6 minute read  written by  . Published on August 13, 2018

At 59 years old, Sandra Gutknecht is not your typical MBA student. But when she found herself looking for work in the field of healthcare, she felt she needed the MBA boost. “I was in Silicon Valley, where there is huge age discrimination, and in the finance side of my profession everything is MBA preferred. Without the degree, I knew my resume would not hit the top of the pile.” It’s not as if Sandra had never before considered adding a business degree to her engineering background. However, in the past when she had considered all that an MBA would entail – the hefty price tag, a rigid schedule of evening and weekend classes, travel in heavy traffic to get to campus after work – it never seemed to make sense. That was before the iMBA.

The iMBA, offered by the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC) Gies College of Business through the Coursera platform, is the first MBA degree to be delivered by MOOC. At $22,000, the iMBA is significantly less expensive than most other MBA programs on the market, despite the fact that successful students earn a fully accredited degree from a top-25 business school. The iMBA was announced in 2015, and the first cohort of students graduated in 2018. We spoke with Sandra and other recent graduates of the iMBA to get an inside perspective on the program.

Across the board, the students we spoke with were very satisfied with the overall experience and value for money. They emphasized program features including high quality MOOC content, meaningful assignments and group work, engaging live sessions, and frequent interactions with professors. Like Sandra, Kara Anderson from Arizona had previously considered MBA programs but had rejected the notion due to the high cost. Having all but given up on getting an MBA degree, Kara stumbled across the iMBA while looking for online business courses on Coursera. “I thought, ‘What is this?’ I clicked on the banner ad, and it was the absolute perfect fit.”

“When they started talking about how they were replicating the on-campus experience as much as possible, I was very skeptical about how that would work logistically.” 

Dustin Wenger, an iMBA graduate from Canada, was initially skeptical about how the program would deliver not just content but an experience.  “When they started talking about how they were replicating the on-campus experience as much as possible, including group work and peer interaction, I was very skeptical about how that would work logistically, considering that you’ve got students from Australia, China, Luxembourg, Canada, the US, South America, Africa. We were everywhere, so how were we going to coordinate group work?” Dustin explained that coordination didn’t end up being a problem in the groups he was part of, thanks to the high level of motivation and professionalism of his fellow students.

Like Dustin, those we spoke with were impressed with the social, interactive, and experiential aspects of the iMBA, especially the live sessions with professors. As Dustin put it, “If you make time to attend the live sessions, you get essentially the same experience you would get sitting in a live lecture hall with twenty to a hundred students.”

The MOOCs that are part of the iMBA continue to be available on Coursera to the general public and are free to audit. However, the MOOC-based part of the iMBA is only about half of what enrolled iMBA students are required to do to earn their degrees. In addition to completing all the requirements of the UIUC MOOCs on Coursera’s platform, iMBA students also complete readings, assignments, and group work through the university’s own system.

“The program works best for people who are truly committed to learning. If you just want the degree, it’s not the right fit. Not to mention, your group members are counting on you to do your share of the work.” 

If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. Every student we spoke with emphasized just how much work the program is. Kara Anderson said it this way: “You really need to be committed to stretching yourself. The program works best for people who are truly committed to learning. If you just want the degree, it’s not the right fit. Not to mention, your group members are counting on you to do your share of the work.”

Despite overall glowing reviews of the program, those we spoke with also pointed to a few potential issues that may arise as the iMBA scales. First, the live sessions that provide the bulk of the personal interaction with faculty, are already growing larger, more unwieldy, and less personal. As Sandra explained, “When I started there were about 200 of us. Now there are 1100 students and the class sizes seem enormous.” A live session with forty students offers opportunities for participation and one-on-one interaction that can’t be matched as live sessions grow larger.

The students from the first iMBA cohort were delighted by how much they were able to interact with senior faculty members. However, going forward, to keep the live sessions to a manageable size, it will likely be necessary to involve teaching assistants and adjunct professors to a greater extent. This move may erode some of the value that the first students got from the program.

UIUC took pains to provide students many opportunities to interact with their peers through case studies and group assignments. Yet, the students we spoke with still experienced frustration when they ended up in groups with others who didn’t pull their weight, or didn’t participate at all. (One student referred to these non-participatory group members as “termites.”) The problem of team members who don’t do their share of the work certainly isn’t unique to the digital classroom, but in an online space it can be harder to surmount, given the extra effort students have to put in to coordinate with one another in the first place.

The theme across all of these potential challenges has to do with keeping the quality and quantity of interaction high for all students, even as the ratios between students and faculty change. 

The theme across all of these potential challenges has to do with keeping the quality and quantity of interaction high for all students, even as the ratios between students and faculty change. Coursera’s CEO Jeff Maggioncalda is well aware that the iMBA and programs like it will face additional challenges as they scale. He sees this as the kind of technology and operational challenge that Coursera is well-placed to solve.

In an interview with Class Central, Maggioncalda said, “My guess is that in the range of 1,000 to 5,000 [students], it’s going to be pretty tricky.  But I think we and our partners will eventually have a set of tools and algorithms and technologies, as well as pedagogical design that can be scaled. But we don’t know the answer to this one yet.”

The Dean of the University of Illinois Gies College of Business Jeffrey Brown told Class Central, “We went into this from the beginning, saying, ‘We want to offer something that’s an incredible value.’” By almost any measure, UIUC and Coursera have achieved that goal, at least for the first cohort of students. The question now is, can they continue to offer such great value as the program scales? We’ll be watching to find out.