Online MBA Programs: What The Profs Think

Indiana Kelley’s Will Geoghegan & Trent Williams teach in the school’s KelleyDirect online program

Ask business school faculty who teach MBA students in traditional and virtual classrooms if they prefer one or the other and you get some interesting answers.

What’s it like to teach in an online MBA program? Is it as rewarding for a professor to work with students via the Internet versus a physical classroom? Is it more difficult to teach business in a virtual setting? How do you lead a case study discussion in an online class?

We recently posed these and many more challenging questions to two faculty members at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business—Trent Williams and Will Geoghegan—and got some surprising answers recently.

FROM THE DARK DAYS OF CHATROOMS & DISCUSSION BOARDS TO LIVE ONLINE CLASSES & IN-PERSON IMMERSIONS

Geoghegan, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship, has been teaching online courses for nearly a decade, starting in what he calls “the dark days of chatrooms and discussion boards.” Williams, an assistant professor also in management and entrepreneurship, is a relative newcomer to online academia, having recently completed his first year in the virtual clssroom.

In Indiana’s KelleyDirect online offering, they both teach J501 Developing Strategic Capabilities, the program’s core seven-week-long strategy course that provides the basic strategy frameworks employed by companies all over the world and employs cases on such popular companies as Tesla, Warby Parker, Spotify, Lego, Trader Joe’s, and Pixar.

The single biggest misperception about online teaching is that it’s largely about strolling into a recording studio, taping your lectures, pressing play and walking way. “I think some people assume you go and record your videos and then maybe you refresh them ten years later,” says Williams. “That assumption is wrong. We think about how we cn use video to communicate information that is best communicated in that format.

‘STUDENT DELIVERABLES ARE NOT GOING DOWN A BLACK HOLE OR BEING GRADED BY A TA’

“The second misperception is that there is no interaction with students,” he points out. “You send it off into the ether, and at the other end, students submit a report and you grade it. People ask me, ‘you just grade this stuff?’ No, we have interaction with our students. We learn their names. We talk to them via video conferences or telephone calls during office hours. The assumption that online teaching is stagnant is something we have tried to challenge.”

Adds Geoghegan: “When people talk about this being an easy gig, if you do an online class properly you have to put the time and effort in. If students are putting a huge amount of energy and commitment into the course, we need to step up. Their deliverables are not going down a black hole or being graded by a TA.”

But clearly there are differences in the approach a professor must take to teach a subject online. Many online MBA programs are typiclly composed of three parts: Synchronous classes that require students and professors to be online at the same time in live sessions. Asynchronous classes that are essentially pre-recorded videos. And in-person immersions that bring students together on either a campus or a different location, whether Silicon Valley or Shanghai.

300 VIDEOS, LIVE WEEKLY ONLINE CLASSES & FACULTY OFFICE HOURS

KelleyDirect, for example, boasts a library of nearly 300 videos, most of them five minutes in length. There also are live weekly online classes, faculty office hours, in-person Connect Weeks once a year on IU’s Bloomington campus, and global and domestic in-person immersions.

Overall, students take ten core courses in the online program, each with between 20 to 30 videos. “They are very carefully organized into playlists so that the concepts hang together,” explains Williams. “For corporate strategy, there are a few minutes of video to explain the content and then the second video would show two MBA students interacting on a practice case that the online students would have read with assigned questions. Then there would be a follow-up video, diving into the theory and frameworks. And then a video on how those frameworks can be applied to their own organizations. Each video has its own purpose.”

Adds Geoghegan, “We put anything that can be digested or consumed by the students in an asychronrous manner in those videos and then leave the live classes to be as engaging and productive as possible. The hope is that students will come to the live classes armed with the theoretical frameworks. We then use breakout groups and polling that allow us to recreate some of the interactions we would get in a live class.”

‘GOING BACK TO THE FUNDAMENTAL PURPOSE OF A COURSE’

In translating a more traditional class into an online format, the professors say they return to the basics. “We keep trying to go back to what is our fundamental purpose,” explains Williams. “What are we trying to accomplish and what is our learning objective? And then we try to build on that. In a traditional classroom, we might have a case discussion. One of the ways we replicate that in an online environment is to have groups working together to solve a problem. We create Google documents with frameworks so all students in groups of four to five people can interact with one another and have something to present after the conclusion of the session. At any time, the technology allows us to break into their sessions and provide instant feedback. In many ways, the product of these sessions ends up being superior to an in-class setting because we can all see the same screen and Google sheet at any particular moment.”

The classic case study, which is based on a reading that fuels a vigorous discussion that places students in the role of a decision maker, isn’t easily replicated online. That’s largely because it’s hard, if not impossible, to do a fast-paced live discussion with dozens of students online. “We had to take a completely different mindset toward a case,” acknowledges Williams. “If you ask an open question to 40 people on a videoconference and everyone starts talking that is not effective. So students access the case online and then we put fundamental questions in the syllabus for each of these cases. We try to link the case to the asynchronous material.

“We have gotten really creative about the ways we interact with students in the cases,” adds Williams. “One thing we’ve done is to break students into sub groups. Straight out of the gate, I introduce the case and then say, ‘I want us to tackle this issue first.’ It could be an overview but now I am hving this done in sub-groups as opposed to the whole class. And then I enter the breakout rooms and engage with the teams. I’ll ask them to present out their conclusions or I might summarize on a whiteboard on my iPad that I can share. I can ask them to give me feedback from their groups. You can take online polls early on, asking how many students would recommend the company pursue a specific direction.”

HOW A CASE ON TRADER JOE’S IS TAUGHT ONLINE

When Williams teaches the case on Trader Joe’s, he starts with an overview and then put students into four or five breakout groups. “I then ask them to carry out a value chain analysis,” he says. “Each student will have a tab on their Google doc of a nine-construct template. They are given eight to 10 minutes to do that and then I will ask one group to present. I’ll then ask them for exemplars of what Trader Joe’s has chosen not to do and engage with their breakout groups on tht. It is more difficult to manage and that is why we have the use of breakout rooms and Google docs. But once they are given a little bit of structure, students work well together.”

Teaching a course online has evolved as sure as technology that makes long distance learning more engaging than it used to be. “In the early days of online education,” says Williams, “the main mode of interaction was going to be chat rooms or exchanges of emails. I honestly have completely eliminated chats. This way it is all dynamic. We have them with their video links up. Students say this is really one of their only opportunities to actually dig through concepts with their classmates so it gives them a sense of community as well. The live sessions are actively integrating and working through the concepts and producing something at the end of the case but they are also geting to know one another.”

One of the unusual features of the KelleyDirect program is Connect Week when online students come to campus for a full week for seminars on communication and team building and are then given three to four days to work on a project that leads to a formal presentation in front of the executives who are featured in case studies written by Kelley faculty specifically for Connect Week. Each student group meets with pair of coaches every day to guide them through the process.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.