With more students studying MBAs online than on campus for the first time, I thought about what makes a large-scale online degree program successful. Brooke Elliott, Executive Associate Dean, and Nerissa Brown, Associate Dean of Graduate Programs, graciously shared the lessons they’ve learned since launching the iMBA in 2016 on Coursera.
The program was the first degree on Coursera and pioneered the stacking degree model, which allowed students to take a course or specialization in the program first. It also comes at a groundbreaking price – $23,000, about a third of the average price for residential MBA programs.
In 2016, the first iMBA cohort was about 100 students, and this academic year it’s over 4,600. Here’s what they learned as they developed the program.
Q1: You are one of the first innovators to make online degrees more accessible, affordable and relevant for employment. A big part of that success is your stackable, scalable diploma template. Tell me how you got started with the iMBA degree, including how you became an intern membership and how you have continued to grow your online degree portfolio.
Brooke: The University of Illinois is a land-grant institution, and the iMBA began with this mission in mind – to provide a high-quality, accessible, and affordable education to all who want and are committed to pursue it. The program was designed to be online from the start; every aspect of the program, from course length, number of course offerings, type and duration of synchronous and asynchronous content, delivery and engagement technology, to the faculty engaged to develop and deliver the content, was intentionally designed to serve an online learner who was also a working professional. From the beginning, we were committed to having our top tenure-track and specialist faculty develop and deliver the content – this differentiated us early on in the online market and continues to be a key differentiator for the iMBA program.
In all transparency, internal buy-in was difficult as we built and prepared to launch the program. Many scholars and administrators were skeptical of creating and delivering a program that would maintain the rigorous, high-quality academic standards on which the University of Illinois has built its reputation while making the program accessible and affordable. . However, we were determined to disrupt the business higher education space and our best faculty believed in our mission and ability to transform higher education. Thanks to the commitment of our faculty, the leadership of our administrators, and our willingness to think completely differently about how to deliver a high-quality education, we were able to successfully launch and grow the iMBA.
Nerissa: The growth of our online portfolio is founded on our core land-grant mission of providing accessible and flexible lifelong learning opportunities. Our goal is to meet learners “where they are” and as such our ongoing strategy is to create stackable content from scratch. We view our portfolio as building blocks and start at the microloan level when developing new content or repackaging existing content.
For example, we often start with our Skills iCademies or Coursera MOOCs when building or creating new content areas. Our iCademy and MOOC offerings are short learning programs that deliver in-demand skills that can be consumed easily. The content of these micro-certificates form the core of many of our high-involvement credit courses that learners can take either as stand-alone non-degree courses or as part of our graduate certificate and diploma programs. It was with this fundamental mindset that Gies became the first University Partner of Grow with Google and the creator of Illinois’ first set of campus graduate certificates.
We are constantly innovating our portfolio to meet market demand for upskilling and retraining. In fact, we are creating a catalog of certificate programs in hard skills such as analytics, digital marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as fundamental business skills in accounting, finance and management. Two certificates in Accounting Analysis and Strategic Leadership are scheduled to launch in August and are now accepting applications. We are also developing in-demand content in disruptive technologies.
Q2. How do you replicate the high engagement of full-time residential MBAs, like networking, at scale and make these programs a success?
Brooke: When you ask our iMBA graduates to identify the greatest values provided by the program, they almost always talk about the exceptional network they have joined and the people they have come to know and befriend. In residential education, a small group of individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences come together in a common location to have a common educational experience.
What is unique about the iMBA program is that a large number of individuals from more diverse backgrounds and experiences come together for a common educational experience, but from all over the world. iMBA learners have more diverse backgrounds and experiences because when you provide an accessible and affordable education, you attract and serve a more diverse set of learners. And the network you build across the world is unmatched – some of our learners wake up in Dubai while others wake up in Chicago and they all learn together! We use technology and an internal social media-like platform to drive engagement and provide our learners with opportunities to grow and grow their networks.
Nerissa: We also offer people from all over the world the opportunity to meet in person. We host an in-person networking and professional development event each fall on campus called iConverge. In the fall of 2021, we had just under 1,000 current students and alumni who came together to learn and mingle and meet the faculty in person. You would never know that many have never met in person, as they often embrace as lifelong friends and colleagues. In addition to iConverge, we host a series of professional development and networking events in the United States and around the world.
Gies Online offers multiple effective ways to network our learners and engage in experiential learning. Networking and experiential learning are at the heart of the Gies brand and it’s no different when it comes to our online programs. In addition to iConverge, we offer a series of impactful immersion programs for our online learners. Our immersions are a collaborative and networking experience that you won’t see in most online MBA programs.
We offer both virtual and in-person immersion opportunities, and the experience is highly valued by our participants. Over the past two years, we have immersed students in the business and cultural ecosystems of national and international locations such as Dallas (TX), Colombia, Ghana, and Japan. We are gearing up for our first in-person immersion in Seattle since the pandemic and the interest from attendees has been overwhelming. We will continue to offer an annual series of virtual immersions so that learners, who cannot participate in person, can still gain first-hand experience of global trade.
Q3. What advice do you have for university leaders trying to launch a large-scale online degree?
Brooke: Be bold and determined in program design – don’t just take an existing residential program and ‘move’ it online. Involve faculty in program design from inception – faculty buy-in and passion for online education is critical to its success. Identify teaching and learning talent with expertise in pedagogy, assessment and technology – whether this exists within your own university or you need to hire from outside. Be clear about how online education can serve your educational mission and enhance your institution’s reputation.
Nerissa: Strong investment in faculty and staff talent. Gies Online has been successful in attracting talent from across the country. For example, we have been able to attract instructors who are industry and technology leaders, bringing their hands-on experience directly into our virtual classrooms. We have also been nimble in our talent acquisition by offering remote working arrangements to staff and our faculty. Flexible working is crucial to harnessing top talent and recent university announcements on remote working arrangements illustrate how important it is for higher education institutions to meet talent where they are – similarly. way that online education reaches learners where and when it works best for them.