blackboard and lectures and discussions hosted on Zoom “always allowed for intellectual discussions and discourse,” adding that “I have yet to see a class with more than 150 students enrolled. Even then, the live sessions never have more than 70- 80 students at one time.”
Added another commenter, Karen Lubeck: “Like Roberto, I also share a very different perspective of the iMBA experience. When I started with the January 2017 cohort, certainly some trepidation existed around becoming a student again and leveraging the multiple technology tools that often come with a fully online program. Professionally, I work in higher education and very familiar with the challenges that new online programs face. However, with the iMBA, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, they are scaling, what program is not as the demand for online learning increases? However, the iMBA’s unique asynchronous and synchronous learning is tremendous for addressing multiple learning styles, speeds, and concept consumption. The live sessions are as interactive as the student wishes to make it. For those areas where the content was challenging, often I would join in office hours just to listen. The high engagement aspects never felt like a MOOC, certainly not the assignments.”
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