Not your parents’ MBA: Lessons from the digital age

Bridging the gap between online and on-campus MBA programs

written by Zak Stone
illustrations by Brian Stauffer


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The future of higher education may be online, but as with any transition, the route to all-digital learning involves a blending of old and new. The latest trend in higher education is a hybrid model, in which schools deliver course content through a combination of face-to-face and online instruction, developing synergies between the two.

Like online learning, hybrid education involves watching live-streamed or pre-recorded lectures, working on group projects over video chat and responding to a professor's questions via discussion boards. But unlike with online-only coursework, students enrolled in hybrid programs also spend some of their time on campus, gathering for a few days each term to interact face-to-face with classmates and professors, debate case studies and management decisions and participate in networking events.

As the march toward digitizing the MBA experience blazes forward - driven by universities eager to leverage new technology, broaden their pool of applicants, and meet the needs of students who would rather not hop off the corporate ladder to pursue an MBA full time - hybrid learning represents a sweet spot between the flexibility of fully online programs and the intimacy of traditional academic experiences.

"Schools have jumped on the online bandwagon, and students end up with this rather unnuanced choice between more-or-less wholly on-ground and more-or-less wholly online," said Richard Garrett, a managing director at the education consulting firm Eduventures, in The Chronicle of Higher Education last spring. "Many [students] actually want something that's a more nuanced combination of the two."

In 2010, more than 6.1 million students took at least one class online. Nearly one-third of students in higher education now take at least one online course throughout their educational career. And, it's no longer just the for-profit behemoths like the University of Phoenix (with more than 30,000 MBA students alone) that offer online courses. The crème de la crème are quickly signing on.

Hundreds of thousands of students signed up when Stanford offered three computer science courses online for free last fall. In May, MIT and Harvard announced the launch of edX, a new platform to broadcast free lectures to millions of students around the world. And this past summer, education startup Coursera announced that it would offer online courses from 33 top universities around the world, also for free, and mostly without credit. Last year, University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School became the first business school in the top twenty ranking programs to offer a mostly-online curriculum.

But the rapid growth of online education - measured by enrollment bumps of no less than 10 percent each year for the past decade - doesn't mean students are satisfied with purely online experiences. In 2007, an Eduventures survey of more than 2,000 adult students showed that one-third of students preferred hybrid programs, but only 16.6 percent had experienced them, a tempting gap in supply and demand that business schools are rushing to fill.

Pervaded by an aura of experimentation, the current landscape of hybrid MBA options contains an array of approaches, methodologies and philosophies about what makes the best 'blend' for success. (Just look at the exotic modifiers attached to the names of the various programs: FlexMode, Place and Space, MBA@ and iMBA, among others.)

Many programs include in-person interaction just a fraction of the time, like Penn State's iMBA program, with two week-long residencies over the course of 23 months. Other programs take a worldly approach, like the global MBA program hosted by the IE Business School in Spain. Students spend two weeks in Madrid on both ends of the 15-month program, rendezvous in Shanghai for another two weeks midway through and study online the rest of the time. Some programs, like Cornell-Queen's Executive MBA Program (co-hosted by Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell and Queen's Universities in Ontario) send students to boardrooms in 23 cities across the world for weekend-long interactive videoconferencing sessions.

Most programs offer a mix of asynchronous activities - exercises and pre-recorded lectures that are often highly produced - with synchronous ones, like online discussion seminars. New video conferencing tools feel more intimate than ever before, panning from one up-close view of a student to the next, as different speakers lend their voices to the conversation.

Despite the diversity in the models, research so far shows that, overall, blended education works. In 2010, a meta-analysis of more than 1,000 studies of online education by the U.S. Department of Education called blended learning "more effective" than "conventional face-to-face" classes (as opposed to purely online, which could be just as effective, but not more). A small study from 2004 argues that blended courses can create a stronger sense of community among learners than even traditional, in-person classes.

