Inside The Online MBA: Inside The Experience

If you decide to do your MBA online, what’s the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, week-to-week experience like in an online program?

Inside The Online MBA is sponsored by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business

Two current online MBA students in Indiana University’s Kelley Direct program and one of the school’s master teachers attempt to answer that question in a panel discussion with Poets&Quants Founder and Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne. Brooke Spenser, a manager in the corporate strategy department at Wal-Mart, and Tripp Holt, a technical business leader at Allegion, joined strategy professor Will Geoghegan for the conversation.

The Kelley program also consistently does well in rankings of online MBA options, tying for first place on the latest U.S. News & World Report list and third on Poets&Quants’ 2019 ranking of the best.

In this, the second of three Inside The Online MBA discussions, Spenser and Holt explain why they chose an online program rather than a more traditional residential MBA, how it has impacted their work-life balance, and what they are getting out of the experience.  In the first panel, Kelley School of Business Dean Idie Kesner and Kelley Direct Chair Ramesh Venkataraman explored the primary benefits of an online MBA. In the third and final conversation of our Inside The Online MBA series the head of Graduate Career Services at Kelley, Eric Johnson, and two students discuss the career outcomes of an online MBA.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

John A. Byrne: Before we go deeper into the actual experience of doing a degree program online, I’d like you to share why you chose to do the MBA online. Brooke, what circumstances led to your enrollment in Kelley Direct?

Brooke Spenser: For me, I knew I wanted to get an MBA for my career and for progression. I loved my current job and I felt it was an awesome development opportunity. I also have a boss and company that is supportive of me doing some part-time MBA work. So for me, it wasn’t worth sacrificing my progression on the job to go to a full-time program.

I started looking around at some of the part-time options in my geographic area of Oklahoma City, which at the time was really limited, so I said, ‘It’s gotta be online.” From there, I started looking at some of the top programs and decided Kelley was the choice for me.

Byrne: Tripp, how about you?

Tripp Holt: My story’s a little bit different than Brooke’s. I did my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in controls that mixed mechanical engineering with electronics and software. I had no desire to go back and get an MBA. I already had a master’s. Why would I want a second one? But I had a mentor at the time that I was talking to about opportunities at our firm. He really recommended that I think hard about it and I said, ‘Well, what is it about the MBA?’ He’s like, “Well, it’s everything you need to learn, everything that you can apply, and oh, by the way, everyone on my team has an MBA.” So that really concreted for me the idea that I needed to do it.

That said, I think there was a stigma associated with online MBAs, and I looked hard about whether I should quit and take a leave of absence for two years and do an Ivy League MBA. Costs were prohibitive for my situation. I have a wife and two children at home, and so I started looking at options where I could maintain my job. I love where I’m at. I love what we’re doing. I feel like our organization is growing, and we have a lot of potential so I wanted to stay which really left me with the option of either nights and weekend programs or doing it online. I really settled on the online route when I started thinking about all of the driving that it would take to get to and from a part-time program. With two kids at home, it would have meant leaving work at 5 p.m., getting to campus at 5:45 p.m., and maybe having class from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., until getting home at 9 p.m.

I worked with other people who have gone to Kelley, and they all have amazing stories. Really what drove the Kelley decision was looking at the rankings and looking at what other students were saying about other programs. Kelley just looked like the top-notch opportunity with the most flexibility.

Byrne: The program typically begins with an on-campus residency called Kelley Connect. Tell us about that experience.

Holt: It is amazing. They bring in some of the best lecturers, and they essentially start with a day and a half of lectures. Most of us didn’t have an undergraduate in business, and so teaching the basics of whatever it is that we were going to need for the case. Towards the end of day one and going into day two, they start introducing what the case was.

We started to immediately see how the lessons that we were being taught in the lectures applied to what we were being asked to do. I think that really set up the two-year experience.

Byrne: How closely did you get to know some of your classmates in that first week?

Holt: Some of the best relationships that I have had throughout the program were made in the first week and then again the second week. The other thing that has driven close friendships is having the same people in the same classes and you find who you work well with, and then as you take continual classes with them, you reach out early and you say, ‘Hey, let’s group up. We know we work well together.’ Having such a diverse student population, you’re really able to find people across different industries to work with.

