The Future Of The MBA Is Happening Right Now At Michigan Ross

The University of Michigan Ross School of Business OMBA Digital Studio

Kostas Boutsikakis knew that change was coming, and he wanted to get ahead of it.

“I started working as a consultant in healthcare five years ago, and then I realized that everything is shifting more into data management and data science,” Boutsikakis says. It was time to return to school.

He didn’t have to look far: Boutsikakis had begun working for the University of Michigan as an accounting clerk in 2018. He applied, and was accepted to, the Master of Applied Data Science program at the Michigan School of Information. Soon another opportunity arose that was too good to pass up: Boutsikakis would join the ranks of the double-master’s students and apply to the Ross School of Business’s then-new part-time online MBA program. As an MBA student, he knew he would be able to attend occasional classes while doing the bulk of the program through the university’s then-new online studio.

The best part: He could do it all while continuing to work at his full-time job.

FORTUNATE TIMING 

Kostas Boutsikakis: The learning environment of the new online studio at Michigan Ross is “literally like a class … People were chiming in. They were joining. It was really interesting”

“I saw the opportunity and I was like, I have to take it, but I also wanted to work full time,” Boutsikakis tells Poets&Quants. “And that was a great opportunity for me at the time, to first get into the Masters of Applied Data Science. As soon as I got there I fell in love with the interactive environment. I live locally, so I could get to combine both, but it’s mainly, of course, online, and I really like the way classes were set up. So I also decided to pursue the MBA with Ross.”

Boutsikakis’ timing was fortunate. This January, the Ross School unveiled its new online MBA studio, a state-of-the-art space that pushes the technology of interactive learning into new realms. He took one of the first classes in the new studio, Accounting 533, and is now taking another, Statistics 533.

Boutsikakis says the new studio is a major step forward.

“There’s a very big difference with the new studio,” he says. “I think it’s the closest to a real class that you can possibly have, in my opinion, while physically not being there.”

‘MUCH MORE ENGAGING THAN SOMEONE IN FRONT OF A CAMERA TALKING TO YOU’

To call the Ross School’s Convatec Digital Learning Studio “cutting-edge” would be an understatement. The studio “does an amazing job of creating an engaging classroom experience, and the technology behind it is intuitive and seamless,” says Patricia Russo, managing director of part-time MBA programs at Michigan Ross, by creating a 3D environment where students become part of a fully engaged classroom. Its graphics technology are like those found in immersive video games, only without the need for a headset, with high-resolution LED screens boasting increased pixel density that improve the clarity of charts, graphs, and other visual aids. Multiple robot-controlled cameras automatically track the professor’s movements, following her or him around the room during the lesson.

The effect is striking and immediate: Students and faculty have the sensation of being present together in one virtual space.

“The first thing is, it’s extremely interactive,” Boutsikakis says. “Let’s say the professor is in the studio and there’s a camera pointing at the professor, but at the same time, the professor has a screen in front of him or her writing notes, which are displayed in another screen behind the professor that you also can see at the same time.

“In the beginning I didn’t really understand what they meant by ‘the studio,’ but it’s exactly like a news studio. What I mean by that is, if the professor moves, there’s a camera that moves and then focuses on what he or she is pointing out. If they’re pointing at their own personal screen, you can see that. If they’re pointing on the board, you can see that. So that’s the one aspect that I really enjoyed — it’s very captivating. It’s not just somebody in front of the camera just talking at you. It’s much more engaging.

“On the other side, they combine the experience of the studio with cold calling. So let’s say there are 50 students. Usually, of course, we are all young professionals, especially in the MBA, and the professor calls on you, and as you speak, they will be writing your ideas on the board. Everybody else can see that, too. Other people are chiming in. It is literally like a class.

“In the beginning I was like, ‘How’s it going to work? Are we going to raise our hand or…?’ It wasn’t even like that. People were chiming in. They were joining. It was really interesting.”

A STEP CLOSER TO EQUIVALENCY WITH FULL-TIME MBA PROGRAMS

Ross Dean Sharon Matusik: New studio “allows us to offer the best learning experience for students in our Online MBA and executive education programs”

Greg Miller, accounting professor at the Ross School, teaches in both the full-time MBA and the part-time OMBA; he was involved in the launch of the latter in 2019, and was one of the first to teach in the school’s first online studio. The program graduated its first student in 2021.

Miller, who teaches the accounting class that Kostas Boutsikakis was in this semester, says it’s not too grandiose to call the new OMBA studio “the future of the MBA” because “we’re in the vanguard of ways of thinking to get to a broader audience.” The advances now in practice through the Ross School’s new studio — home to not only the part-time OMBA but also online specialized master’s programs like MADS and executive programming — are pushing online graduate business education closer to equivalency with its full-time, in-person cousin.

“People need to think big on this,” Miller tells P&Q. “I think for a lot of academics, myself included, we’ve been teaching in the classroom a certain way for a long time, and we know what works, and we’re hesitant, really cynical. I mean, I have to admit, I was very, very cynical: Will I ever be able to do the same thing for my school? And truthfully, I have an elective that I teach, and I’m toying with now how would I adjust it? Because you really do have to change what you’re doing. How could I adjust it and still give students a similar learning outcome in the end with the online? And I haven’t fully cracked that yet, because it’s a different type of course. But I think the grandiose thinking will encourage people.

“So take the leap. And the more people that take the leap, the faster we’ll get to what that experience needs to be like to give people an equivalent thing.”

