Gies’ iMBA: Inside A Disruptive Online MBA Option

The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shifted physical classrooms into the virtual world during the spring of 2020 and has pretty much kept it there for the forthcoming fall. But what MBA and other business students are experiencing in remote instruction is not nearly the same as in a well-designed, more deeply engaging online degree program.

To explore those differences, Poets&Quants Founder John A. Byrne interviewed Brooke Elliott, the associate dean of online programs at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois. The fireside chat explores the deep investment in time that professors take to reimagine their courses for an online format and why the iMBA has seen explosive growth, going from zero to some 4,000 students in the program from 2016 to this fall. This August, the school will have graduated more than 1,000 students with an iMBA degree.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Elliott speaks about how the program has evolved, why it is growing so rapidly, and shares results of the school’s student satisfaction surveys.

An edited transcript of the interview follows:

John A. Byrne: To set the stage for our discussion, I just want to give people an overall outline of the iMBA program at Gies because when it was launched in 2016, we said it was one of the most disruptive innovations in graduate management education ever. The first big eyeopener is that the entire MBA had and still has a price tag of $22,000. It was also launched with Coursera, the very popular higher education provider of MOOCs. And it was a redesigned MBA program from the ground up. Gies professors literally took a blank sheet of paper and asked, ‘What should an online MBA program look like?’ And then went at it. Since then, student enrollment has climbed to reach a record 4,000 students this fall in the iMBA program, which clearly makes it the fastest growing MBA program on the planet. And that growth from zero to 4,000 in four years occured while applications to full-time MBA programs have declined and some schools have shut down their programs. So if you had to say what is the secret sauce to the program’s success, Brooke, what would it be?

Brooke Elliott at Gies College

Brooke Elliott leads the online initiative at Gies College of Business

Brooke Elliott: I really believe it’s all about access and affordability. When I think about what we do, and I talk about our mission, our mission is to provide accessible, affordable, high-quality business education to all who desire it and are committed to pursuing it. We’ve broken down the traditional barriers of access and affordability to high-quality business education, and amazing things happen when you remove those traditional barriers.

Byrne: That’s really true. And we should point out that the program was launched at a land grant public university, whose mission is to make higher education accessible to large numbers of people. So this fell right within the heart of the university’s mission. And because it was online, you had the opportunity to really reinvent what you were doing and the cost of it. At $22,000, it’s just remarkable value for money, particularly given what had to be a major investment by the school to launch it.

Elliott: We are a land grant institution and so it makes it really easy when it’s mission consistent. Creating the online MBA program required a large investment early on. When we launched the program in 2016, we started with only 114 degree-seeking students. But the investment started well before that, years leading up to that launch. We invested in building an eLearning team within the Gies College of Business, and at that time, it was almost unheard of. That’s typically a centralized resource that serves an entire campus. But because this program was designed to be online, we needed the expertise in house and it’s paid off huge for us. It allows us to continue to make investments, to continue to be innovative. We have the best eLearning team on the planet, that’s what I like to say. The expertise they bring in the breadth and depth of knowledge, that is our secret sauce. And then we continue to invest in building out that team and building out those resources.

Byrne: I should mention that you finished with more than 2,500 applicants for the August cohort, which will be your next arriving class, and your application is now immediately open for an October cohort, with the first application deadline being August 15th, right?

Elliott: Correct. And so if we look at applications to date for that August cohort, as you said it’s over 2,500. That’s a 35% year-over-year growth in applications which just is tremendous, in terms of continued demand for what we offer, in terms of affordable, flexible, online high-quality business education. We immediately opened applications for an October cohort, and we’ve never run an October cohort. But we made a decision in May, in the midst of the pandemic, that we wanted to provide opportunities for individuals to continue to pursue this type of education. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this environment. By increasing the number of intakes when a learner can start our program, we’re increasing access and flexibility. And we already have 160 applications for that October cohort (as of July 21).

Byrne: Those are impressive numbers. So as everyone knows, many business schools and universities all over the world are going largely to a hybrid format this fall. When the pandemic disrupted academic instruction in the spring, most schools had to immediately transition to remote learning. So there is some familiarity with what an online class might be. But I want to make the point that there is a tremendous difference between what we would call remote learning versus online education. Explain the difference, Brooke.

Elliott: So our program is online by design. And of course, we had to shift to remote instruction at the University of Illinois in the spring just like everyone else. Nonetheless, what we offer in a remote environment is not what we offer in our suite of online graduate degree programs. And when I talk about online by design, it means several things. As you mentioned, John, we started with a blank slate. And so from a curriculum perspective, we thought carefully about creating a program that served working professionals. The curriculum needed to be career curated, flexible and accessible. As an example, when we design a course to be delivered online, from the very beginning, the faculty member is paired with an instructional designer, and they spend hours and hours and hours together to design the course to be delivered online. And we start with learning outcomes. When we develop a Massive Open Online Course as part of each high engagement credit bearing course, it is delivered on the Coursera platform. For a four-week MOOC, which typically would be associated with a two-credit hour course, that takes somewhere between 300 and 350 hours of eLearning investment, and 60 to 80 hours of faculty investment. And so it is a laborous process. But it’s critical and that investment pays off in the quality of the online education that our students experience.

Byrne: That’s quite different than clicking the button to get on Zoom. Remote instruction largely means a professor is going to deliver the same course he or she has given many times before. The difference is that it is on Zoom, instead of a physical classroom. But that is not a well designed online course. I want to go back to one of the things you said that I think is really interesting. When a professor sits down with an instructional designer, the first thing they attack are what are the learning objectives of the course. So right away, a faculty member is forced to think about the student and what you want the student to learn in the course. And while it may seem surprising to many to think that that is not what happens in a traditional academic environment, it’s really true. What happens in traditional academic environment is that the professor teaches from his or her perspective, not the perspective of the student. In the online court development, you start with the student, not the professor.

