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

Byrne: Now, what kind of commitment is necessary in the program? How long does it take to get an MBA degree online?

Saiyed: Just from a broad flexibility point of view, I think students have about two to three years in the program. They can select a two-year degree plan, two and a half years, or three years. We understand that life happens. If that’s the case, then they can go beyond three years as well. But I will not say this is an easy program. It’s a rigorous program. You need a level of commitment, which means that you have to be able to commit at least10 to 15 hours a week per course. I think that’s quite normal across different MBA programs.

Byrne: A student would normally take two courses or one at a time?

Saiyed: Well, it depends. Half the student body tends to pick a two-year timeline, the other half is split into two and a half to three years. Depending on your speed, if you take two courses, then you should think about doubling up that time in terms of commitment. All of that involves watching the videos, interacting in live sessions, group work, assignments and so on. A typical course is eight weeks long and involves eight live sessions as well.

There are a total of 18 courses in the program. 12 of those are mandatory, which are part of our core curriculum. Six of those are elective options.

Byrne: Which I’m just going to add is a little different because many online programs, particularly in this price point, offer no electives. You get the core, and that’s about it.

Brown: We have electives, and there’ll be even more electives going forward. That’s one of the ways that we’re continuing to innovate not only from content from our exceptional Gies Business faculty but also we’re in conversations with other units across campus to bring some of those strengths to bear as well. I think Arshad was about to mention that in addition, we have these capstone courses. Let’s take one area in our core. There will be three classes that together form this block of courses. Then there’ll be a capstone for that course as well.

Saiyed: There are six sequences or specializations that students have to complete, four mandatory, two elective. They can pick and choose two capstones out of these six specialization capstones. Then at the end of the program, they do a program capstone. But one thing I wanted to add, is that we are in a new world and in a new era in terms of what the future will look like. This involves constantly upgrading your knowledge. We firmly believe that it’s important for students to rescale and upscale at a clip that is probably not seen in the past.

For that, it’s important that students have the opportunity to take courses that are more relevant, that are coming in the future that we can provide them as electives.

Brown: One of the beautiful things about being on a campus like this that is just a world-class university across the board is that when these new things appear, and we see that they’re going to be an important component in business, we can work with our colleagues across campus to provide that material. Just to step back, 18 courses to complete the degree. 12 of those are required, 6 are chosen as electives. Then we’ve got those capstones built in there as well.

Byrne: Great. We’re going to get a little bit more into the actual experience and what it’s like on our next livestream with a bunch of current iMBA students. But we have a good number of questions from the audience. Here’s a question from someone who says, ‘how do you scale the in-class experience? What worked for hundreds of students, this person believes, will not work for thousands.’ What do you say?

Brown: It goes back to what we said about very intentionally designing the program for the environment that we’re operating in. We need to approach it differently and use the set of tools and methods that are most effective in the environment in which you’re operating. This is one of the things that’s been so exciting to observe over the last few years. It’s not just our online team, and our e-learning team. But it’s also the creativity of the faculty who come in with a set of clear learning objectives. They know what ideas they want to communicate. They know what they want the students to learn, and how they want the students to work together. You start with that as a goal. Then you think about how we do that in this environment to maximize the learning.

We’ve really created a lot of new approaches along the way. I can tell you that the learning experience is exceptional. The way I would answer the question is you give me something that you want the students to learn and we will find a very effective way to do it at scale in an online setting. It might not be taught in exactly the same way we would do it in a 50 person class. But we’re going to find a way to do it. If we ever reach the point where we think we’ve kind of hit our limit, we’ll stop growing. Quality is sort of job one. We’re never going to sacrifice the quality of the education, the student experience, the quality of the classroom experience, and so forth. But as long as we can maintain that quality, and we can get creative about how to teach it, then we will continue to do it at scale.

Byrne: Here’s another good question. ‘How do you assign teams in the program with students from different time zones?’

Saiyed: Actually, we just recently launched a new system. One of the key features of the program is that we don’t worry about where a student is in terms of a time zone. We do worry about their availability at a particular time. We figure out a pool of availability and then figure out how we can create a really nice, diverse team. Whether it’s around geographic locations, backgrounds, gender, or age group. That’s how we do it. That’s the magic. Of course, it’s not a perfect system. We have to manage group dynamics and all of that. But by and large, students love that aspect of being able to engage, but the program actually enforces the group. Within all our classes, the program determines the groups. In capstones, students get to pick their own groups.

Brown: If we have a student from literally the other side of the world, someone in China and someone in India, we’re not going to make them get up at three o’clock in the morning, their time, to be part of a group unless that’s their preferred time to work. If they’re a night owl, and they prefer to work in the middle of the night, and they let us know that, that’s the parameter that we’ll use in designing groups.

Byrne: Here’s another question: ‘In your MBA program, what tools do you use to facilitate adequate student engagement in peer learning?’

Brown: One of the great things about our program at Illinois is you’re immediately becoming part of a 60,000 plus strong global alumni network of just business graduates from Gies. The overall university alumni group is several hundred thousand. We’re a 150-year-old institution. But what’s really interesting about this is unlike the undergraduate student that spent four years on this campus, most of our online students have been interacting with us primarily through an online setting, except for things like iConverge and immersion weekends. It’s leading us to think about alumni engagement differently. It’s creating opportunities for us to connect online students and online alumni with our traditional alumni. It’s causing us to think about how we can use technology to do alumni engagement and networking more effectively, which is going to have positive spillovers for our existing alumni as well.

The idea of inviting students to our alumni events in person around the world is one of the things that’s come out of that. We’re also having lots of conversations about how we want to do lifelong learning for all of our students, whether online or traditional programs so that we become the natural one place that they feel like they need to go when they want to upscale or prepare themselves for the next challenge of their career.

Byrne: Jeff, as you say, the iMBA, is the world’s MBA, because it is affordable, because it is accessible, and because it’s high quality. For the price, it’s going to be really hard to find anything else.

Brown: That’s right. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about it. We’re really proud of this program. Most of all, it’s because of the quality of the students we get, and the quality of the experience that they have. I would say if anybody out there is trying to decide whether to do the program, they should talk to a current or former iMBA student, any of them. You’ll hear firsthand the amazing experience it has.

Byrne: Thank you, Dean Brown and Assistant Dean Saiyed for a great discussion.


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.