LATEST ROSS OMBA CLASS IS 73% OUT-OF-STATE STUDENTS

Michigan Ross’s Greg Miller: The part-time OMBA is “just a different experience. And for some students, that’s the best way to learn. And we’re on the vanguard of helping those students have their way of doing it”

When Michigan Ross announced the launch of its part-time online MBA program in early 2019, it became one of the highest-ranked B-schools in the world to take the digital plunge. Then-Dean Scott DeRue said Ross’s ambition was to extend the school’s reach and network to a broader array of students throughout the country. “A primary reason for doing it,” DeRue told P&Q at the time, “is to reach an audience of talented professionals who are looking for a top-ranked MBA program but need the flexibility to do it on their time. We think there is a robust market of professionals looking for that option across the country.”

In one way, at least, the school has achieved that initial goal: Its most recent OMBA cohort is 73% out-of-state students, including about 7% international students. Sharon Matusik, who became Ross’s dean in August 2022, says the school’s new Convatec Digital Learning Studio will make Ross’s OMBA and other online programs even more appealing to those constituencies.

The studio “is a key differentiator for Michigan Ross and is the first studio of its kind in the U.S., developed in partnership with London-based WhiteLight Ltd.,” Matusik says. “The new studio allows us to offer the best learning experience for students in our Online MBA and executive education programs. We are thrilled to be at the leading edge with regard to our digital technology and look forward to continuing to innovate in the digital education space.”

Matusik recently participated in a fireside chat in the new studio with MSNBC news anchor Richard Lui, a Ross School alumnus. “Richard was very impressed with the studio and its capabilities,” she says, pointing out the studio’s multiple cameras and high-tech feel. “I felt like I could have been a BBC newscaster! The stage is large and comfortable with a broad range of options for backgrounds. It was helpful to have our discussion questions projected onto glass walls. The highly sophisticated, seamless technology made it easy to present our content, and see and interact with participants.”

ENHANCING CONNECTIVITY

Jennifer Steben: "It's just really, really important to feel that connectivity to each other," and the new online studio "enhances that"

Greg Barker, managing director of the Ross School's Office of Digital Education, and Jennifer Steben, managing director of the school's executive education custom programs, took P&Q on a virtual tour of the new studio via Zoom, showing off its high-tech capabilities, which include a fully operational control room and interactive 3D. The studio's huge physical space, which helps to create a traditional classroom atmosphere, is bigger than most similar studios and seems bigger depending on the background chosen for the massive LED screens behind the instructor — which are used mainly to highlight course materials but which can display anything from a cozy fireside contrasted with the wintry Michigan campus to the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

"We ask the faculty, 'How do you want to teach? What do you want to see and where do you want to see it?' We can just populate everything," Barker says.

In 2019, he says, when the Ross School first launched its part-time online MBA, everything was new to faculty and staff alike, and the studio the program operated out of was a reflection of that. Covid-19 changed the game.

"It really was a catalyst for us," Barker says. "We need less training with the faculty now when they come in, because they at least have the Zoom portion of it down and they understand about teaching online. But in 2019, this was all new territory, and it really did put us in a really good spot when Covid hit. We took a lot of our programs into the studio when Covid hit, and it was a blessing to have the first studio up and running. The second one is going to just prepare us for that much more."

Steben agrees that the coronavirus pandemic played a role in the online advances embraced by the Ross School. "It's just so intentional, this space and the need that folks have to feel connected globally right now and in the last few years particularly," she says. "While we can do live virtual engagements and have them be a standalone course or class or session, a lot of times, this live virtual experience in the studio is part of a longer journey where we might have residencies where we're at a particular client headquarters, where they're here at Michigan Ross in residence. And then we thread those sessions together through using a studio like this. It's just really, really important to feel that connectivity to each other. It enhances that."

She notes that the studio recently hosted a live virtual session for the studio namesake, Convatec, which made the large gift that financed it. "We had their top 100 leaders in here at one point, and that worked very, very well," Steben says.

Greg Barker and Jennifer Steben in the Michigan Ross Convatec Digital Studio. Courtesy photo

SERVING DIFFERENT STUDENTS WITH DIFFERENT NEEDS

Greg Miller has been teaching online students for seven or eight years. What he loves about it is "there's a segment of people we couldn't service. Part of it's geography, part of it's flexibility. When you talk to night students, it still was much tougher for them to leave their job in Troy and get to our Dearborn campus or get here to sit through a class, and having to do that every week for the same course for three hours. So we're on the vanguard of servicing a different group.

"The programs are different. And I'd like to think we're on the vanguard of the way we're doing the full-time program too, but I really think the vanguard is understanding there's a shared amount of learning we need students to have.

"And there's different ways of reaching those students who may be at different points, not just in their life, but different people learn differently. Different people want a different experience. And so the full-time MBA works really well, and there are some students who the full-time MBA is great for, but I don't think the OMBA would've given them what they wanted. There are other students who couldn't do the full-time MBA or who this really works well for. And we're on the vanguard of helping students have their way of doing it."

THE CLOSEST THING TO THE REAL THING

Through his Ross education, Kostas Boutsikakis has gained skills in Python, data manipulation, efficient processing, data visualization, SQL databases, data mining, and more. He will graduate from the Master of Data Science program in December 2023. He expects to graduate from the Ross part-time online MBA program in late 2025.

He says the new studio is proof that Ross has one goal: to help students further their careers, to make the greatest impact wherever they go.

"Everybody who's in this program, all the students that are there, they're driven individuals, and everybody wants to network and build and relationships with other students, as young professionals," he says. "We're all there for the same reasons, pretty much: to advance our career and knowledge base.

"It's hard when you're putting your faith, time, and resources into an institution, but the fact that they put this much effort and time and consideration into making this studio and the interactive experience — all of it is, I think, the closest that somebody can possibly get to actually being in Ann Arbor and going to Ross."

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