eNEWSLINE - Business Education News from AACSB International

Benchmarking an Online MBA Program

September 2012

By Sari Wakefield, Manager, Digital Communications, AACSB International

In the most recent broadcast of eNEWSLINE Live (ENL), AACSB president and CEO, John Fernandes, discussed how online learning is influencing management education with James Dean, dean and Sarah Graham Kenan distinguished scholar and professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. In particular, James Dean was asked to describe the structure of his school's brand new online MBA program, which recently celebrated its first year, as well as provide his experiences with the development and implementation on an online MBA.

Program Structure

The MBA@UNC is a two-year program that is structured in four quarters each year, such as business quarters. The program has three primary teaching and learning methods which are quite unique.

The asynchronous portion of the program contains non-live, recorded videos for student learning, such as 60-minute videos. The videos are pre-produced to fit the curriculum, which requires quite extensive production assistance. Students may view the videos at any time.

The synchronous portion of the program contains live interactions with 12 to 15 students and a faculty member online in real time. Students and the professor can see, hear, and communicate with each other. This type of method allows students to have the real-time interaction that many online programs are lacking. This method has been well received, as faculty have described the synchronous portion of the program as "probably more intimate than a large classroom experience."

This portion of the program gathers the students and the faculty once per quarter (four times per year) for a long weekend. The gatherings have been located worldwide, for example in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, San Francisco, California, and London, England. The next gathering will be in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This method allows the students to gather physically and complete tasks that are difficult to do online. The gatherings also include interesting and relevant guest speakers that provide students with real insight.

Program Expectations

Student Expectations
Initially, the school was not sure if the market was going to be an executive MBA student or a more traditional, full-time MBA student. During the first year of the program's operation, the school has seen students from both audiences. James Dean suggests that the market is likely "nudging" a bit more toward the executive MBA audience, with students being a little more experienced and older. James Dean also mentioned that the program exceeded his overall expectations related to student quality, in that the quality of students has been very strong. Additionally, the program has allowed several students who are not able to attend traditional, classroom-based programs to pursue higher education. For example, the program has women working full-time with children and military officers that are able to continue with the program despite being transferred to serve.

Faculty Expectations
James Dean discussed that the quality of the faculty also exceeded his expectations. For example, faculty are not required to teach in this program, it is purely a volunteer effort. Yet, the school's best faculty have stepped up to teach in the program, or signed up to teach in the future. All of which, shows faculty are open to participating in innovative, quality online programs.

Key Online Program Success Factors

Also in the ENL discussion, John Fernandes asked James Dean to provide any advice or thoughts that may be helpful for schools that are developing online programs. A few of the items he mentioned included:

Strong Leadership
Any new, innovative program needs strong leadership from day one. As James Dean described in his discussion, his school's associate dean and program's executive director have provided the type of leadership that has helped ensure success—from faculty recruiting to general oversight.

Program Quality
James Dean elaborated on the importance of having a quality program to move online. For example, if an MBA program is not quality and it is converted to an online format, it still is not quality. Therefore, ensuring the program's curriculum and structure is quality is very important.

Determining Your Market and Demand
It is important to determine who you are targeting. Additionally, your school should determine which particular sector of the market you are targeting. Within your market, it also is important to ensure that there is a demand for your program. For instance, if your online program is not an MBA program, there should be sufficient demand for that discipline online.

Think about Technology after the Program and the Market
Once the program and market are established, technology should be considered. This allows for technology to be structured around the needs of the program, versus having to limit the program due to the boundaries of pre-existing technology. Although, this may be difficult to do if your school has a pre-established technological platform. Finding a hosted platform that is already developed can help alleviate the steep learning curve that is associated with working with in-house IT.

Aligning University Processes
Any online program should interface with registration (the Registrar's Office), admissions, financial aid, and all of the operations that generally support a program. This can be a challenge if the program needs to be managed a bit differently than traditional offerings.

Preparing for Approval to Deliver the Program
In the United States, each state requires that online programs are approved. Your institution should be prepared to go through a rather lengthy and often frustrating process. Also, specialized accreditors should be carefully considered, such as AACSB and others. This is likely the situation in most any country.

To learn more about MBA@UNC and how online education has impacted management education, view the eNEWSLINE Live broadcast "Incorporating Online Learning into Management Education."