Gies’ iMBA: Inside A Disruptive Online MBA Option

Brooke Elliott at Gies College

Associate Dean Brooke Elliott leads the online initiative at Gies College of Business

Byrne: When something isn’t measured, it’s not managed. And this is a really important point in all of management. The data helps the faculty member know whether he or she is connecting with the students and can also use that information to adjust the learning. And if a student isn’t attending or isn’t engaging with the archived recording of a live class, they need to be pinged.

Elliott: And we do ping them. So to your point, I mean, we are a very data-driven unit. We have two fully embedded data scientists within online programs. And we utilize our data to ensure that we deliver engaging sessions to be able to track student performance. We know, if a student hasn’t watched a video, we can ping them and say, ‘We noticed you haven’t completed this portion of the MOOC, you should complete it.’ Or, ‘We noticed that you haven’t attended any of the live sessions, can we help you? Are you struggling at work? If this is not a great semester for you, we can enroll you in a similar course or in the same course in the next eight-week period.’ So that flexibility allows us to check in on our students, to encourage them to continue to engage. And if there’s a reason they’re not engaging, we have the flexibility to allow them to delay the program a bit. And that’s one of the great things about our program from a flexibility perspective.

Byrne: In terms of your high engagement strategy, there are some online programs that offer no live Internet classes. And then there are programs like yours that have live classes every single week with a professor who’s engaging with the class. Can you just give us a sense for how much of the iMBA is live and how much is not?

Elliott: Each of our courses is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. And, whenever I talk about the MOOC based components, and that’s what’s hosted on Coursera, it’s an engaging part, but it’s a very small percentage of our overall course. I think about that portion as just a high-end digital textbook. So would you rather pick up a textbook and answer those knowledge questions at the end of chapter one? Or would you rather engage in a series of high definition movie production quality videos and learn in that way? Most of what happens, happens in those live sessions. And in terms of engagement, we also don’t require any on-campus visits. A lot of online programs have a required on-campus immersion, or it requires that you come to campus for a two-week period over the course of your degree. We do not require that, but we do provide opportunities. Every fall, we’re able to host an event where we invite all of our online students back to campus called the iConverge. Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to hold that event this year because of the pandemic. But we had anticipated over 1,000 students to converge on Champaign-Urbana. And we also host meetups in immersions all over the world. And so this is something that’s very popular. So we do provide those opportunities to engage in person and to meet the faculty and to meet the staff. It’s just not a requirement of our program.

Byrne: I also want to just go through a few other natural advantages to an online program. I think the number one advantage, frankly, is you don’t have to quit your job. And therefore you’re not losing income while you’re learning. That’s a big deal. I think the second thing is, as you pointed out before, what you learn in the classroom today, you can apply at work tomorrow. And that’s an important aspect of the education because you realize the immediate returns to your career and your effectiveness in the job, right?

Elliott: We hear stories all the time where students are able to take what they learned in class one week back to their job and contribute positively to their unit or to the organization. It just gives them a lot of confidence. We have a video actually of our students who talked about the exposure to machine learning. She never thought she would have the ability to build that competency or that skill. It allowed her to take on a new project at work that she would otherwise have not had. From a data perspective, we survey our students all the time. So, 95% of our students said that they are able to immediately take what they learned in the iMBA back to work. Some 53% receive a new job offer or a promotion during the program–not upon completion of the program, which is when most programs measure success, but during the program. So there is that immediate concrete return on investment.

Byrne: And yet another important learner advantage is one’s ability to replay the video of a class or lecture. Let’s say you attend a class, and you fail to completely understand a core concept or lesson.  You can replay the video and absorb it at an entirely different level. Sometimes, the second time around is the magic time.

Elliott: Actually, I was having a conversation with one of our students last week, and she was preparing for a final exam in one of our courses and she said, ‘I went back and watched all of the MOOC videos and all of the archive recorded live sessions. And that’s how she prepared for the final exam. She said, ‘I got so much more out of it the second time going through all that video. And you can even speed it up to one and a half or two times. So it can be a pretty efficient way to go through content.  That’s positively a benefit of an online program.

Byrne: And in good online programs, like iMBA, the faculty have weekly office hours. Unlike traditional office hours on campus where few if any students show up, it’s often the case that in an online program you get some very good discussions going on among the students who take advantage of those office hours.

Elliott: Positively. A faculty member just has the capacity to engage with so many more students and to respond to so many more questions in an online environment. Sometimes they’re just responding to a discussion more than having a conversation back and forth. Some choose to use Zoom technology, just like we do in our live classes so that they can engage and call on students and read whether they’re actually getting the material or whether there needs to be further explanation. But it does allow, I think, greater access from a faculty perspective. And our faculty love nothing more than to engage with our students. In our program, they’re our very best faculty. It’s our tenured faculty, our top specialized faculty. Access to faculty is something that does differentiate us.

