BU’s First Online MBA Cohort Twice The Size Of Initial Expectations

The Atrium at Boston University's Questrom School of Business

The atrium at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business

A RETHINK OF THE ENTIRE MBA CURRICULUM

“By this point,” adds Matychak, “we had hoped to have live welcome events in different parts of the world to build this community in person. When the world shuts down and travel shuts down that is gone. We had to pivot to virtual events. We are relying a lot more on social media, and students are engaged on their own in Zoom calls.”

Making the effort even more challenging was the need to rethink all the courses in an entirely newly designed MBA. 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.

Matychak says a “silver lining” of sorts was that the team’s early adoption of several technologies, including the social learning platform Yellowdig, allowed the university to short cut its process of moving to those platforms. BU will now use Yellowdig for freshman orientation. And the hurried shift to remote instruction for the school’s faculty made every professor quickly realize the major differences between remote instruction and a well-designed online program.

A CORE LESSON IN PUTTING THE ONLINE MBA TOGETHER: LESS IS MORE

JP Matychak, associate dean for student experience and services

JP Matychak, associate dean for strategic initiatives at Questrom

“We realized very quickly just how intentional you have to be about everything in an online curriculum when you design it from the ground up,” says Matychak. “Our faculty saw just how hard it was to put their materials online and think about how to teach people in different time zones all over the world. There has been a great appreciation from a wider breadth of the school in just how important the design of the program is.”

One core lesson: Less is more. “Faculty members have to think about what they want students to learn by a specific Saturday,” says Carlile. “You have to be very intentional about what you teach and how you teach it. So you have to be so much more intentional and deliberate and ask what do I want them to know. In the past, we filled out classes with stuff. People have a hard time going back and starting with what do I want my students to learn. You have to be more deliberate with scale and know-how to get the peer engagement going. You realize how much fluff is in your classrooms. Our whole industry has to get better at this. We charge a lot, and we don’t deliver a lot.”

In early July, the Questrom online team held a “co-creation” event with incoming students to both test out some of the technology and set expectations. Some 200 students showed up for the virtual session. “We wanted to begin to socialize them into the experience but also to create accountability,” explains Carlile. “We brought them together in randomly assigned groups of 36 to share their ideas with each other.”

‘ONCE YOU GO TO DIGITAL DELIVERY, YOUR ABILITY TO IMPROVE IS MUCH EASIER TO DO’

Each group of students explored one of four topics: 1) Balancing school with work and personal life, 2) Managing expectations in teams, 3) Developing our expectations of each other, and 4) Managing expectations in the ‘classroom.’

“This was an opportunity for them to agree with each other on what their norms would be and lay out expectations for each other and the program,” says Matychak. “Knowing you are going to have live sessions and team projects, how are you going to manage this with your personal life? Rather than tell them what to do, we provided the seed of what they can expect. We put the responsibility on them to be accountable to each other and to their teams. The students really responded well. They were incredibly pleased to see how effective we were in running a large interactive session. They liked working with their peers. It’s was incredibly refreshing to work with these students.”

While the program begins on Aug. 2, there is still much scrambling to be done. “We did work our asses off and we still are,” says Carlile, “but once you go digital delivery, your ability to improve the experience is much easier to do. We very much have a commitment to continuously improve. We’ve had a couple of extra turns of the crank that I prefer not to have had, but our faculty and the students are now part of this pioneer spirit.

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