Scaling Online Learning: A Case Study In Innovation, Tech & People

A Gies professor teaches in a live online class in one of the school’s six studios.

At a recent staff retreat at the Gies College of Business, Brooke Elliott was asked to pick a meme that best describes her current status. She chose two stick figures careening toward the sun in a carton under the words: “Don’t worry. We will figure it out.”

For Elliott, the associate dean in charge of online learning at Gies, that pretty much describes the unprecedented growth in online learning at the University of Illinois’ business school. From an initial cohort of 116 students in Gies’ long-distance iMBA six years ago, there are now 4,608 students enrolled for the school’s disruptively priced $22,500 online MBA. Another online degree option. Gies’ $11,000 master’s in management, boasts some 690 students, even though it was launched only one year ago. It is the most successful launch of a graduate program ever on the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champagne campus.

Much of the growth has occurred since Elliott, then head of Gies accounting faculty, took over online learning in February of 2020 when the full force of a pandemic began to hit. During the 2020 iMBA intake, 3,280 applicants poured in from all over the world as Gies processed a record 1,577 new Online MBA students.

The iMBA program alone went to 4,388 students from some 2,600. “The growth has just been tremendous through the pandemic,” says Elliott. “Of course, we were building for growth but not that kind of growth. We intended to be where we are now two academic years forward. So we jumped three years.”

EXPLOSIVE GROWTH HAS BROUGHT MAJOR SCALING CHALLENGES

That kind of explosive growth poses major challenges that range from the infrastructure designed to admit students, and engage them, to the faculty and staff needed to deliver a high quality program online. In the midst of a pandemic, when most universities were cutting budgets or holding the line on all expenses, Gies’ online initiative required new significant investment.

The overriding challenge? To sustain the quality of online learning while nearly doubling in size in roughly 18 months. When asked how she did it, Elliott laughs: “All of my teams work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Something of a workaholic herself, she admits to never having worked so hard in her life. “I work most of the hours,” she says flatly. “I am always thinking about it. I am a worker. I have a working mentality. I just like to work.”

But successfully scaling the online degree programs at Gies has demanded not only more of her but the addition of vast numbers of faculty and staff, major innovations in online engagement and assessment, and a slew of new partnerships with ed tech companies that are pioneering breakthrough technologies to fulfill Gies goal of Democratizing higher education.

WORKING MORE LIKE A TECH STARTUP THAN A SCHOOL IN A BIG PUBLIC UNIVERSITY

As Associate Dean in charge of online learning at Gies, Brooke Elliott is leading the charge for the democratization of higher education

How Gies has scaled is a case study in the impossible, particularly in academic circles. Elliott and her colleagues work more like professionals in a tech startup than a business school in a big public university. “Our teams have been asked to operate in a very different way,” says Elliott. “It’s ambiguous. Their roles aren’t clearly defined. They work on multi-disciplinary teams. Sometimes the person with decision rights isn’t the person with the highest title. It’s nothing new if you go to the tech world but within a university system, that doesn’t happen.”

Except that it has happened at Gies. Elliott added at least 15 full-time and another 20 part-time staff members, including a new assistant dean of educational innovation. She increased the faculty who teach online by a third to 60 professors from 45. On the administrative side, staff went from 27 to 45. On the teaching and learning team, there are now 70 staffers, not including faculty, up from 36. Course assistants, largely PhD and graduate students in a specific course-related discipline, now number 300 people who help with grading, assessments, and engaging students. Some courses that could top out at 1,200 students, require as many as 60 to 80 course assistants.

Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown went to bat again and again to get the investment for that hyper growth. “It’s really a testament to Jeff and the university for recognizing that even in a time when all universities were in a financial downturn, they knew this was the way to grow and this was the future for Illinois,” says Elliott. “So they allowed us to continue to hire when no other unit on campus has been allowed to hire.”

HOW TO MAKE BIG CLASSES FEEL SMALLER

A central challenge is how to make large Internet classes feel smaller. The virtual nature of courses–reducing a class to a single computer screen with roughly 40 students visible–makes a class session seem smaller than if it were held in a physical  auditorium with hundreds of learners. Current students don’t seem troubled by the scale of their classes (see A Love Fest Of Passionate Believers For Gies’ iMBA).

“Before the tremendous growth, our largest courses were around 800,” adds Elliott. “We had built a learning team of a lead instructor, an associate instructor who also tends to be a full-time faculty member, and then a head Teaching Assistant (TA), an assistant TA and as many as 30 to 60 course assistants. That model worked really well up to 800 students. As we started to cross over 1,000 students in a course, we started to have concerns that students would not have the same access to that lead faculty member.” 

To cope with the enormous growth, Gies is embracing a number of new initiatives and strategies. Besides a massive addition of staff, the school is shifting to a co-teaching model to deepen student engagement with faculty, creating a new cohort start to the program, partnering with ed-tech companies to develop new AI-enabled software to grade students at scale, and adding more virtual global immersions.

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