Not every business school can develop a meaningful online MBA. But with a grand STEM heritage that has produced many Nobel Prize winners, when Imperial College London enters the market, it deserves real attention. The school’s decision to develop its Global Online MBA was not driven simply by a commercial desire to create a new product; it grew out of a deeper insight, that education would not be immune to the digital revolution that is disrupting every other sector.
And so, several years ago, Imperial created an EdTech lab to research what learning would look like in a digitally mediated environment. Initially, the fruits of the school’s efforts were a handful of online electives for undergraduate students. When the school’s administrators were sure they understood how to deliver a high-quality online course, they started to develop the Global Online MBA.
Three years in the making, what they created is a world away from some people’s idea of online business education — a suite of MOOCs with a few quizzes tacked on to the end. For the Imperial Online MBA, engagement is the key. The heart of the program is The Hub, a slick, rich, multifaceted learning environment that delivers every element of the program from course materials to newsfeeds, video content, and detailed information about students’ classmates. If a student watches a video, quizzes or tests will be embedded in it to make sure the student is paying attention and learning. Students also interact with teachers and their peers on the same platform.
The idea, says Imperial Business School Dean Francisco Veloso, is that this makes the course feel like a coherent experience that all hangs together, and that has a strongly active, engaging feel rather than being a ragbag of disparate content. The idea seems to have struck a chord. Two-and-a-half years after launching in 2015, the 24-month Imperial online course had become its most popular MBA, growing to four cohorts totaling around 400 people.
Who has been signing up? With an average age of 35 and work experience of 11 years, this is a slightly older crowd than is found on a typical full-time MBA. “It’s for people who are further along in their career,” Veloso tells Poets&Quants. “They come to the MBA because there is a set of skills they feel need to be developed or revamped. For example, someone may be from an engineering background and looking to develop their skillset, and prefer to have the flexibility of not having to come to campus on a regular basis.” A typical student might be “someone located in Africa and invested into an industry, in a senior leadership role but realizing that they lack a set of skills, and maybe looking to develop their skills, and to do so as part of a collective,” Veloso adds.
There is a large international contingent, with 38 nationalities represented in the 2016-2017 class. Africa and the Middle East accounted for 21% of students, while 18% were from Asia. About 25% of students are from the UK, many from London, but they choose the online option because they can fit it in around family and work commitments.
The curriculum largely resembles the full-time MBA, with core courses on Financial and Management Accounting, Organizational Behavior, Strategy Marketing Management, and so on. Where the online course is relatively underpowered is in electives, with just 14 offered, of which students take five, though students can also take two on-campus electives if they are able. Veloso admits that this is an area where Imperial is “progressing,” and the number is low because it is hard to justify the big investment in creating online electives for a small number of students. “We have invested in electives as the cohort has grown, and over time this limitation will not exist,” he says, adding that “we are thinking about it in reverse, and creating programs that on-campus students can take as well.”
The online MBA also lags a full-time one in terms of trips and treks, and in the intensive careers service that an MBA often involves, although a “personal leadership journey” runs for the length of the course. “We are also adjusting to making sure that we have career advice designed for this new environment,” Veloso says. “Most of the people on the online MBA are not looking to change jobs, but we know that the career advancement element is an important part of the MBA experience. You can do workshops and webinars, but crafting that part of the experience is something we are learning how to do even better.”
The biggest criticism of online business education is that it lacks the all-important experiential element. Skeptics argue that what raises a full-time MBA above a set of lectures is the experience of intensely working for a year or two with a group of motivated, intelligent peers, and the online MBA just can’t replicate that. Unsurprisingly, Veloso doesn’t buy this criticism.
“People who say this are using the same sort of skepticism that has been to digital technology in a variety of ways. People said the same thing about online dating, and now increasingly it is how people meet,” he says. “You have to weigh what you get out of the various MBA formats. But in general the people who are taking the online MBA are not choosing between it and the full-time MBA, which is usually not an option for them. Online education can be engaging, just in a different way. This course is a different experience, but it is still an experience.”
Clearly, some things are possible in a full-time, face-to-face environment which are not online. But Veloso points out that working online also has its advantages. “You can have tighter control on the student’s learning experience,” he says. “In the classroom it is hard to keep track of everyone, and to know if they are really concentrating, but if someone has to watch a video and then do an exercise, we know if they were paying attention and understood it. In an online environment we can monitor students and we know better where they are, compared to in the classroom.”
The lessons that Imperial is learning by running the Global Online MBA are also feeding back into the physical world. “It makes you think about a variety of toolkits — interactive games and visuals, for example — which we know would be good in the classroom, but because of inertia or fear of the unknown we have never developed,” Veloso says. Sometimes the old-fashioned “live” teaching methods are not necessarily the best, and digital learning is, in many cases, better. The idea that online is second-best is quickly evaporating.
DIVERSITY BOOSTS DISCUSSION
In one way, the online MBA could even allow for a more diverse experience. “When people are co-located they adapt to their new environment, and group-think can develop rapidly,” Veloso says. “One of the interesting thing about the online MBA is that people stay in their own reality, they can bring their own experiences directly to the learning experience which can make it a very rich environment for discussion.”
That said, Imperial accepts that some degree of face-to-face time is valuable, and begins the course with a one-week orientation course on campus, when the cohort get to know each other and the program team. “We know there is a social component to engagement and learning, and that it is very important to know how someone smiles, how they react, how they become enthusiastic about something,” says Veloso. “Once you have experienced that, you take it back when you go away. We wouldn’t consider doing this course without that initial colocation.” Also, through the course teams work on tasks synchronously. “Even though it is mediated by a platform, there is interaction,” Veloso adds.
Given its popularity so far, this seems to be a growth area. So how big could Imperial’s online MBA get, without losing quality? “This is an interactive learning experience,” says Veloso. “We are very committed to that, so we can’t have, say, 1,000 people per cohort. If we had those numbers we would have to split it up in same way you would in a face-to-face MBA, and you wouldn’t want a group bigger than about 120. You need to be able to remember people’s names, and have a sense of who is contributing. The question is how many streams we can have.” If they can deliver a world-class MBA to such large numbers at a relatively low cost, then the implications could be huge. What began as a response to disruption could end up disrupting the education market in a fundamental way.
Tuition shown is in pounds: £35,600.