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'Dream Big, Start Small'

The University of Illinois's iMBA program offers encouraging news about the viability of graduate degrees built on MOOCs.

October 7, 2016
 

Less than a year after the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s M.B.A.-through-MOOCs program launched, its College of Business says it is seeing the contours of a model it can use to promote the university abroad, enroll previously untapped groups of students and attract corporate partners.

Since launching in January, the roughly $22,000 online program, called the iMBA, has brought 270 new degree-seeking and tuition-paying students to the college. Another 80 are paying to take individual courses, priced at about $1,000 each. The college has also seen more than 950,000 people sign up for free versions of the courses, which have been offered on Coursera, a massive open online course platform, for 18 months. About 27,000 of them have paid a fee to receive an identity-verified certificate (see more information about the program here).

The college has previously described the iMBA program and its four configurations as “Lego blocks” that build on one another. Most of the content is delivered through the Coursera MOOCs, but credit-seeking students -- who need to apply and be admitted to the college -- can access additional case studies and assessments through the university’s content management system.

“We are beyond excited,” Rajagopal Echambadi, the college’s senior associate dean of M.B.A. programs and strategic innovation, said about the enrollment numbers. “We seem to have tapped into a market where people were completely underserved.”

The college had expected to enroll fewer degree-seeking students -- about 200 -- and up to 300 students taking individual courses. But combined with the interest in the free MOOCs, the numbers have surpassed the expectations of the university, which Echambadi said is redefining itself “as being in the education business and not exclusively in the degree business.”

The iMBA is one of a handful of programs that use the scale of MOOCs to both find new students and teach more of them than can fit in a residential program. The Georgia Institute of Technology’s low-cost online master’s degree in computer science, created in partnership with the online education provider Udacity, is another early and prominent example. The program launched in 2014, and UIUC cited it as one of the main influences guiding the development of the iMBA program.

Graduate degrees that use MOOCs appear to be close to an inflection point. Last month, MOOC provider edX announced that more than a dozen of its partner universities around the world would participate in an expansion of its MicroMasters program, bringing 19 new programs to the marketplace. The programs allow students to finish between one-quarter to half of the curriculum through MOOCs before transferring to the residential program.

The demographic makeup of the cohorts UIUC has recruited for the iMBA so far suggests the program appeals to students not served by the college’s other M.B.A. programs, Echambadi said. The college doesn’t offer a separate online M.B.A. program, but runs three residential programs: an executive program that draws exclusively from Chicago and central Illinois, a professional program that attracts students living in the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area, and a full-time program in which half of the students come from the Midwest, half from other regions. The full-time program usually has a small group of international students from between eight and 10 countries, Echambadi said.

The people who applied as degree-seeking students to the iMBA program are the most diverse group of applicants the college has seen -- at least based on national origin. The college received more than 1,100 applications, and although 82.5 percent of them came from people based in the U.S., the international applicants represented a greater variety of countries than applicants to the college’s other M.B.A. programs -- about 50, Echambadi said.

The demographics also reveal areas where the college needs to improve, Echambadi said. Gender is one of them. The typical student admitted to the iMBA program is a 37-year-old man with 12 years of work experience (three times as much as the average student in the full-time program). Women make up only 26 percent of the 270 students admitted.

“We thought by virtue of being flexible and convenient that we’d have larger numbers [of women],” Echambadi said. “We are not there yet.”

The gender gap resembles what Georgia Tech experienced when it admitted its first cohort to the computer science program. While men in the residential program at the time outnumbered women by a three-to-one margin, the gap widened to nine to one among the first 401 students admitted to the online program.

Carol Aslanian, president and founder of Aslanian Market Research, said in an interview that she was “stumped” by the gender disparity, calling it “totally out of line” with national numbers. While computer science is a traditionally male-dominated field, data collected by the firm suggest that women are overrepresented in online graduate business degree programs, 60 to 40 percent.

Aslanian said she could not point to a clear reason why women are showing less interest in the iMBA program, but speculated UIUC’s marketing efforts, the cohort model or the experimental nature of the program could be less attractive to women.

“Women are not as risk taking as men when it comes to taking that real degree they need to do well in business,” Aslanian said.

The college admits cohorts to the iMBA program twice a year -- in January and August. Echambadi said the college plans to admit about 175 students for the January 2017 cohort and then continue to expand the program until it reaches 1,000 total degree-seeking students (though that number is not “set in stone,” he said).

The program will grow “responsibly,” Echambadi stressed. At the moment, students are sorted into 25-person sections, each with an assigned teaching assistant drawn from the college’s pool of graduate students. The college likes that ratio and does not intend to build the program to a point where it would need to increase the size of the sections, he said.

The college is also paying attention to demands on instructor time. While most of the course work can be completed asynchronously, faculty members are required to host two live sessions a week to accommodate students in different time zones. The college has about 100 faculty members, and roughly 20 of them have so far been involved in creating the iMBA program, Echambadi said.

In a statement, Nikhil Sinha, Coursera’s chief business officer, said the growth of the iMBA program suggests the master’s degree market is “ripe for innovation.” The MOOC provider has found UIUC’s results promising enough to launch a master of computer science in data science degree following the same model at UIUC.

“The University of Illinois has been a fantastic partner as we explore ways to make degrees from high-quality institutions more accessible through a model that is entirely online and extremely flexible,” Sinha said. “We’re confident these programs will pave the way for other educational institutions to establish flexible, stackable and affordable graduate programs in the future.”

Although the iMBA program has attracted fewer non-degree-seeking students than expected, Echambadi said the college has yet to take advantage of two initiatives that could quickly boost those numbers.

Corporate partnerships is one of them. Since the launch, the college has heard from companies eager to sign up their employees for a single course of the iMBA program, for example strategic leadership or digital marketing, Echambadi said. The college has also been approached by other business schools interested in awarding transfer credit to their own students if they complete courses in UIUC’s program.

Both options are being considered as the iMBA program moves beyond its launch phase, Echambadi said, adding, “Our mantra is dream big, start small.”

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