Questrom’s first online MBA program starts on Aug. 2 with 401 students
To get its inaugural class of online MBA students started next week, Boston University’s Questrom School of Business battled through a host of COVID disruptions that ranged from university budget cuts and hiring freezes and a key instructional designer coming down with coronavirus to a complete halt on the construction of its video studios and the loss of many university IT resources.
Yet, BU managed to overcome the unexpected obstacles to enroll the first class of 401 online MBA candidates, double its initial expectations of 200 students for its $24,000 virtual MBA. When they begin coursework on Aug. 2 in what is called “Mod Zero,” all the classes have been reimagined and completed with the exception of the ending capstone. Already, Questrom has 100 students confirmed for the program’s second cohort that starts in January.
“We’ve had challenges that impacted production and space, but we worked through all of that,” says Questrom Dean Susan Fournier. “We doubled our goals in admission and the quality of the students was irresistible, really amazing. With everything else going on, it has just turned into a very manageable project. Things are going great.”
‘THESE ARE OLDER LEARNERS WHO WANT A PROGRAM THAT IS PEER-DRIVEN AND FOCUSED ON PROBLEM-SOLVING’
All told, the new online MBA program attracted 850 candidates to its first cohort, allowing the school to accept 53% of its applicant pool. The average age of the first group of students is 37 with 12 years of work experience. “These are people who live in Omaha, have worked in one company, and don’t want to quit their jobs to get an MBA,” says JP Matychak, associate dean for strategic initiatives. “These are the unicorns, and there are a lot of them, fortunately. They are older learns who want a program that is peer-driven and focused on business problem-solving. Once you say you don’t have to move to Boston and pay a lot of money for the degree, it just opens the world up.” In fact, nearly a third of the debut cohort lives outside the U.S.
That has to be something of a relief because Questrom is a late entry into an already cluttered online MBA market with more than 300 options in the U.S. alone and the early quality leaders clearly identified in numerous rankings. At a time when schools are closing their full-time MBA programs and enrollment has been declining, the online option has experienced explosive growth. The fastest-growing MBA program in the past five years is also another online play: the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business $22,000 iMBA which will enroll between 3,750 and 4,000.graduate this fall. Boston University is really the second major competitor to arrive with a big university brand and a disruptive price.
What’s more, the early evidence is that the highly affordable online MBA has not cannibalized BU’s more expensive part-time or full-time MBA programs. “We tried to estimate our exposure to all kinds of risks and that was the big one because you are adding a price element to a price-sensitive audience,” adds Dean Fournier. “At this moment, we have only seen eight students who were first interested in our part-time MBA or who recently started in that program opt for online out of 800. The melt is just not an issue. The theory of market differentiation is holding. They are just very different people.”
In Questrom’s full-time MBA program, Fournier was anticipating an entering class of about 120 students. “We already have 170 deposits for the full-time program,” she says. “We are almost 50% over target. We don’t know the final enrollment numbers yet because the details about the fall continue to be revealed but right now we are preparing and planning for an additional cohort of full-time MBAs.”
COVID DISRUPTIONS DIDN’T MAKE THE LAUNCH EASY
Paul Carlile, senior associate dean for online learning at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business
Getting the new online program up and running during the pandemic outbreak turned out to be a bigger challenge than recruiting students for it. On March 12, as coronavirus cases began to climb, the university abruptly shifted to remote instruction. “Our faculty were involved in teaching regular courses and then had to flip their classes in a week,” says Paul Carlile, senior associate dean for online learning. “We knew this would be a hard push from the beginning but COVID had become the biggest challenge. It has added a lot of overhead and extra work. We had to operate the way our students operate so all of our planning meetings went to Zoom and we shut down.”
That meant that all construction on the group’s video studios came to a halt. The school converted a student dining room into a temporary studio instead. The university’s IT group was stretched thin by having to focus on the overnight switch to virtual teaching for 6,000 faculty members and 40,000 students. So the business school had to lean more heavily on its own IT group.
