“It’s easy to teach online if you’re not engaged,” says Gordon Smith, director of the Office of Graduate Programs at Georgia Southern University’s College of Business. “But that’s not as stimulating for the faculty and it’s certainly not as stimulating for the students.” And it’s not the way they go about things in Statesboro.
Smith believed in face-to-face learning when he came to Georgia Southern from the University of Utah in 2012. But he wanted to see what online pedagogy was all about, and he knew he’d find a great example at a school that had been offering MBA distance learning — dubbed WebMBA — since 2001. His takeaway was that the future of business education lies in maximizing the use of a student’s most valuable asset: time.
“When I was a professor and running the programs at Utah, it was all face-to-face,” Smith tells Poets&Quants. “I believed in it, but I decided to come to Georgia Southern just to see if online works. And in fact it does! Now I’m pushing our face-to-face program to a hybrid model because the most important thing any student — or anybody — has is time. You only have so much. You can’t buy any more. We’re dealing with professionals: ’I learn when I’m ready to learn — not when you’re ready to teach.’”
SEASONED AT ONLINE PEDAGOGY
Time can’t be replaced, and experience can’t be undervalued. Smith touts the experience of Georgia Southern’s faculty, drawn from six well-known Georgia universities and now 16 years into the online delivery of MBA content, as one of the key elements that brings in students from around the country. The fact is, experienced faculty working in a program with a well-rooted foundation maximize students’ time.
“To me that is extremely powerful,” Smith says, “and I think one of the things that distinguishes our program is we do have that 15-16 years of learning about online pedagogy and best practices and things like that. And so our faculty is very good at it — they know what works, they know what doesn’t work. Sure, there are things where we need the bandwidth of face-to-face, but you can get around those things, and the bandwidth is getting much bigger.
“You think about what was the capacity in 2001 — people were using dialup, god forbid; now I have people who are doing stuff on their phones. And they’re doing it when they’re ready to do it. So that’s been a huge change, plus the program has been very good about capturing what is best practice in doing all the things for assessments that we’re supposed to do in terms of continuous improvement and things like that. We started off really small and now I we run four cohorts of 40 in the fall and three cohorts of 40 in the spring.
“It’s a proven model, it’s different than a lot of programs because we’ve learned over those 15 years. Our faculty are more seasoned at online pedagogy.”
‘DOES THIS PERSON HAVE THE HORSEPOWER?’
Georgia Southern’s lockstep program is short: 30 hours, two courses per semester for five semesters, basically 21 months. It has two intakes, August 1 and December 1, and its 10 courses make up everything you need for a “generalist” MBA: accounting, finance, marketing, operations, international business, entrepreneurship. “Sort of the standard discipline courses,” Smith says. “You get on the merry-go-round, you don’t get off until the end.”
The program is ranked 36th by U.S. News & World Report, though its faculty is ranked 16th, giving credence to Smith’s hosannas about the quality of Georgia Southern’s professors. In state or out, the program costs the same: $290 per semester (including fees), or $23,620 — well below the national average. Like most online programs these days, the GMAT requirement can be waived — in fact, Smith says, all applications are taken on a case-by-case basis, and only students with the “entire package” are accepted, whether they have a stellar GMAT tally or not.
“It’s fairly simple,” he says. “We look at their academic background, we look at their professional background, and we look at GMAT or GRE, unless we waive that, and we say, ‘Does this person have the horsepower?’ If they don’t have the horsepower, then it’s game over. Because we don’t want to bring them in and then they don’t do well. It’s not good for them, it’s not good for us. So we look at the entirety of their application and we say, ‘Does this person have the wherewithal – is this a person I would want on my team? Are they bringing something?’ It’s not a formulaic thing.”
‘THE TOOLS TO DEAL WITH A VARIETY OF REAL-WORLD BUSINESS SITUATIONS’
Antonio Gonzalez had worked as a field service engineer for five years and reached the point where his technical knowledge and experience were simply not enough to advance in his career. He needed an MBA.
Gonzalez had just accepted a position as a global technical trainer, but accepting the job meant he had to move his family to the Bay Area of California where the company headquarters was located. “Because I would be interacting more closely with other departments, managing teams, directly and indirectly, and making decisions that would impact the company, I felt that an MBA would help equip me to succeed in this role,” he tells Poets&Quants.
Living in the Atlanta suburbs before his move, Gonzalez had noticed billboards advertising the Georgia Southern WebMBA program. “When I first looked into the program, I liked that the tuition was reasonable, the professors were from six well-known Georgia universities, and the students would also be from Georgia. It was almost a year, though, before I applied.” When he did, he was impressed with the WebMBA program’s flexibility, which allowed him to work full-time and complete his schoolwork.”
Gonzalez applied in 2013, graduated in 2015, and now works as a product support engineer for Promega Corporation, based in Madison, Wisconsin. “The MBA,” he says, “has given me a better understanding of corporate business practices and procedures. It has provided me the tools to deal with a variety of real-world business situations.”
TEAMWORK THAT HELPS THE STRUGGLING STUDENT
Georgia Southern’s WebMBA program is completely asynchronous, but the “secret sauce,” Gordon Smith says, is that it is team-based. “That’s why we have a 95% completion rate and other programs are struggling to get to 70%. We get together at an orientation and you form up teams, you form up contracts, and it’s those relationships and those resources that make it possible for working professionals to do a rigorous program. I’m going to have a bad week, OK? My boss is on my back, my spouse is on my back, kids are going crazy — and if you’re in a team, they’ll say, ‘OK look, I’ll pull your sorry self through this.’ That’s the reality of it.
“The other component of that is, online learning takes a hell of a lot of discipline. So if you’re just floating out there in cyberspace all by yourself, its 10 o’clock at night, ‘I don’t have to open up my laptop — I’ll do it later.’ Unless somebody is counting on you to deliver your part of the project. Or you know financial accounting better than anybody else in the team and you have to help coach them through it. It’s kind of the foxhole mentality.
“The quality of the teaching because of the experience, and the team-based approach even though it is completely asynchronous program, is really what we’ve developed very well.”
It’s a system that has impressed a long-time classroom professor who spent years teaching the case method to eager, and live, faces.
“I’ve come away saying, ‘There really are some things you can do in online,’ and that’s from a guy who, when I was teaching in MBA programs, I did cases only. That’s harder to do, but there’s a lot of material, particularly you can give to seasoned professionals, because they know the area well, they really do. But the engineers don’t really quite understand what the marketing people do, and they don’t really understand the finance people, and vice versa. And so again you’re opening eyes — there are a lot of ‘ah-has!’ Particularly for seasoned professionals, they go, Oh wow, that’s what that is!’”