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My friend and former colleague Kaitlin Dumont, now director of university partners at Kaplan, introduced me to her friend Charlotte Wang. Charlotte is a lead learningCharlotte Wang, a young Asian woman wearing a gray blazer. facilitator in the online M.B.A. program at Boston University Questrom School of Business (where Kaitlin is getting her M.B.A.). As I’m fascinated by the growth, operations and potential of low-cost and scaled online degree programs, Charlotte graciously agreed to answer my questions.

Q: What drove you to work on BU Questrom’s online M.B.A.? How has your role evolved over time?

A: I’ve been with Questrom’s online M.B.A. (OMBA) program since its inception in the fall of 2020. My role has changed every six months since I joined, as the program experienced explosive growth. In the earliest days, I partnered with faculty, instructional designers and technologists to create a launch plan and road map. As we gradually built out all six modules of the program, I also helped create an operational process around quality assurance of the weekly content, cadence of content refresh/redesign and consolidated academic policies and standards. There are three aspects of the program that made it an exciting venture for me:

  1. BU did not build the program in a silo but partnered with ed-tech providers. From the very beginning, we worked closely with Blackboard, YellowDig (student discussion board), Feedback Fruits (Peer Feedback) and other ed-tech tools to integrate them as part of our learning platform and learning design. We use SalesForce to manage student appointments and address student questions. We continue to monitor feedback to the existing tools and evaluate emerging tools that would add to the student experience.
  2. Continuous improvement as a part of the online M.B.A.’s DNA. Although we’ve built out all six modules of OMBA, we continue to evolve the content and format based on student and faculty feedback. I work very closely with students to get their feedback, then channel their feedback to various internal stakeholders and rally the team to build new features or make updates to existing ones. We made many updates in the last year and a half.
  3. OMBA’s focus on quality at scale. From the start, OMBA’s vision has been to deliver quality at scale business education and student experience. From the start, we have wrestled with the question of how to make OMBA students feel connected to each other and to the program, particularly as enrollment grew. On the engagement piece, we’ve been experimenting with incorporating chat function during the live component of each Mod. Or simulating a “student lounge” with Zoom. We are also working on metrics to track student engagement, or an early alert system for students who have been falling behind. On the scale piece, we are working on developing better rubrics as well as taking advantage of the cohort-based learning for peer review and feedback. Peer learning allows students, who are adult learners, to leverage their professional experience and contribute to the OMBA learning community.

Q: You received your M.B.A. from the traditional residential program at Questrom, correct? How do the residential and online degrees overlap and differ? Is it really possible to offer a high-quality but low-cost online master’s degree?

A: Yes! I am a proud graduate of Questrom’s residential M.B.A. program (however, if OMBA were an option then, I would have totally enrolled in OMBA instead!). In terms of similarity, both OMBA and the residential program draw from the world-class faculty at Questrom. Both OMBA and residential M.B.A. graduates can tap into BU’s incredible alumni network and employer brand.

However, the residential and online M.B.A. appeal to completely different audiences. The average student in the online M.B.A. program has 11 or 12 years of experience, and most are looking to round out their business skill in their current industry or function rather than making a career change. A considerable number of students are based outside of New England, do not want to uproot their families and are attracted to the flexibility of a fully online M.B.A. program and to Questrom’s reputation as a top-ranked business school. In terms of curriculum, OMBA is notable for its integrated curriculum focused on business problems rather than academic specializations. The program does not offer separate electives in a given module—busy adult learners do not want the additional mental load of picking classes. Comparing this to my experience when I was at Questrom—most of us were in our mid- to late 20s, and we were looking to explore by sampling a variety of classes. Most of us also entered the residential M.B.A. program with a desire to change careers (such as consulting, tech, etc.) so we needed to sample lots of different topics.

It is definitely possible to offer a high-quality master’s degree at a competitive tuition price point. One way to manage cost, as I mentioned, is by having an integrated curriculum that combines core and elective content to address key business problems. So our approach to scale maximizes what we offer. This is what allows us to offer an affordable M.B.A. We also use a variety of tools that helped us to better scale our impact and peer-to-peer engagement. For example, we use Zoom for a synchronous “live” session that complements the asynchronous instructional videos. We also use a peer-to-peer learning platform called YellowDig to allow for the co-creation of knowledge as students share their similarities and differences about the business problems they face. Peer review and feedback is another cornerstone of what we are trying to do more of in our team assignments. We put considerable thought into the teams that students are placed in so that they can learn from each other. Students have told us that teaming is not only valuable for peer support but is also a critical skill for working in cross-functional, geo-dispersed settings in the future of work.

Q: What does Questrom’s online M.B.A. have to teach the rest of higher education? What can other colleges and universities learn from this low-cost, online and scaled degree program?

A: It’s funny you ask this question. Recently in my higher ed book club we were reading The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future by Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt. This book discusses the seismic changes higher ed is going through, and for me, OMBA is at the forefront of it. Specifically, OMBA moves education from location bound to anytime, anyplace; from fixed/synchronous to variable, on-demand; from individual learning to peer/collaborative learning. This is the future of higher ed.

At the end of the book the authors look to the newspaper industry for comparison. The news business thought of itself as being in the newspaper business, as opposed to the news distribution business. The result was that it was unprepared for the digital transformation that took away readership of physical newspaper and consequently advertising revenue. As online and other forms of digital learning proliferate, it is time that we should ask ourselves, “What business is higher ed in?”

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