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With more students studying for M.B.A.s online than on campus for the first time ever, I’ve been thinking about what makes a scaled online degree program successful. Brooke Elliott, executive associate dean, and Nerissa Brown, associate dean of graduate programs at the University of Illinois, graciously shared the lessons they’ve learned since launching the iMBA in 2016 on Coursera.

The program was the first degree on Coursera and pioneered the stackable degree model, which allowed students to first take a course or specialization from the program. It’s also offered at a breakthrough price—$23,000, about a third of the average price of residential M.B.A. programs.

In 2016, the first iMBA cohort was about 100 students, and this academic year, it’s over 4,600. Here’s what they’ve learned as they’ve grown the program.

Q: You’re one of the early innovators in making online degrees more accessible, affordable and job relevant. A large part of that success is your stackable, scalable degree model. Tell me about how you started with the iMBA degree, including how you got internalBrooke Elliott, a white woman with light hair wearing a blue blazer over an orange shirt. buy-in and how you’ve continued to grow your online degree portfolio.

Brooke: The University of Illinois is a land-grant institution, and the iMBA started with this mission in mind—to provide high-quality, accessible and affordable education to all who desire it and are committed to pursuing it. The program was designed to be online from the beginning; every facet of the program from course length, number of course offerings, synchronous and asynchronous content type and duration, technology for delivery and engagement, to the faculty engaged to develop and deliver the content was intentionally designed to serve an online learner who was also a working professional. From the beginning, we committed to having our very best tenure-track and specialized faculty develop and deliver the content—this differentiated us early on in the online market and continues to be a key differentiator for the iMBA program.

In full transparency, internal buy-in was challenging as we were building and preparing to launch the program. Many academics and administrators were skeptical that we could create and deliver a program that maintained the high-quality, rigorous academic standards that the University of Illinois has built its reputation on while also making the program accessible and affordable. However, we were committed to disrupting the graduate business education space, and our very best faculty believed in our mission and our ability to transform higher education. Through the commitment of our faculty, the leadership of our administrators and our willingness to think wholly different about how to deliver high-quality education we were able to successfully launch and grow the iMBA.

Nerissa: The growth of our online portfolio is grounded in our core land-grant mission of providing accessible and flexible lifelong learning opportunities. We aim to meet learners where they are, and as such, our ongoing strategy is to build stackable content from the ground up. We visualize our portfolio as building blocks and start at the microcredential level when developing new content or repackaging existing content.

For instance, we often start with our Skills iCademies or Coursera MOOCs when building out or packaging new content areas. Our iCademy and MOOC offerings are short, learning programs that offer in-demand skills that can be consumed easily. The content from theseNerissa Brown, a Black woman with straight dark hair. microcredentials form the core of many our credit-bearing, high-engagement courses that learners can pursue either as stand-alone, nondegree courses or as a part of our graduate certificate and degree programs. It is with this building-block mind-set that Gies became the first university partner of Grow with Google and the creator of Illinois’ first set of campus graduate certificates.

We are constantly innovating our portfolio to meet market demand for upskilling and reskilling. In fact, we are creating a catalog of certificate programs in specialized skills such as analytics, digital marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as foundational business skills in accounting, finance and management. Two certificates in accountancy analytics and strategic leadership are expected to launch in August and are now accepting applications. We are also in the process of developing in-demand content in disruptive technologies.

Q: How do you replicate the high engagement full-time, residential M.B.A.s are known for, like networking, at scale and make these programs successful?

Brooke: When you ask our iMBA alums to identify the greatest values provided by the program, they almost always talk about the outstanding network they have joined and the individuals they have come to know and befriend. In residential education, a small group of individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences come together in a common location to have a common educational experience.

What is unique about the iMBA program is that a large number of individuals from more diverse backgrounds and experiences come together to have a common educational experience but from locations all around the world. The learners in iMBA are more diverse in background and experience because when you offer education that is accessible and affordable you attract and serve a more diverse set of learners. And the network that you build around the world is unmatched—some of our learners wake up in Dubai while others wake up in Chicago, and they all learn together! We use technology and an internal social media–like platform to drive engagement and provide opportunities for our learners to develop and grow their networks.

Nerissa: We also provide opportunities for individuals around the world to meet each other in person. We host an in-person networking and professional development event each fall on campus called iConverge. In fall 2021, we had just under 1,000 current students and alums come together to learn and to meet each other and faculty face-to-face. You would never know that many had never met in person, as they often embrace one another as lifelong friends and colleagues. In addition to iConverge, we host a series of professional development and networking events around the United States and the globe.

Gies Online has multiple, successful ways in which our learners network and engage in experiential learning. Networking and experiential learning is a core part of the Gies brand, and this is no different when it comes to our online programs. In addition to iConverge, we offer a series of impactful immersion programs to our online learners. Our immersions are a collaborative networking experience that you will not see in most online M.B.A. programs.

We offer both virtual and in-person immersion opportunities, and the experience is rated high by our participants. Over the last two years, we have immersed students in the business and cultural ecosystems of domestic and international locations such as Dallas (Tex.), Colombia, Ghana and Japan. We are getting ready for our first in-person immersion to Seattle since the pandemic, and attendee interest has been tremendous. We will continue to offer an annual series of virtual immersions so that learners who are unable to participate in person can still gain firsthand experience of global business.

Q: What advice do you have for university leaders who are trying to launch a scaled online degree?

Brooke: Be bold and purposeful in designing the program—do not simply take an existing residential program and move it online. Engage faculty in the design of the program from its inception—faculty buy-in and passion for online education are critical to its success. Identify teaching and learning talent with expertise in pedagogy, assessment and technology—whether this exists within your own university or you need to hire from outside. Be clear about how online education can serve your educational mission and enhance your institution’s reputation.

Nerissa: Strong investment in faculty and staff talent. Gies Online has been successful in attracting talent from across the nation. For instance, we’ve been able to attract instructors who are industry and technology leaders and who bring their practical experience directly to our virtual classrooms. We’ve been also nimble in our talent acquisition by offering remote work arrangements to staff and our faculty. Flexible work is crucial to tap into top talent, and recent university announcements on remote work arrangements illustrate how important it is for higher ed institutions to meet talent where they are—similar to how online education reaches learners in the location and at the time that works best for them.

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