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

One of five iMBA studios at the Gies College of Business on the University of Illinois campus

Byrne: I want to talk a little bit about the live sessions because, at this price point, there are very few if any other programs that literally have weekly live class sessions on the internet. For every single one of your courses, you have a weekly live session. A lot of planning goes into that. Each live session is actually done three times live to account for the different time zones in which you have students. It’s an extraordinary commitment by the school and faculty to be in that studio for those live sessions.

You will often have two professors in the class not just one, or an assistant who’s also handling different aspects of the teaching assignment. You have the ability to break students out in as many as 50 different breakout rooms on Zoom which allows three to five student member teams to get together and to discuss a topic or discussion related to that given class session. That’s the level of engagement and commitment that frankly, you only find in six-figure and upper programs.

Brown: Set price aside for a moment. Our goal was to create the best online MBA program out there. Then on top of that, we wanted to make it affordable and accessible. I think we’ve done that. Again, I gave a shout out to our e-learning team, which is exceptional, and our online programs team. But I need to give enormous credit to our faculty too who stepped forward to embrace this new environment. In many cases, they didn’t quite know what they were signing up for. They knew they were going to teach an online class but didn’t realize how much of a team effort was needed to be in place to help them. We made some missteps early on. We fixed them. We’ve improved processes, and they have stuck with it.

Some of the faculty now say this is some of their favorite teaching. In part, that’s a testament to the enormously high quality of our students who come in with maturity and work experience. But there are also other features of it that are really interesting. Before I was dean, I used to teach in our residential MBA program. If some students over here on the side of the classroom were having a sidebar discussion, it sort of interfered with the flow of the class. In the online setting, we can encourage those sidebar discussions because they’re happening in a chat room. If it turns into something really interesting, one of our course assistants will throw it out there to the professor. The faculty member will see it and draw it out and lead the whole course in that direction. There are things that are possible in the online setting that are not possible in the residential classroom. We’ve really learned to leverage that in some pretty exciting ways.

Byrne: One of the most obvious differences is that you can actually go back and watch the class again. If you are a student where English is a second language to you, that could be incredibly valuable. Or if the class revolves around a difficult subject or a concept, you can just roll the tape again at your convenience. You’ve also added global immersions. Talk a little bit about what students do there.

Saiyed: We have noticed that our online students are so hungry for the academic side of these immersions. When they go to these countries, they focus on the macro-economic aspect of it, not only of the country but of the region. Then, we focus on company visits. We have an academic lead talking about how to connect the dots around what they had learned across the program. Then there’s the cultural aspect to it. It’s a 10-day visit in these global immersions where they not only connect with each other. They connect around academics in a different country, in a different environment, learning from businesses. They have these networking opportunities with alumni in these countries and current students.

That’s a good mix of engagement as an option that is available to students because part of it is also rolled into the curriculum around our capstone project. They also get some of that experiential component in an online setting, but those who desire to get an experience in a physical environment, that exists now. In a month, we are going to roll in a micro-immersion in Los Angeles on electric vehicles and how they will impact the energy industry. That’s another layer that we are adding for students to experience whether they are regionally focused around an industry or on a much more macro level on a country.

Brown: We’re doing lots of other things, too. We’re rolling out a new professional development/career development platform this year to help students and alumni. Many of our students are really just trying to enhance their skill set and their current careers. But we do have some who are looking to change jobs and change careers. This initiative is meant to support those goals. I travel a lot as a dean to meet with alumni. When we have alumni events all around the country and around the world, we let our online students know about them. I’ve had instances where we’ve had more online students show up than we have alumni. That’s a really neat opportunity for our online students and our alumni from all our traditional undergrad/grad programs to come together.

We always want to continue to improve. Once we get these things rolled out successfully, we’ll be on to the next things. Our goal is to just continue to make this program better and better every year.

Byrne: I should point out you have had two global immersions in the past year. You’re doubling that this year to four. You’re rolling out the domestic mini-immersions and plan on doing five or six of them in different cities this year. One thing I like about this is that it’s not required. You don’t have to go. If you do go, you pay an additional fee. For your global immersion, what was the fee?

Saiyed: It was $2,500 which is travel cost. The goal at the end of the day is we are here to enable opportunities for students. This is not about maximizing profits on our end in any way.

Byrne: Three and a half years ago, you had 114 students. This fall, you have more than 2,500. They will come from 90 different countries and 47 states, which is mind-blowing. Why do you think the program has grown so fast?

Brown: I think people have come to recognize the exceptional value. There’s nothing else like it that combines this level of excellence, this level of flexibility, and the access through the low price point. Our best advocates for the program are the students that are in it. They tell their co-workers, they tell their colleagues. They talk about it on social media. That brings in the next crowd of students. It is the closest thing I’ve seen to the higher ed equivalent of going viral. We’ve created something truly exceptional where I think the value is just unparalleled in business education today. Our students are smart. They know a good deal when they see it.

Byrne: Another very appealing part of the program is that students can apply immediately what they learn at work. I think 20% actually want to switch their careers, but most want to just enhance the careers that they already have.

Brown: We call them skill builders versus career switchers. We have several terms for the different types of students who come forward. The typical student in our program is not coming back because they’re unhappy in a career and they want to switch. They’re coming back here because they’ve reached a point in their career where they realize that some additional knowledge is going to help them perform their jobs better and give them opportunities to move up in their own organization or be more effective in their jobs.

Saiyed: I just literally received an email a week ago through one of our students who said, “I just got a job offer from Google in data analytics.” The reason he was able to do that and go there right away is that they were part of our business analytics specialization. You hear those kinds of stories over and over again.

Brown: We’ve also heard examples of people who will talk about present value calculations in their finance class. Then the next day, they report back that they were in a meeting and there was a discussion about valuation. They were able to contribute to the conversation in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to just 48 hours before.

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.