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

Ramesh Venkataraman, chair of Kelley Direct, the online MBA program at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business

Byrne: That’s a really good point. So what are the most common misperceptions about online MBAs?

Kesner; One of the misperceptions is that recruiters will think lesser of an online MBA versus whether it’s a part-time or a full-time MBA. I think that has been dispelled. Perhaps in the early years, that might have been an issue, but they’re online options are so popular today. There are so many schools that have entered the online market. There are so many people that have chosen that path and done well in their organizations that I think corporate recruiters today recognize that there are many ways to get an MBA and there can be value in all those ways, including online. So that would be one of the myths.

Venkataraman: The other misperception often is that learning in an online MBA program cannot be as good as what you would get face to face. But it depends upon how the online MBA is structured, who is teaching it, how they engage people in the classroom, and what other experiences you have around it. With technology becoming better and better, it’s very much possible to have similar learning outcomes as any other form of delivery. But it just has to depend upon who is teaching it and how well trained they are in delivering those outcomes.

As a faculty member, it actually is harder to teach online because I have to prep more. I have to actually value every single minute of my live session. And so all of us are more prepared to ensure that the learning outcomes of each of the live sessions are very strong. And then we also are then looking at investing a lot of time into what material we ask you to prepare for ahead of time before you come to the live session. Sometimes it leads to more positive learning outcomes.

Kesner: And for us, it’s the same faculty who teach in our full-time program.  And that’s very important. These are not hired faculty members from outside. It’s not a unique group that teaches in our online program. It’s the same faculty teaching across all of our programs.

Byrne: Some would-be students think they have to sacrifice relationships with classmates in an online MBA which can impact the network they acquire in the program. Is that, in fact, a sacrifice that has to be made if you choose an online option?

Kesner: Absolutely not. The students can interact with each other. They may be interacting sometimes virtually. Obviously, they interact when they’re here in-residence for those two weeks, or when they’re traveling and working on a live case project with their classmates. And that’s part of developing those networks and learning how to leverage those networks. I don’t find that you have to sacrifice anything in terms of building out a network. I will say that oftentimes I find our Kelley Direct online students are leveraging their existing networks perhaps even more effectively as they go back in the organization. We’re teaching them skills to leverage those networks even better.

Venkataraman: It also obviously depends upon the student. There are some who are truly focused on ensuring that they get a deeper network out of the program and so they tend to take advantage of a lot of the opportunities that we provide, including alumni events in cities. Sometimes, our Kelley Direct students are more prominent in many of these alumni events because they are not on campus that often, so they feel like that’s one of the ways for them to connect.

The other way we facilitate networking is something we call  “Global Connect Night.” This happens twice a year, on a particular date, in 35 cities last time, across the world where we basically ask students who are in that city to go to a restaurant or a pub, and we pay for part of their meal.  That’s another way they get to both meet with alums and current students who are in that city.

Byrne: We happen to be here at an opportune time because only last week, Kelley announced a major revision to the online MBA experience. Let’s talk about what you changed and why you changed it.

Venkataraman: If I were to boil it down to a few key points, the main thing we did is we enhanced the number of electives that would be available to students coming out of the MBA program. We almost doubled the number of electives. And we did that by focusing the core content into an integrated experience. So that’s actually something that at Kelley, we are very proud of. Many of our programs have an integrated core experience.

Byrne: But what does it mean to have an integrated core?

Venkataraman: So the idea behind an integrated core is to take a few topics together and draw upon the connections between those topics like finance, operations, and marketing. So that’s going to be a part of an integrated core block in our new curriculum. If you don’t have an integrated core, you’ll be taking those three courses separately, and you may not actually make the connections between those. We’re going to do it in three different blocks because it’s an online MBA and people don’t need to take six credit hours maximum per quarter. So we’re going to have three blocks of six credit hours each that give students the foundational core in a graded fashion. So that’s one big change.

And the second change is that we are going to allow you to take up to 27 hours of electives, which is about 50% of the MBA. It allows you to go deep if you want to, and you can get a major. We traditionally only had one major. We now have seven, including marketing, finance, operations, business analytics, supply chain management, strategic management, and IT management. You could always concentrate and take a lot of classes in one area, but it would not appear on your transcript. But the new major will appear on your transcript, so it will be more similar to other MBA experiences.

Byrne: And in each of these seven disciplines, you have at least 10 or more electives.

Kesner: So, it’s the electives, it’s the majors, it’s the integrated core that’s part of that, while still maintaining all of the great experiences with the residential weeks that we talked about, the immersion courses, the trips, and so forth.

Venkataraman: In fact, now that we have more electives, people don’t have to choose between an immersion or a deeper course in one area. Now they can do both. And so, I think people will have the opportunity to do both. We always have had career development courses in our program, but now with the additional electives that you have, you will actually be able to pick that up as well and say, ‘okay, I’m going to take a career development course, and then take a deeper dive into consulting.  And then I can take courses there as well in addition to subject matter area courses.’ We’re very excited about this.

Kesner: This is one of the benefits of going to a large online program. When you go to a large program, you have more choices. You have more electives that you can take, you can interact with more faculty members, you would network and interact with more students. If you join a small online program, I understand the intimacy of that and the value that may have, but the choices are going to be fewer. And you’re going to have to take what they’re giving you. Because at the end of the day, schools still have to operate from a cost-efficient standpoint. And so, when you’re running these large programs, you can still run these opportunities cost-effectively.

Byrne: Now here’s another change you made, and it’s not necessarily inconsequential for someone who has an undergraduate business degree. You’ve now allowed for two courses in business fundamentals to be waived. So if you’re an undergraduate business major, and you want your MBA, you can come into the program and pick up two more electives by waiving the two core classes in accounting and quant if your show your competency in those areas.

Venkataraman: I think this allows these students to gain deeper skillsets and knowledge that would go above and beyond what they learn in the undergrad. The electives that we will be teaching will be deeper and probably very different from what they took there. And the integrated core will also be different because they’ll be as much learning from both the content being taught differently, maybe more case-oriented, but also, as we talked about, learning from each other. The learning from each other is going to give you a different perspective on the same topics. And some of the topics, you actually gain a different perspective once you’ve worked for a few years. So that’s another dimension of why we wanted to do.

Byrne: In the future, you think online MBA programs are going to skew slightly younger than they do today. Right?

Venkataraman: Only time will tell, but if people are in an industry and a company that they already love and they are looking to enhance their capabilities and don’t want to slow down their progression, this will be an alternative. Some of those people might find the online MBA attractive. This will allow people to do is realize that there is a whole different level of knowledge and education they can get out of the MBA program that is complementary to what they may have learned out of their undergraduate business program and that will make this attractive from that perspective. That’s really my position on that.