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One B-School’s Path From Scratch To Online Learning

William & Mary’s Mason School already has an online MBA and one specialized master’s online but plans much more. Photo courtesy of Mason School

From the get-go, buy-in has been essential to the growth of online degree and certificate offerings at William & Mary’s Mason School of Business.

“We talked quite a bit about how far of an arm do you want from the business school,” Mason’s Associate Dean and Executive Director for Online Programs, Pam Suzadail recalls about launching its online MBA five years ago this fall.

“Like how integrated do you want to be and how far of an arm you want,” Suzadail continues. “The further the arm is away, the easier it is to go out and hire the people you want to hire. When you’re trying to integrate something into the business school, the buy-in process is much more important.”

Not only would it be the first online degree program offered at the Mason School, it would be the first at the entire College of William & Mary, a school that was more undergraduate-oriented rather than graduate-oriented. “It was actually the first new program in 15 years on this campus,” Suzadail points out.

ENTERING AN INCREASINGLY CROWDED ONLINE MBA SPACE

Over the past few years, the online MBA space has become increasingly more crowded. At the time the Mason  School first announced the beginning of its online MBA program in April of 2015, both USC’s Marshall School of Business and American University’s Kogod School of Business announced online MBA programs in the same month. Suzadail was hired by the Mason School from Syracuse University where she had spent nearly 14 years, first as a program coordinator and eventually the Associate Director of Graduate Distance Learning.

Since the launch of the online MBA in 2015, Mason has also launched an online Masters in Business Analytics and is set to launch a brand new online Masters in Marketing this fall.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

As an increasing number of universities consider distance learning amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), many of those universities will basically be weighing what it would be like to launch an online program from scratch. William & Mary did just that when it plucked Suzadail from Syracuse. Two of the most pressing challenges, Suzadail says, were the fact the university didn’t have an infrastructure or culture of serving distance students. It was also a heavily-undergraduate school, Suzadail points out and William & Mary had “systems in place that were really designed to serve undergraduate students,” she says.

As a result, “there were a lot of infrastructure and calendar challenges,” Suzadail recalls, including courses on a 15-week schedule. For both the online MBA and later the business analytics degree, condensing the schedule in half from 15 weeks to seven-and-a-half were necessary to serve online students.

SOON, 50% OF MASON SCHOOL FACULTY WILL TEACH ONLINE AND RESIDENTIAL

But when it came to altering and evolving the infrastructure and calendar roadblocks, Suzadail says William & Mary and the Mason School had a few key things going for it. First, it had the money, thanks to a $10 million fundraising campaign led by Mason School Dean Larry Pulley. That allowed the Mason School to move quickly and hire Chicago-based Everspring Partners to run the program. “With how competitive this space is, the kind of investment money you need to really make a mark in this space, we really felt that having a partner was the best step forward for us,” Suzadail says.

Next, Suzadail says, was faculty buy-in.

“For the online MBA, the faculty here really took a different approach,” Suzadail says. “They didn’t take the residential MBA and just put it online. They really focused on looking at best practices in the online space. They looked at the market and really tried to customize what we were doing in the residential space — but something really unique to deliver online.”

As of now, 32% of Mason School faculty teach online, according to Suzadail. Over the next two years, Mason will roll out two more online masters programs and when both of those are up and running, Suzadail says, about 50% of Mason School faculty will be teaching residential and online. “It’s been refreshing to have that buy-in already there,” Suzadail says of the faculty support.

Lastly, Suzadail says a key to William & Mary’s successful online rollout has been sticking with the school’s unique culture. “They were thinking about it the right way,” Suzadail says. “It wasn’t about revenue. They were really thinking about how to make this uniquely William and Mary.”

RESPONDING TO THE ‘LOWER-VALUE’ DISRUPTORS 

But an increasingly crowded online MBA and online learning market, in general, continue to keep Suzadail and the distance learning team at William & Mary considering and planning future steps and programs. Additions into the market like Boston University’s $29,000 online MBA and the University of Illinois’ $22,000 online MBA are concerning to Suzadail for at least two reasons. First, “big brands are going to be able to attract more students,” she says. Not just Boston University and the University of Illinois, but other major schools like the University of Michigan and University of Minnesota have both recently entered the online MBA space.

Plus, the MBA degree — and its value — are constantly being questioned. “The value of the MBA is being questioned every day,” Suzadail points out. “Those things are concerning. At $29,000, it’s not viable for our program to do that. There are the higher-priced programs and then these lower-value programs. Where does William & Mary fit into all of that?”

What’s more, Suzadail says, the marketing and outreach among online learning programs at business schools has gotten more sophisticated and expensive. “It’s hard to keep up with it. It’s super hard to keep up with it,” Suzadail says. “When I first started, it used to be, you just had to educate people that you had this option. Now, it’s so hyper-competitive.”

DIVERSIFYING THE PORTFOLIO

William & Mary’s answer?

“We’re diversifying the portfolio,” Suzadail says. Part of that includes the online masters in marketing set to hold its first courses this fall. And there are a couple more programs “in the popper,” Suzadail mentions. The Mason School is also looking into certificate programs that will spin out of its online master’s options.

DON’T MISS: PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR TEACHING ONLINE, FROM A B-SCHOOL PROFESSOR or A PELOTON CHAT WITH THE DEAN OF AN ONLINE MBA DISRUPTOR