Brainstorming The Future: Boston University’s Disruptive $24K Online MBA

Questrom Dean Susan Fournier was in the job for little more than four months when the idea of a disruptive Online MBA was broached


Because the school’s partner, edX, a digital learning initiative created in 2012 by Harvard University and MIT, does not yet have a fully-featured online platform for degree-granting programs, Questrom also has to patch together its own platform with features that will facilitate and encourage peer-to-peer learning in the program. And the online program will also require the hiring of people with new job titles, including “student success specialists,” who will nudge along students when they fall behind assignments. The school will start with a trio of specialists but will likely have as many at six or seven at a steady state.

Meantime, people are working overtime, even into the wee hours of the night, to meet deadlines and move things along. Paul Carlile, senior associate dean for online learning, and JP Matychak, associate dean for student experience and services, estimate that they are now spending an additional 40 hours a week to get the online MBA launched on top of all their more typical duties. “There needs to be a startup mentality inside a large bureaucratic organization,” says Carlile, who concedes he often feels he is six months behind.

What Questrom is attempting to pull off is complicated by the fact that the school has chosen to effectively reinvent the way it teaches an MBA. Instead of taking its existing on-campus MBA and merely tossing it online, Questrom has chosen an entirely new approach. The online program will be taught in a half dozen 14-week modules over a two-year timeframe. The first three modules lay the foundation of the education, while the remaining three explore developing business opportunities. Each module ends with a capstone during which students apply what they have learned. There are no concentrations or specializations. Instead of set courses in such basics as finance, accounting, marketing and strategy, each module is being organized and taught in an integrated style by three professors from different disciplines.


The first module is called “Creating Value for Business and Society,” while the last is called “Fostering An Innovative Mindset (see table on all the modules below). That means there are hard choices over what will get included in each module. “This is end-user focused,” explains Carlile. “Adult learners want it more problem-focused instead of having faculty who do their own thing. This is an effort to meet them where they are and deliver what they want.”

“This is such a fundamental culture change,” acknowledges Dean Fournier, a marketing professor at Questrom who became dean in August of 2018. She was in her new job for little more than four months when edX founder and CEO Anand Agarwal asked if Questrom would be its partner on an online MBA degree in early January of 2019. The university had been in partnership with edX for six years, offering a number of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and in the last couple of years a pair of MicroMasters tin business, where students take five courses and earn a certificate.

While an online degree program was not an immediate priority when she became dean, it quickly gathered momentum when the university leadership lent its financial backing to the effort. “We were arguably late so we had to do something disruptive,” says Chrysanthos Dellarocas, associate provost for digital learning & innovation and a Questrom professor.

After all, there are already at least 335 online MBA programs in the U.S. alone. Many of them merely duplicate the formats of their residential MBAs and cost nearly as much as full-time options. The University of Illinois Gies College of Business came out with the first truly disruptive iMBA at a cost of $22,000 four years ago. Gies’ initial iMBA cohort was composed of just 114 students. The school now has more than 3,200 students in its online programs from 46 states.

Dellarocas views Questrom’s online MBA as something of a pilot that BU will build upon to create a new future for higher education. “We want to prepare BU for what is coming,” he says.


In early July, eight faculty went off on a week-long retreat with a facilitator in a shared space in Cambridge. On the third day of those sessions, the themes of the MBA program came up that at first led to five and then the six modules. “We had at least the skeleton of these things and then we fleshed them out over the next few weeks by getting more faculty engaged,” says JP Matychak.

When Fournier began championing the idea of a disruptive online program, she immediately met resistance from her faculty. “They said it’s going to cannibalize our existing programs,” she recalls. “They said the risk was high because we don’t know how to do this. They said it would destroy the brand. They said it would disenfranchise our current MBA students. Some wanted to do it in a subsidiary outside of the school.”

It wasn’t the idea of an online MBA program that worried the skeptics. It was the belief that Questrom had to launch an entirely new program at a cost that was a fraction of its existing MBA options. “Scale was a scary word for them,” says Carlile. “Small classrooms cater to a faculty-centric model. But when you get cohorts that will be as large as 500 highly experienced students, you have to give up traditional notions of control. Last spring and early summer, the silverbacks of the crowd said the lecture faculty will do the program. They would sit it out. But they started to realize that this wasn’t an experiment. It’s collision at the core. If we can pull this off, then we will reinvent the business. They couldn’t sit on the sidelines.”

Questrom’s Online MBA Curriculum Design
Module 1: Creating Value for Business & Society
Module 2: Managing Performance with Data
Module 3: Leading with Integrity
Module 4: Managing Risk
Module 5: Leveraging Global Opportunities
Module 6: Fostering a Innovative Mindset

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