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“What’s the one thing you’d change?” asked the dean at a well-known New York institution.

As a 30-year veteran of teaching in graduate school business programs (as an adjunct), I may have hesitated before answering. But having just completed my third year in law school, I didn’t miss a beat.

"I’d do away with the Internet in the classroom," I answered. "It is simply too distracting. Kids get sucked in by Facebook, e-mail, and shopping. They simply can’t participate in class discussion."

“How is that different from doing crossword puzzles in our day?” countered the dean.

"The temptation is so much greater today. Seventy-five percent of the class wasn’t doing crosswords back then. But 75 percent are on Facebook during class today."

Computers and the Internet were supposed to revolutionize education – from pre-K through grad school. And while there have been isolated examples of teaching-learning breakthroughs – think Scholastic’s Read 180, Khan Academy – most of the so-called technological advances I’ve seen are decidedly unimpressive.

Until now.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been allowed to sit in on M.B.A. classes being offered in an online-only program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. I was encouraged to look at the program by John Katzman, the founder of 2tor, the private company that is providing both the technology platform and marketing expertise for UNC. I’ve known John for a very long time, and we’ve disagreed about politics, education, and business more often than we’ve agreed. But ever since my very first article – comparing my experiences at the Naval Academy and Brown University – some 35 years ago, when one of us suggests the other explore something out of our comfort zone, we usually grit our his teeth and try it.

An outspoken critic of online education, I did that with the Kenan-Flagler new online M.B.A. program. And I’m now convinced that what Apple’s Mac did for the personal computer, the “MBA@UNC” is about to do for higher education.

It is unlike any online educational experience I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t involve "class capture" – the use of a camera focused on a professor lecturing in the front of the room. Nor does it involve self-paced “interactive” exercises where students read passages on their computer screen and answer questions (correctly) before being allowed to advance to the next chapter. And there is real communication, not only between the teacher and the students, but among the students themselves.

The Kenan-Flagler program uses a proprietary technology platform developed by 2tor. The M.B.A. program wasn’t 2tor’s first entry into online education. The company also provides the platform for graduate programs in teaching and social work at the University of Southern California and a master's in nursing through Georgetown; it is about to launch an LL.M in law with Washington University in St. Louis. But having taught in M.B.A. and graduate business programs at Fordham and New York Universities, I felt most comfortable assessing the MBA@UNC initiative.

And what I saw truly surprised me. UNC has created a virtual classroom that is more intimate than 90 percent of the seminars I’ve taught in or taken. That’s because a quarter of every student’s computer screen is a grid of the dozen other students in the class – in close-up!

Within minutes of signing into the class – and this particular class was “live” (referred to as synchronous) – I realized that each of us was sitting in a front-row seat. The professor was going to call on each of us. He could also capture and share our computer screen with the other students.

Which meant that all 12 of the students in the class were going to contribute. There was no perusing Facebook, no e-mailing, and no shopping during this 90-minute class. Although it may be hard to believe, there was closer intimacy in this virtual classroom than in most of the dozen-person seminars I’ve experienced in law school. Perhaps it was the close-up of each person’s face in the upper quadrant of the screen. But I got a sense that each student knew that he or she was expected to contribute to the class discussion. And that shared expectation raised the bar for all.

I was expected to prepare for the live (synchronous) class by watching three hours of videotaped (asynchronous) material on my own time. And when I didn’t understand something – which was the case in the financial accounting class -- I could rewind and watch the section again.

For me, these asynchronous classes were the biggest surprise of the Kenan-Flagler program. Instead of talking heads, they were more like highly produced Nightline or NOVA documentaries than lectures. They were a combination of field-produced segments, explanatory graphics and animations, and well-rehearsed stand-up pieces. And the results were remarkably engaging.

The most surprising aspect of my Kenan-Flagler audit was the sense of community that emerged from the computer screen. At the end of the 90-minute synchronous seminar, several students “stayed late” to ask the professor questions. And two students paired-off after that to grab a beer together – virtually.

When I logged off, I began thinking about my own teaching – and ongoing learning. I immediately began rooting around the Coursera catalogue. (Coursera is, of course, the much-hyped, VC-backed joint venture of free online courses from Berkeley, Michigan, Penn, Princeton and Stanford.) And I’m wondering if any of their offerings will be able to match the interactivity or high-production value of the Kenan-Flagler courses. What’s the trade-off between free and courses that as part of an M.B.A. program add up to $45,000 annually?

What was clear, however, was that my advice to the dean about turning off the Internet in the classroom was not wrong but only half-hearted. One of the Kenan-Flager students had said to me during a break that she had chosen MBA@UNC because she wanted a graduate school experience that reflected how business is being done today and will be done tomorrow; not how it was done 20 years ago. She wanted something “transformative.”

I think she found it. I sent the link for the Kenan-Flagler MBA@UNC program to my friend the dean. He needs to see the future of higher education.


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