And the live class sessions are a very intimate experience. Whenever the faculty member’s delivering, they’re blown up on the screen. I say it’s like the Peloton experience where an instructor is yelling at me to crank it up. The faculty members are very engaged and they do know the students and they call on them by name. That’s a hallmark of what you can do in online education. It really does provide equity because we bring the learning to the student wherever they are, and sometimes because of schedules, the best you can do is learn from the airport or attend a live session on a train. Our program provides that level of flexibility.

And then there are differences in learning styles. Some people learn better by watching videos; some people learn better by reading text. We provide all of that optionality because we want to make it accessible in that way as well.

Byrne: Let’s address some of the misgivings that some people have about online programs. The biggest one? ‘I’m not going to know my classmates. So when I graduate from the program, I won’t have that natural network of support and encouragement throughout my career. What do you say about that Brooke?

Elliott: That’s not true. Whenever I talk to students, typically the number one safe thing they say they value is the network that they build. In the fall, we’re going to have nearly 4,000 enrolled degree students. That is their network. They have access to a massive set of MBA alums from the University of Illinois as well. They learn the other students’ names and intimately know them right through live class sessions, through the group work, through these different events that some of them choose to attend. And it’s really cool whenever you see them come together. I see them engaged all the time in different virtual events that we have, in virtual happy hours. They’re best buddies, and they may have never actually touched one another physically, but they’re like long lost friends. They build deep friendships. And one really cool thing about our network is that it is global. If you’re pursuing a residential MBA, everyone converges in a single location over a two year period, typically.  Your experience is together in a given city. That’s not true of our students. They are literally working and living all over the world. And so you may be in a live session or in a group and you can be here in Champaign Urbana who is with an individual in the UAE. And that’s something that other networks just can’t bring.

Byrne: Brooke, is an online MBA program a viable option for the career switcher?

Elliott: I think just as much as any other MBA and perhaps, more in ours because of the network. I really think our program is suited for career switchers, You do have access to this amazing network: the average age is 37, average years of work experience is 12. That means that they are managers and executives of top companies all across the world. We have 739 current students and alums in the Fortune 500. So if you want access to that type of career switch and that type of opportunity, the network is there to help make it happen. We use Workplace, a Facebook app as our social media platform within the program. And there are opportunities every day that are shared.

The other thing that we’ve just done recently is we just hired a career strategist. We’re very committed to building out a robust career service approach to serving online students at scale. And sometimes they’re looking for a new opportunity within their current organization. Sometimes they want a career pivot. A lot of times though, it’s just that they’re looking for professional development opportunities like any MBA student would be seeking. But our ability to do that at scale will be critical for us to continue to serve the growing number of professionals that we have attracted.

Byrne: While the average years of work experience for an iMBA student is nearly 12, I know that there is one current student who had 43 years of experience and was 70 years old.

Elliott: In this cycle, there is an individual who was over 80 years old and said, ‘This is my last opportunity to pursue graduate business education.’ We provide accessibility that attracts individuals across all age brackets. And from a background perspective, I think that’s what’s most impressive. We have executives in the Fortune 100, 500 and 1000. We also have entrepreneurs who would have never stepped aside to pursue graduate business education.  We have farmers from Central Illinois, who would have never been able to afford to step away from what they do day-to-day. The program really brings together a rich set of individuals with a rich set of experiences. And I think it makes our network really unmatched.

Byrne: How has the program evolved since its original launch?

Elliott: About a year and a half ago, we launched a business analytics focus area. And that really came from demand from our students. And we’re getting ready to add a new kind of offering, which is a create your own focus area. Because we want to ensure that we are able to add courses that meet the demands of our current and prospective students. We’re going to add a course this spring in project management. Within the next 12 months, we’re going to launch a course around technology and disruption. And students will be able to take these electives and put together something that perhaps is more curated for them and can help them achieve their professional goals.

Byrne: And you have a skills academy. Can you describe what that is.

Elliott: Outside of the degree space, we want to serve our prospective and current students throughout their life long learning journey. So whenever they want to build a new skill, I want them to come back to Gies. And so we’ve started to build out a portfolio of offerings called the skills academy. It’s more bite-sized content that is very focused on specific skills with embedded application practice. It’s completely self-paced. You can learn a skill in as little as 30 minutes or as long as six hours. You walk away with a badge that you can on your LinkedIn profile to show that you have that skill. We shared it out with our current students found that they are now sharing it out with all of their direct reports.

Byrne: Before we wrap up, I want you to tell us about another landmark number you’re about to hit.

Elliott: So this year in August, we’re going to cross 1000 graduates from the iMBA program. So we will have 1000 alums of the Gies iMBA. And we’re just so proud of that fact. To cross 1000 in 2020 is a little bit unbelievable. And given our current trajectory with enrolled students and growing applications, that number is going to grow exponentially. Our network is rapidly expanding, and access to that network to new opportunities are really unbounded.

Byrne: Thank you, Brooke. It’s been a pleasure.


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