Inside the Online MBA: Why An Online MBA? With Kelley Dean Idie Kesner & Program Chair Ramesh Venkataraman

Dean “Idie” Kesner of the Kelley School of Business

Byrne: And the faculty at Kelley, I understand, go out and find these challenges and write the cases just for the online students who come to campus.

Kesner:, In fact, John, I wrote four of these myself. I’m the dean and I wrote four of these cases myself. Two for our first in-residence and two, which are more international, for our second in-residence periods. So even the dean gets involved.

Venkataraman: Exactly. You not only get to work on the case, but you also have enough time to network and form your connections, which is an important part of any MBA program. And so during that week, we have specifically built in events where people are able to connect with each other, connect with people from the same industry and same cities.

Beyond that, every class has a live session every week, so it’s not that you just have a synchronized video that you watch and do assignments. But you are actually in class, live, using video conferencing technology. The faculty can put students in breakout rooms, you can make people get control of the screen and share their ideas. You can do a lot of things even beyond what you could actually sometimes maybe do in a traditional classroom. So we make sure that the experience is not a one-way street. It’s not just somebody lecturing to you. All the things that you would typically expect in an MBA program where you would learn from each other, learn from the faculty, we kind of do that.

Byrne: Plus the live classes are recorded and archived.

Venkataraman: Absolutely. So those that cannot attend can watch it later and learn from the class they missed.

Kesner: Or those who need a refresher on the content. You may want to watch it again.

Venkataraman: There are some classes, especially our more quantitative classes, that people are very happy to have recorded so they can go back and look at those principles. And then, of course, we have these optional global consulting trips and immersions in different countries, as well as immersions on a specific topic within local cities where they’re working for a Fortune 500, or trying to solve a problem for them in Chicago, New York, and Silicon Valley. We did one in Atlanta; we did one in Dallas, so it depends on where the client is. We try to rotate the topic and there’s one in Tampa on healthcare.

We have flexibility in all of these activities that are complementary to the core education, and people can choose to take as much or as little of them as they want. Then there are a few things that are required so that you actually get to both connect with the people and be on campus and work on the live case study and so on. Those are not easy things to pull off every year. Every year our faculty has to come up with four different cases with new companies and new clients willing to do that. But we have great faculty and great resources here at the Kelley School, and a great alumni network that allows us to get those things on the table.

Byrne: The other feature of the online program is student clubs and organizations. That whole extracurricular experience is a key part of a traditional MBA program but rarely occurs online.

Kesner: You highlighted something that’s unique. I’m on these accrediting teams as part of the accrediting body of AACSB, so I get to go around and visit other schools. It’s very unusual for an online program to have clubs and organizations for the participants in the program. So it’s a whole deeper level of networking and getting to know your school and getting to know your fellow students in the program.

Venkataraman: Absolutely. We have a student leadership association, which is our overall governing body, and the individual clubs in various areas where they bring in guest speakers for people who want to maybe switch out into a different industry. And we are continuing to invest in that. Not everybody is interested in fully leveraging every dimension of the clubs, but again, it’s optional. More and more, we are finding that as we invest more in it, as we create the right focus for these clubs and organizations, a larger portion of our student body wants to engage in them.

Also very interesting about online MBA programs, especially ours, is the diversity of the student body, in terms of the industries they come from, the regions of the country they come from, as well as the number of years of work experience they bring to class. We have students with the traditional three to five years of work experience and people who have 20 to 25 years. I always tell students, some of your peers can also be your mentors. And in classes, when they are formed in groups, they have more than a high likelihood of not having people from the same industry on their team.

So the learning from each other becomes even more pronounced, where you have somebody who is maybe in the strategy class who actually is a senior executive who can contribute to the class discussion from their experience, and others in the class who are a little bit earlier in their careers who can learn from that experience in addition to the professor. Every time I teach the class, sometimes I just let them take control and it’s a great learning for me as well.

Kesner: One of the advantages of having what I would call a mature, older program, is that we’ve learned a lot along the years. We’ve been able to tweak the program, advance the program, add features that we know students want, so we have this incredible diversity. Some of the newer programs haven’t had those experiences. They don’t know quite yet what pieces to add which will address their audience needs. Our wealth of experience has allowed us to really advance it and pull on these new features.

So I think the advice you are giving students in advance is very important. And that is, take a look at the program. Understand what the program is. Not every program is the same. Not every program gives you all of these features. If these features are important to you, that needs to be set as a high priority in your decision model. If they’re less important to you, obviously then you would weight them as less important.

Byrne: Let me mention another prominent feature of the program, coaching, which has become a very popular attribute of full-time MBA programs. Explain how you hook up people with career coaches, professional development coaches, and mentors in the online program.

Venkataraman: So, every student is assigned a career coach in our online MBA program. During the first Kelley Connect Week, we kick off a piece of that through exposure to our Career Services offerings. We replicate something that we have successfully done in our full-time program, which is called Me, Inc. We take a version of that and apply it to the online students, but we do a more focused version of that. And then it continues during their career or their tenure here in the school.

The students can choose to use as much or as little of the career coaching as they want. Usually, the students are using it when they realize at a certain point in time that they have a particular career objective they want to achieve.

Byrne: And we’re going to hear later from some students who can speak to how their coaches actually helped them negotiate better deals with their companies and guided them through transitions to different jobs with greater responsibility.

Venkataraman: Coaching is the linchpin because that’s the place where the student basically talks to the coach and says, ‘well this is what I want to achieve out of my MBA program.’ The coach has to work on a more personalized level with them to figure out where they want to go and who we can leverage from the Kelley School to get them there. Sometimes it might be a strong connection to an alumnus in a particular region or in a particular industry. Or they are simply trying to say, ‘well I’m in this company and I want to make a pitch for this job, how do you help me think about how do I do that.’ So we help with that dimension.

Kesner: Our online students have about a 29% increase in their average salary as they’re going through the program. And 64% of our students have received a promotion either while they’re going through the program, or within six months of graduation. So there’s evidence to indicate that they’re getting a lot out of this program and they’re leveraging it back in their organizations.

We have a new opportunity where we have people affiliated with our career services program who are acting in a sales capacity in various cities across the U.S., to try and facilitate new job opportunities for students in those locations. And those individuals work on behalf of all of our programs. So these really are ways that online students can benefit.

Byrne: So you’ve located these development people in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, and Bloomington for the entire Midwest.

So that’s the difference between a pure online MBA program, where you sit behind a computer and you have discussion boards and you watch videos; and one where you have coaching, where you have an active career development staff sourcing opportunities for you, where you have global immersions, where you have weekly live classes, where you have in-resident sessions that are a week in length on campus, where you have clubs and organizations.

Kesner: It’s the difference between someone who needs filler on their resume, or someone who really tries to develop their skills and advance themselves throughout their careers. If it’s just a filler on your resume, that’s one kind of program that you’re looking for. If it’s something far deeper, in terms of developing yourself, that’s a whole different kind of program.

Venkataraman: There’s actually one other aspect I was going to highlight, which is inherently something that happens in an online program. You learn hard work in virtual teams. If you look at the world these days, most companies have either teams that are dispersed around the world or around the country. Working in virtual teams is a necessary skill set. In our program, in every class, we actually have at least some group work. And they have to figure out how to work virtually, as a team, across time zones, across different constraints for work and family and figure out how to do it effectively. So a nice side benefit, if you will, is the fact that they come out as great experts in virtual teamwork and they are ready to hit the workplace where that is almost an expectation nowadays.