Elliott: Yeah, exactly. And, for us in particular, we know the audience that we serve. Our students average age is 37 and their average years of work experience is 12. We know that they want to learn and they want to be able to immediately take those skills and apply them in their jobs the next day or the next week. They want an immediate return on investment. And so that’s reflected in the learning objectives that the faculty member and instructional designer start with in terms of course development. We run multiple live sessions across multiple time zones to provide flexibility and in each of our online courses there’s an embedded group component. So we have group case studies and we’ve developed an algorithm to form groups. It’s really difficult to form an ideal working group with individuals from 100 different countries across multiple time zones. But all of that is carefully thought out. And one other distinction between a course that’s online by design versus remote instruction has to do with the professor’s approach. I’ve taught residentially and typically I’m at least one to two class sessions ahead of my students. But in an online course, you don’t have that luxury. You make an investment upfront and everything is planned out from the very beginning so that you can anticipate the entire student experience. It makes for a richer environment and in particular a richer learning environment.

Byrne: It’s interesting that when most universities went to remote instruction in the spring, there was a high level of student dissatisfaction. Part of that could be attributable to the fact that those students were there for an on-campus experience and suddenly, the rug got pulled out from under you. Another part of it is you had a lot of faculty who were totally unaccustomed to teaching remotely. Suddenly, they were thrust into this new environment. And finally, it was because it was remote instruction, and it really wasn’t an online course. It’s worth mentioning here, the kind of satisfaction levels that your surveys have shown for iMBA students which are really off the charts.

Elliott: You’re exactly right. There were several reasons why people were unhappy with an their experience of remote instruction. Part of it is faculty driven. Faculty were put into a situation where they started to deliver a course that was designed to be delivered residentially and they had to immediately shift to a remote environment. The one surprising thing is now several of those faculty are reaching out to me and they want to deliver in the online environment. So for me, it’s a great problem to have. Faculty would prefer to deliver a course that’s designed to be online, as opposed to one that’s developed to be delivered residentially and then move to remote environment. And you’re exactly right in terms of satisfaction. We survey our students constantly. And so our courses tend to run eight weeks for credit. At our courses, we survey students every eight weeks so that we can constantly collect feedback. And we’re on a mission of continuous improvement. We have found that 98% of our students are either extremely or very satisfied with our program. From an engagement perspective, 99% of our students say that our courses are engaging, and 92% say they’re either very or extremely engaging. So from an engagement perspective, I would put those engagement stats up against any residential course. And the other one that I’ll point out is from a satisfaction perspective, 94% of our students say that they would highly recommend our program to someone else. A lot of our growth in applications and is based on alums spreading our story to others about accessibility, affordability and quality. And so they’re by far our greatest ambassadors.

Byrne: Brooke, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with your students on at least three different occasions now and they all think the program is under priced. They think they’re getting so much value out of this, that the school should actually charge more for it. You never hear that.

Elliott: Yeah, never. But I’ll also say I agree. One of the most rewarding things about this position is I get to go around the world and meet our students and have conversations. And every time I talk with one, the first question they tend to ask me is how can I give back. Because they feel that they’ve gotten so much out of the program, from a quality and affordability perspective. Prior to this role, I was head of accountancy. And when I would talk to our alums from the 1960s, they would tell me the same thing. They had come from small farm towns around Central Illinois, and the degree changed their lives and changed the trajectory of their family’s life. That’s what keeps me coming back to work every day.

Byrne: Besides you love accounting. I’ve never met anyone who loved accounting more than you. So I want to go back Brooke to one thing you said which really is important. You used the word engagement. When on-campus stduents saw their class schedules abruptly disrupted in the spring, one of the things that they struggled with, in fact, was engagement. It was hard for many to stay engaged when they were removed from a classroom, from their classmates and a faculty member, particularly for a long period of time. And one of the important things about designing an online course, is that there are lots of little tricks to keep students engaged and they are built into the learning model.

Elliott: Positively John. Typically, as humans, we’re very easily distracted. So engagement starts all the way from the development of the online course. The videos that are created for each module are strategically designed, running anywhere from two to seven minutes. We don’t just sit here and deliver them from the studio. We’re out in the world. Some videos are shot in our sports stadiums on campus. One of our faculty members resides in Utah, and so he’s all over the Utah landscape. And that’s just another engaging component that may or may not be related to the content, but it keeps students attentive. The types of assessments that we embed in the videos are another point of engagement. Sometimes it’s just a knowledge check. Sometimes it’s a mini-application to make you think about the content that you’ve learned and can apply. If you learn something over two to seven minutes and can immediately apply it, the experience gives students a desire to continue from a learning perspective. That’s in the base MOOC portion. And then in the high engagement portions of each of our course, we have strategically placed group breakouts. We have a running discussion board. We have polls throughout the courses that keep students engaged. And one thing I’ll say the difference between something that’s designed to be online versus remote or residential education is that students are very accountable. We have tools embedded in the software so we know when students attend a live session, and we know if they didn’t attend the live session. We know if they’ve downloaded the archived live session. We know how many times they participated in the discussion board. We know what the quality of their comments were on the discussion board. So, it’s really amped up in terms of your accountability. And the network holds you accountable. Whenever I talk to students, what they say about our program is, the network is massive and expansive. And you have individuals from a diverse set of backgrounds from all over the world. And those individuals expect you to be engaged, committed and contributing. And if you’re not, they will call you out. And that’s something I think that doesn’t happen in a residential environment and typically not in a remote environment, either.

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