A Look At The Flexible Future Of The MBA

Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa

Build it and they will come.

That Field of Dreams strategy was just what the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Business employed in creating its online MBA program a couple of years ago–and come they did, from an initial cohort of just 40 students in the fall of 2019 to an enrollment of more than 400 in just a few semesters.

In the past two years alone, the school has closed down its full-time residential MBA program, added the online MBA along with two new master’s programs in finance and business analytics, and today (Aug. 23) Tippie announced the merger of its part-time MBA programs with its online MBA. Few business schools have made so many significant changes in the last two years to better meet the needs of the marketplace and modernize its offerings.

Some schools have tip-toed their way into digital transitions, but Tippie is taking the big and bold approach with its merger. The school now intends to put every single graduate business course from the core curriculum to its entire elective offerings in its catalog online. Tippie already boasts 32 fully online MBA courses developed with the university’s instructional design team along with a portfolio of seven business analytics courses in its master’s program in that subject. By the spring semester of 2022, the school expects to have developed a total of 50 online courses with the goal of putting its entire portfolio online by spring of 2022.


That is most likely a plan that will become increasingly common in business education as students demand greater flexibility and convenience. Earlier this month, UC-Berkeley Haas announced an online option for its part-time evening MBA program (see Don’t Call It An Online MBA: The Facts Behind Berkeley’s New ‘Flew MBA’ Option.) For years, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management has offered its part-time MBA students online courses. At Tippie, the decision to merge its online MBA with the school’s part-time MBA programs in three different locations–Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and in the Quad Cities was entirely student-driven. Of the school’s 1,600 working professional students, more than 1,200 have been in face-to-face programs.

But the pandemic, which abruptly shifted all learning virtual for a time, led to a surprising conclusion. “When we moved everything to online because of COVID what we learned was that many of those students enjoyed the flexibility of an online option,” says Tippie Dean Amy Kristof-Brown. “Our survey showed that 70% of the face-to-face students said they wanted an online option. Only 10% said they now only want face-to-face classes. It is a dramatic shift. I think it is a sea change. Everybody now has had a taste of online. They’ve done it in meetings at their companies and in their graduate work. What we are hearing from them is that they want online to be an option. They are saying it loud and clear.”

Kristof-Brown expects the new flexibility to provide another boost to the growth of the school’s part-time MBA programs. With an online option for coursework, moreover, she expects more students will complete their degrees more quickly. “People won’t have to wait for an elective or a class that they need to graduate,” she notes. That was often an issue in teaching face-to-face in three different locations. “Now electives are offered every single semester not just once every three semesters. We are really trying to make it as easy as possible for students to get all the content they want while still having that interaction with faculty.”

Amy Kristof-Brown, dean of the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.


Part-time students, moreover, are not locked into a single format. “You can make these choices by course and by semester, taking all face-to-face or all online or any combination thereof,” says Kristof-Brown. The online course featured one live one-and-one-half-hour Internet class a week, plus pre-recorded lectures assigned to students as preparation for each class. The live classes are used for problem-solving and active learning. Students also will meet to work, usually weekly, on group presentations on their own time. “We found it to be incredibly useful for people who have travel commitments,” she says.

The dean says there were no naysayers on the faculty for the big change even though it is requiring a major relocation of faculty into online teaching. “Before COVID, there were faculty who said ‘My class can’t be taught online.’ After COVID, no one said that. We just listened to our students. We looked at the market research; we asked students what they wanted, and we observed the trends of how quickly the online courses would fill up. They would always be at maximum capacity. When you listen closely to your students, I don’t think you can make a mistake.”

The school will price its online courses to be equal in cost to its face-to-face courses: $31,500 for the 48-credit MBA with nine core courses and six electives, with class sizes limited to 50 or fewer students. “We price it exactly the same because it is the same faculty and the same content and in many cases the same amount of interaction with the faculty. Our costs don’t change. That makes it easy for students to choose where to take the course.”


Tippee intends to retain its face-to-face presence in each of its three markets for evening students. But expects many of the students who had taken only in-person classes to switch over. The coming fall, for example, only 25% of the face-to-face students have elected to take face-to-face classes. But the school is still admitting students so there’s not yet an exact count of how many will opt to go online for the fall semester. Nonetheless, Kristof-Brown predicts “a tremendous merging into the online courses. We are offering the same program. You can just sit in the classroom or at your computer,” says Kristof-Brown.

The dean says that its assessments of learning, done for accreditation renewals, find that student scores are exactly the same from face-to-face to online courses. “I have taught in both formats and I test the same content and the score ranges are exactly the same as I have had previously,” she says. One difference? Office hours. “I have a lot more students come during virtual hours than face-to-face. We see much higher attendance for the virtual office hours than we have ever seen.”

What do students sacrifice by taking a course online? “Where there is some potential for loss is in that socializing outside the class and in students clubs,” adds Kristof-Brown. “So we are starting those. We are doing online coffee chats. We are starting online alumni groups in different areas. We have different groups in teams too they can meet together. They all have dedicated advisors who promote activities in the community. We also have a lot of online career webinars. So we have stepped up figuring out that we can deliver more opportunities for them to get more outside of class interaction than ever before.”


Because high-quality interaction between both faculty and students is critical, the school is exploring ways to make the courses more immersive. Kristof-Brown says Tippie is in the process of creating an Extended Reality lab where faculty and staff can explore virtual and augmented reality in hopes that it can extend to their teaching and research and ways to use gamification in classes to increase the interactive experience. “We’re unlikely to be a program that ever plays to ‘scale’ but rather makes decisions to enhance the student experience by investing in engaging ways for faculty and students to interact,” says the dean.

The future of business education, believes Kristof-Brown, will be increasingly digital. Tippie is now requesting approval from the university’s Board of Regents to take its MS in Business Analytics–which has an enrollment of 300 working professionals–fully virtual. “Online is going to continue to expand,” she predicts. “Not surprisingly we are going to see credentialing at different levels. These smaller certificate programs will also be really important, and many of them are going to be online. I think there will be a balance because we didn’t see many students who wanted one or the other. The vast majority want to pick and choose as they go through the program. Students want flexibility, and they want the content they need now. As we expand the online options for certificate programs, we are going to see increased demand across the board. Lifetime learning now makes more sense than it ever did.”


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