Then, one of the online team’s key instructional designers tested positive for coronavirus. “That hurt us from a personnel point of view and that happened early on and the person was out for seven weeks,” adds Carlile. “It will not surprise anyone to know that instructional designers are now in a buyer’s market. COVID meant that faculty were also having to teach remotely when they should have been scripting the new courses. But at the same time, the experience of flipping a classroom gives you a sense of how different this has to be. Despite the stress, people have really pulled together.”
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The atrium at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business
A RETHINK OF THE ENTIRE MBA CURRICULUM
“By this point,” adds Matychak, “we had hoped to have live welcome events in different parts of the world to build this community in person. When the world shuts down and travel shuts down that is gone. We had to pivot to virtual events. We are relying a lot more on social media, and students are engaged on their own in Zoom calls.”
Making the effort even more challenging was the need to rethink all the courses in an entirely newly designed MBA. The online program will be taught in a half dozen 14-week modules over a two-year timeframe. The first three modules lay the foundation of the education, while the remaining three explore developing business opportunities. Each module ends with a capstone during which students apply what they have learned. There are no concentrations or specializations. Instead of set courses in such basics as finance, accounting, marketing and strategy, each module is being organized and taught in an integrated style by three professors from different disciplines.
Matychak says a “silver lining” of sorts was that the team’s early adoption of several technologies, including the social learning platform Yellowdig, allowed the university to short cut its process of moving to those platforms. BU will now use Yellowdig for freshman orientation. And the hurried shift to remote instruction for the school’s faculty made every professor quickly realize the major differences between remote instruction and a well-designed online program.
A CORE LESSON IN PUTTING THE ONLINE MBA TOGETHER: LESS IS MORE
JP Matychak, associate dean for strategic initiatives at Questrom
“We realized very quickly just how intentional you have to be about everything in an online curriculum when you design it from the ground up,” says Matychak. “Our faculty saw just how hard it was to put their materials online and think about how to teach people in different time zones all over the world. There has been a great appreciation from a wider breadth of the school in just how important the design of the program is.”
One core lesson: Less is more. “Faculty members have to think about what they want students to learn by a specific Saturday,” says Carlile. “You have to be very intentional about what you teach and how you teach it. So you have to be so much more intentional and deliberate and ask what do I want them to know. In the past, we filled out classes with stuff. People have a hard time going back and starting with what do I want my students to learn. You have to be more deliberate with scale and know-how to get the peer engagement going. You realize how much fluff is in your classrooms. Our whole industry has to get better at this. We charge a lot, and we don’t deliver a lot.”
In early July, the Questrom online team held a “co-creation” event with incoming students to both test out some of the technology and set expectations. Some 200 students showed up for the virtual session. “We wanted to begin to socialize them into the experience but also to create accountability,” explains Carlile. “We brought them together in randomly assigned groups of 36 to share their ideas with each other.”
‘ONCE YOU GO TO DIGITAL DELIVERY, YOUR ABILITY TO IMPROVE IS MUCH EASIER TO DO’
Each group of students explored one of four topics: 1) Balancing school with work and personal life, 2) Managing expectations in teams, 3) Developing our expectations of each other, and 4) Managing expectations in the ‘classroom.’
“This was an opportunity for them to agree with each other on what their norms would be and lay out expectations for each other and the program,” says Matychak. “Knowing you are going to have live sessions and team projects, how are you going to manage this with your personal life? Rather than tell them what to do, we provided the seed of what they can expect. We put the responsibility on them to be accountable to each other and to their teams. The students really responded well. They were incredibly pleased to see how effective we were in running a large interactive session. They liked working with their peers. It’s was incredibly refreshing to work with these students.”
While the program begins on Aug. 2, there is still much scrambling to be done. “We did work our asses off and we still are,” says Carlile, “but once you go digital delivery, your ability to improve the experience is much easier to do. We very much have a commitment to continuously improve. We’ve had a couple of extra turns of the crank that I prefer not to have had, but our faculty and the students are now part of this pioneer spirit.
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