MBA Program Of The Year: Indiana University’s Kelley Direct Online MBA

Indiana University’s Kelley Direct online MBA has been named the MBA Program of the Year for 2020 by Poets&Quants

The class discussion is furiously fast-paced. The MBA students are debating how Levi’s, one of America’s most iconic brands, lost 43% of its market value as its marketshare plunged to 14% from nearly a third in just five years between 1996 and 2000.

Professor Rockney Walters questions to students are unrelenting. With more than 25 teaching awards to his credit, Walters has been teaching at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business for more than a quarter of a century. So his cold calls are especially penetrating.

“What do you think happened here?” he asks the class.

“Would you say they were obsessing over customers?”

“Twenty years later,” observes Walters in between the back-and-forth, “after Levis hit that stall and they still didn’t get out of it. So what does this tell you? What is the message here?

“What would have come before the losing part?” he asks.


If there is something surprising about the session, it’s that the 27 students in attendance are not in a single classroom. Instead, they are in 27 different rooms, homes and workplaces all over the world. They’re enrolled in Kelley Direct, the online MBA program at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

If you were to close your eyes and just listen, you would never have imagined that the class was being delivered live over the Internet. Every student is called by first name and given air time. Some respond via chat. Others just speak out. Guided by Walters constant yet gentle prodding, there is plenty of opportunity for deep discussion and engagement, whether in the full class or the breakout rooms.

For Kelley Direct students, it’s just another hour and 15 minutes of class. But the lively session also proves that an online MBA program can be every bit as transformative as one in-person, and it is also reflective of the school’s commitment to deliver an MBA experience that is second to none in every possible way.


For reinventing its long-standing online MBA program, and creating the flexibility and options more common to full-time residential programs, Poets&Quants is naming Indiana University’s Kelley Direct online option the MBA Program of the Year. The newest innovations make Kelley’s online offering the closest any student can possibly come to a full MBA experience, without the need to quit one’s job and be on campus for all the classes. No less crucial, Kelley Direct is at a highly affordable price for the full-featured program, far less than many rival programs that offer fewer options for long-distance students.

It is the first time that an online program has been named MBA Program of the Year by Poets&Quants. Kelley is just the fourth school to earn this now annual distinction. Last year, Washington University’s Olin School of Business was honored for its bold and radical revamp of the school’s full-time MBA experience. In years earlier, the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School won the honor for gaining STEM designation for its entire MBA program, the first to accomplish such a feat (see MBA Program Of The Year: Rochester’s New STEM Play). Simon’s lead has been followed by a bevy of other schools, including Carnegie Mellon and UC-Berkeley Haas. Cornell University’s Johnson School won our first MBA Program of the Year award for its highly innovative Cornell Tech MBA in New York City (see Program of the Year: Cornell Tech’s MBA).

Many online MBA programs feature canned video lectures with no live Internet classes. Some are taught by adjunct faculty and teaching assistants in classes that are not limited in size. The choice of electives or specialization is limited if they exist at all. Most often there are no in-residence sessions, no chance to visit campus to meet classmates and faculty face-to-face. Student clubs and organizations, a central feature of a full MBA experience, are not funded by the school. Global immersion trips are not an option. And while career support is often promised, it is seldom delivered in any meaningful way. If career coaching is available, it does not approach the kind of hand-holding that occurs in a full-time residential program.


Ramesh Venkataraman guided the overhaul of the program as chair of Kelley Direct

None of that is true with Kelley Direct. The core of the school’s differentiation is its newly updated curriculum that allows online students to customize the program to their own career aspirations. The school doubled the number of electives that students can take, 24 credit hours from a dozen before so that fully half the program is given over to student choice, an innovative format that allows MBA candidates to dive deep into any one of seven majors, from business analytics and digital technology management to finance and marketing. Each of those majors average ten elective courses, not just a slim handful. Kelley Direct also boasts a signature integrated core curriculum experience, similar to the innovative integrative core in its highly ranked full-time residential MBA.

All of the online courses boast live class sessions on a weekly basis taught by professors who teach in the school’s in-residence programs, a significant departure from many rival options in which faculty pre-record their lectures. Every live class averages just 30 students so engagement and interaction is high. And then there are the pair of required in-person experiences dubbed Kelley Connect Weeks on the Bloomington, Indiana, campus built into the beginning and end of the Kelley Direct Online MBA program. Faculty create case studies specifically for these sessions and teams of online students present before executives who are protagonists in those cases.

The school also adopts another standard feature of full-time MBA programs: immersive experiences. There are opportunities to consult with small businesses in another country, work on an assignment with a Fortune 500 company, or take a well-designed professional development course. Kelley even offers its online students the chance for global experiential projects outside the country, a true rarity for an online option.

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