How Gies Business Designed & Delivers ‘The World’s MBA’

Gies College of Business iMBA graduates

The first graduating class of iMBA students at Gies College of Business

Brown: Let me just say we haven’t ruled out the possibility of participating in the rankings in the future. When we first created this program, we did not create it around the idea of, how do we maximize rankings? We really created it to reduce barriers and to have a student focus. We wanted to have a program that we could be really proud of and that was consistent with our mission. What we’ve done is very different from anything that’s ever been done before. Part of the general concern we have about rankings is we fundamentally believe we have the best online program and the highest value online program anywhere in the world. We don’t need a ranking to tell us that.

Having said that, we recognize that rankings are important to a lot of students. There are very few students applying the MBA programs that haven’t gone to the Poets&Quants website and done their research. We’re having a look at it. The thing is what we’re doing is so different from other programs out there. Any methodology has to take a stand on what it’s going to measure and what it’s not going to measure. It’s a little bit like we build a high-performance sports car. We build a Tesla that, by the way, we’re selling at the price of a Hyundai, and someone is asking us to be rated on the basis of heavy-duty trucks. I’m exaggerating it. We just want to make sure that before we make a decision to enter into the rankings, we feel that they’re measuring the things that are important to us.

Byrne: My sense of it is that wherever you rank, I’m sure you’d be in the top 10 and, if not, it’s inconsequential because the cost-benefit analysis on the degree is so good.

Brown: Absolutely. We haven’t ruled out that we might participate someday down the road. Stay tuned.

Saiyed: I don’t think viewers and anybody else should forget that at the end of the day, this is a premier institution: both the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign as well as Gies College of Business. The university is 150 years old and the college is nearly 100 years old. That sustained excellence should also matter.

Brown: Whether we participate in the rankings or not, you’re absolutely right. We’re one of the great public research universities anywhere in the world. Anywhere we do participate in rankings in other graduate programs, undergraduate programs, we always perform exceedingly well.

Byrne: And in your online MBA program, you’re putting your best faculty.

Saiyed: Many of our best and tenured faculty are teaching in the program.

Byrne: Having met a number of people on your learning team, the people behind the scenes in many cases who make things happen, I can attest that the faculty that you do put in the room are very strongly supported by an incredible staff.

Brown: I’m glad you brought this up. I just have to say this whole program never would have been possible had it not been for our e-learning team. Our executive director of e-learning, Norma Scagnoli, has a PhD in education. She had worked on online programs before. She, Arshad, John Tubbs, who leads our media team, the whole staff there is one of the most impressive groups of professionals that I’ve ever worked with in any setting. It really is because of the expertise, the passion, the desire, the belief, and the mission, that we’ve been able to make this all possible because doing online education is different from what we’ve done for a hundred years in this college.

Faculty wouldn’t have been able to figure it out on their own. They needed that support and the knowledge and the training that came with that. It’s really an exceptional group.

Byrne: Roughly 3% to 5% of all the degrees conferred in America today are online. There’s no doubt that that’s going to grow and grow fairly rapidly. Already in the online MBA space, there’s incredible competition. I think there are well over 300 online MBA programs in the U.S. alone. Every month, there seems to be another school coming into the market. How are you going to keep the program ahead of the competition?

Brown: By constantly staying focused on being the best on innovating, on the spirit of continuous improvement, and by really kind of scanning the horizon and always looking ahead at what’s coming next, and what can we do differently and better? Whether it’s on the technology front where we are already sitting here today looking at technologies that are, at best, a few years out on the market and just starting to think about how they might affect the environment that we’re in? How might we incorporate it when the time comes?

Byrne: Like virtual reality?

Brown: Any number of things. If you look down the road far enough, you can get into all kinds of creative things. That’s part of it. That’s a big part of it. I mean, you spend every day thinking about these issues.

Saiyed: I go back to the overall value proposition. For a long time, the MBA degree has ended up being defined physically on campus with a six-figure cost. We’ve gone beyond just online technology to remove the barrier around stackability, around cost. We certainly feel that the market has not been truly defined. It’s not a zero-sum game here. We are also bringing newer segments into an MBA degree. The degree is still valued on their bucket list and now they say, “Oh, now I can do this.” That I think has also enabled a lot of students to participate.

Byrne: It’s less about taking market share and more about expanding market share?

Saiyed: That’s absolutely what we believe in.

Brown: We are definitely growing the market. We have a lot of students who flat out said if it wasn’t for the flexibility, affordability, and so forth combined with the quality, they may have never been able to achieve it. We hear that from U.S. students. We hear it from international students. We’ve got some pretty amazing stories out there about how we’ve positively changed people’s lives because of this unique combination of access, affordability, and excellence that is no trivial feat to have combined those three things. We see evidence of it every day.

Byrne: Now, you talk about the iMBA as being in a high engagement model. Tell me what makes it a high engagement? What are the ingredients that you’ve added?

Saiyed: I’ll start with a broad framework. When I think about engagement within our program, I think about it in the sense of curriculum and content, that students will engage in. How do they engage with our curriculum which is broad-based? How do they engage with our faculty members? Then finally, how do they engage with each other? Around the curriculum, we’ve talked about how we’ve broken the barrier to allow them to access the content at any point in time.

You have live sessions with the faculty member. You have active group assignments every week with the students and their peers during faculty office hours. That leads to an academic engagement layer. On top of that, we also talk about the overall student experience. There, you have to talk about how do you engage them socially, virtually? They facilitate their own study groups, meetups in different cities all over the world.

I was in London. I’ll be in Dubai in a few weeks. But that creates another layer of engagement for them to connect with each other with alumni, with faculty leadership, and so on. Today, at iConverge, our annual event here, they’ll be on campus, 400 plus students engaging with each other. That’s what we define as high engagement.

Byrne: This is an annual event where you’ve invited your iMBA students on campus for the third time. iConverge is a four-day event. There’ll be classes. There’ll be a lot of networking. Pizza tonight,

Brown: There’s also a football game on Saturday. There’s learning. There’s fun. There’s socializing. The first year we did it, I loved it when students were coming together for the first time. It’s when I really realized that we had created something magical here because students who had never met face to face were running up to each other and giving each other big hugs like they were lifelong friends. Asking about each other’s kids. Asking about work. We had created this community online. The technology that underlies these connections didn’t exist at a level of sophistication and quality 10 years ago. I think one of the reasons that online education is a small percent of the market but growing rapidly is because we’ve figured out the technology. We’ve figured out the teaching model that really leverages it. It is an exceptionally high-quality experience.

If you go back to online programs from a decade ago, it was a PowerPoint and voiceover. That is not what we’ve got today. We’ve got professional production, videoing, storyboarding, all of that, plus these live sessions that are very interactive, not just with the faculty, but among the students themselves.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.