“This is about enabling a first-class learning experience for those who can’t follow the standard schedule.” —UCLA Anderson’s Dean Judy Olian

Into this exciting new milieu enters UCLA Anderson, whose newest option in its suite of MBA offerings is a hybrid one: Fully Employed MBA Flex (FEMBA Flex).

FEMBA Flex divides students' time fifty-fifty between in-person instruction and online activities. Students grace UCLA's Westwood campus with their presence only four weekends per quarter for classes, as opposed to once or twice a week in the standard FEMBA program. It's an approach tailored to the constraints of full-time professionals whose careers, personal lives or geographic locations make it challenging to commute regularly to L.A.'s Westside. The bulk of the coursework is completed online from the comfort of a home office, coffee shop or wherever busy students find themselves when they're ready to engage with their studies.

While UCLA Anderson has offered electives online in the past, FEMBA Flex marks the biggest investment in online education the school has made so far. "Our goals are a little different from some of the efforts that you see in the press," says Professor John Mamer, who will teach his probability and statistics course "Data and Decisions" in the hybrid format to approximately 35 students this fall. "It's not meant to broadcast our education around the world," he says. "It's really meant to access a specific group of people who meet the stringent qualifications for getting into one of our programs." UCLA Anderson's Dean Judy Olian adds, "This is about enabling a first-class learning experience for those who can't follow the standard schedule."

For a top business school like UCLA Anderson, the challenge is to figure out how to maintain the institution's high educational standards while experimenting with new ways to transmit information. "It's a lot more than filming a professor," says Olian. "We fit the content to the medium so that we're doing live cases in the classroom, and transmitting lectures and prepared Q and A for more standard topics."

Watching a pre-recorded video of one of Professor Mamer's statistics lectures, for instance, is likely to offer a student just as comprehensive a learning experience as attending in person. Some students even prefer it that way, according to George Ingersoll ('09), a UCLA Anderson alum, a doctoral student in UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies researching online education, and an internal consultant who helped design FEMBA Flex. "You can go back and review. You can slow down; you can pause," he says. "It's not like you're just sitting in a lecture, trying to absorb everything right away." And Ingersoll says there are advantages for professors as well, like the ability to mandate 100 percent class participation through a discussion board, as opposed to in a classroom, where even a robust debate might only draw commentary from a handful of students.

Carla Hayn, Senior Associate Dean of the Executive MBA and Fully Employed MBA Programs, believes that some of the strategies employed in hybrid instruction will have positive outcomes overall for teaching. "Having more limited in-class time has made the faculty teaching in FEMBA Flex focus on how to deliver information as efficiently and effectively as possible," Hayn says. "There is a spillover effect in that some of the strategies employed in delivering material online will complement the teaching strategies employed in the non-hybrid sections."

The program faculty and advisors tend to agree that many aspects of an MBA education cannot be recreated online. "That's what makes the hybrid approach an appealing option. Students may absorb theory from their computer screens, but on campus - whether in groups or in class - they'll discuss the ambiguity of case studies, or challenge each others' strategic recommendations in vibrant debate," says Olian. "You don't want to compromise that essential ingredient when the goal is deep learning."

Another cornerstone of an MBA education that cannot fully be replicated online is face-to-face networking. FEMBA Flex will rectify the problem by instituting a rigorous social schedule when students are in Los Angeles, including three shared meals per weekend. A five-day leadership-themed orientation will take place at the beginning of the program. In the weeks between their face-to-face encounters, they'll mull over course material on Elluminate, a platform for web conferencing, and, presumably, on non-academic social networks as well. "We want to make sure that our Flex students meet as many students in the other FEMBA sections as possible," says Hayn. "This is not a satellite section operating in a separate space, but rather one that is integrally linked to the overall FEMBA and Anderson communities."

While results of networking opportunities are harder to measure, UCLA Anderson plans to closely monitor the educational outcomes of FEMBA Flex's inaugural class through testing and feedback from faculty. Since all of UCLA Anderson's students take the same exact courses from the same professors, non-FEMBA Flex students essentially become the control group of this educational experiment. It's easy enough to figure out which models are working best. As Mamer puts it, even in FEMBA Flex, "the exams will be the same."