Byrne: Brooke, what did your live case involve?

Spenser: The case was centered around a small restaurant here in Bloomington, and some of the challenges were that they wanted to expand. They wanted to offer more options to students, but they weren’t sure how to do it with their current space limitations, so we did a lot of work around making their operations efficient in the shop. My team recommended reducing the number of items on their menu so they could offer a quicker turnaround on order time and a delivery service on campus. We made a lot of recommendations around efficiencies. They gave us everything we would need to be a real consultant to them from financials to getting to spend time with the owners. They even let us in the shop to observe how the operations work behind the scenes.

Byrne: Will, what’s it like to teach in a virtual classroom for you as a faculty member?

Will Geoghagen: I love it. You can enable close connections even when it is online. For my classes, usually, I have a prerecorded element where I will lecture so that anything we do in a live context is meaningful and allows for the application and engagement of the topic for the students. Technology has really evolved over the last five or 10 years, and the platform we currently use, Zoom, allows me to use things like polls and breakout rooms to really allow the students to get to know each other and then to work and share insights. It’s been a hugely enjoyable experience for me. It’s a cohort that I love teaching to because they all come in with amazing experiences.

Byrne: You flip your classrooms, as you pointed out, so your lectures are videotaped in advance of the live class. Do you get into the strategic concepts there?

Geoghagen: Yeah, so in my strategic management class, each of 10 different units will have a series of prerecorded videos, usually bite-sized videos in a playlist, that are anything between three to five minutes long. You’ll watch a series of those videos, and then you will carry out an application task for your company. Brooke would’ve carried it out for Wal-Mart. There are two to three application case tasks after watching the video and reading the textbook, and then I will grade that and turn it around. Then in the live class, Brooke will get to share some of those insights on Wal-Mart and also will use a case study as the central platform for discussion.

Byrne: I’m often told by professors who have taught in a virtual classroom that it actually makes them a better teacher. That’s because they often have to connect what they teach directedly with their expected outcomes for the class. Is that true for you?

Geoghagen: A lot of work goes into setting up the class in advance, whether it’s trying to create discussion topics in breakout rooms or whether it’s trying to make it as interesting and as pedagogically diverse as possible to make sure that people like Tripp and Brooke have that close connection through the exploration of the topic at hand. I’m biased, but I would slightly agree with you that it is tougher to teach potentially in an online platform, but the rewards are greater when you start to see the payoffs.

Byrne: How difficult is it for a student to transition to a virtual setting?

Spenser: For me, it wasn’t too far of a stretch because Wal-Mart is a global business and we spend a lot of our time on video calls. We do a lot of presentations over video, so you have to be adept at that already. Taking classroom information and learning from the professor and having group discussions over video chat was not a stretch at all. I think it makes you purposeful in your communication. You can’t sit there and be distracted. You have to be present. You have to be typing in a chat box. You have to be speaking up when the discussion feels right for you, so I think it may make you more engaged, too, because you can’t slack off and just listen in the background.

Holt: I’ll definitely agree with all of that. Coming from the corporate world, we’re very versed in video conferencing.  One thing that Will actually does is tell students, ‘Do your reading, listen to your lectures, digest, and then when you come, we’re going to figure out how to work with your peers to apply this.’ If we relate it back to corporate America, it’s the brainstorming session. When you show up to get work done in a group, you need to be efficient and motivated, and I think that’s exactly what this learning platform allows.

Byrne: Describe for me one of your first courses. What topic did you explore, and how did it play out with the weekly live sessions?

Spenser: One of my first classes was your basic economics class. It was part of the core curriculum, and it’d been several years since I had it, so I was a little rusty on some of the concepts. We would meet for class once a week and the professor and everyone would dial in, and as Tripp said, he had given us some pre-work ahead of time, some assignments, some practice problems, and then during the live session, we would have a discussion. We would work through some problems together. You’d get a chance to interact with your classmates and your professor, and then offline, you could meet.

We had group projects that we did together, so you and your group would set up times to meet and work through some of the practice problems. We would meet on Zoom, just as a group of students, and then often we would have phone calls or text messages in between to get some questions answered and then deliver together the group work to the professor.


Candid perspectives from Kelley Direct students and Kelley School of Business officials




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