‘OFFICE HOURS IS LIKE A BIG ZOOM CHAT’
To Scagnoli and others on the team, that meant building a “high-engagement model.” The live weekly classes are one crucial element of that strategy. In Noel’s marketing class, there are two breakout assignments in which students are divided into teams to work together during the class and the chat stream is closely monitored so that Noel can acknowledge what individual students are contributing to a discussion or he can answer questions that pop up in the stream. The weekly office hour sessions via Zoom allow students to engage more deeply with their professors as well.
“Office hours are like a big Zoom chat,” says Jeff Lowenstein, who teaches the core Leading People in Teams course in the iMBA program along with an elective entitled Fostering Creative Thinking. “And the feel of the online class is really the same as teaching in a classroom.”
But there are also weekly updates from some of the professors who teach online that bring informality to their teaching. “They’ll write about everything from a new restaurant in town to a new theater production to create an emotional connection with students,” says Scagnoli. “ And student online groups are often named after buildings on campus to create a deeper connection with the school.”
‘COURSERA IS A STRATEGIC PARTNER AND NOT JUST A PLATFORM’
From the start, the program was launched in partnership with Coursera, the biggest distribution platform of MOOC courses from leading colleges and universities. That partnership, renewed in the spring of last year, has helped Gies make key decisions in its online initiative, though it also means that Coursera collects nearly half of the tuition revenue from the program, according to sources. “Coursera is a strategic partner and not just a platform,” says Brown. “They embedded a team here on campus when we were having some platform issues early on. We plan together, and we dream together. And they have the agility that a big university doesn’t have.”
Brown gives one example where faculty proposed a new online course and the school sought Coursera’s feedback on it based on the preferences of its 40 million online learners. “They told us that’s not going to be as valuable as three other things we could do,” says Brown. “They steered up away from things that would not have generated much excitement.”
Saiyed notes that more than five million Coursera users have been exposed to University of Illinois content. “It gives us access to a lot of information on what learners are looking for,” he adds. “We use it as a testing ground, and Coursera has capabilities for scale.”
‘WE TRULY ARE DEMOCRATIZING THE MBA’
“At its core, the real comparative advantage is how to do high quality, high-engagement learning at scale,” believes Brown. “We have now curated thousands of videos, and it’s a rich collection of business content. So we are now thinking of other ways to use that content for lifelong learning.”
The school’s associate dean for strategic innovation predicts still more competition and pricing pressure in the online space where there are now more than 300 online MBA programs in the U.S. alone. “Prices will decrease and everyone will push on more value-added services in online education. predicts Ron Watkins, who is in charge of strategic innovation at Gies [Connect Me] . “I can tell you out front that we cannibalized ourselves but you don’t want someone else to do that to you. We could raise the price but we are doing this for all the right reasons to provide low-cost education to the most people. We truly are democratizing the MBA.”
One thing is certain. Brown isn’t about to take his foot off the accelerator. He wants to leverage the university’s expertise in medicine, genomics, agriculture, and artificial intelligence. A healthcare specialization in the iMBA with the university’s med school is a likely forthcoming feature. “What I love about innovation and creativity is that it’s really hard to predict where it will go,” he says.