Most experts agree that the first MOOC-related move with legit market-shifting potential
didn’t arrive until the 2014 launch of an online master’s degree
in computer science by the Georgia Institute of Technology with Udacity, followed by the 2016 creation
of the iMBA by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Coursera.
The two highly selective research universities offered dramatically reduced prices for the online graduate degrees while also opening up their admissions funnels to a wider range of students.
With a total tuition
of $6,600, Georgia Tech’s program is booming these days—reaching an enrollment
of 10,799 students last fall.
The iMBA from the Gies College of Business at Illinois has a total tuition price of $22,500, less than one-fifth the $125,589 tuition price tag
for the highly ranked online MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And just five years in, the iMBA this year enrolled nearly 6,000 students, more than the number of students who attend the college’s residential business degree programs.
its residential MBA two years ago to focus on the popular iMBA. The flagship university has invested heavily in its e-learning team and built four production studios. And the Gies College now offers two similar online degrees
on Coursera’s platform—a master’s of science in accountancy and the new master’s of science in management.
The university (which can make a case that it helped create the internet) is just getting started with its online ambitions, says Brooke Elliott
, an associate dean and professor of accounting in the Gies College.
“We are now serving learners who never thought they would have the opportunity to pursue education at Gies and who we never thought we would have the opportunity to serve,” she says.
Try Before You Buy
When asked how student retention in the iMBA measures up, given the lighter admissions lift and much lower price point, Elliott says those factors are why the program has maintained a high retention rate of 95 percent across all its terms.
Like test-driving a car at the dealership, she says, nondegree students
can take courses in foundational material for the iMBA, paying fees of $79 to certify their completion of the first segment and chipping away at the degree while helping to boost their chances of being admitted. Or they can complete noncredit MOOC
versions of iMBA courses, then enroll in the for-credit and tuition-bearing portion of the courses.
“The open-enrollment model allows students to try out our program and our approach to online education before they fully commit,” says Elliott. “We believe this pathway approach to education is attractive and important for working professionals who are considering building new knowledge and skills but bear a real opportunity cost in doing so.”
The admissions process, which features live interviews, is geared toward setting realistic expectations for working learners, including how to balance their education, job, and family life. And the iMBA’s curriculum is designed so students can immediately apply what they learn to the workplace. For example, a course in leadership and teams challenges students to use theoretical knowledge from the course in their jobs, such as tactics of negotiation, then to bring feedback back to the classroom.
Unbundling the Degree
The iMBA can be broken into seven pieces
, each featuring three or four courses in discrete areas of learning, such as financial management or digital marketing. Completers of each so-called specialization earn a certificate of completion and a digital badge.
The iMBA microcredentials are among roughly 1,400 specializations
offered on Coursera’s platform.
“The specialization approach enables learners to break the learning journey into more manageable bite-sized pieces that meet them where they are and recognizes that learners vary in their capacity to dive in,” says Amanda Brantner
, senior associate director of learner relations at the Gies College. They also serve as milestones students can celebrate and use for motivation to get to graduation.
While the online MBA space has gotten more competitive during the last five years, no other university has followed Illinois in opening up a highly selective MBA program with the low cost and open admissions of the iMBA.
For one thing, the process hasn’t been easy, says Elliott:
“We made bold decisions as a university and college to partner with Coursera, who had only operated in the MOOC space, to suspend our residential MBA programs, to build a staff and infrastructure internally that looks more a start-up production company than a college of business, and to put our very best faculty in our most affordable programs. Managing the shared governance processes at the university, the beliefs of our alums about online education, and a partnership between a for-profit and an academic institution is not for the fainthearted.”
Yet Elliott says the university’s land-grant mission means it must provide access to high-quality, affordable, and flexible business education and skills development options for residents of the state, and beyond.
“It’s easier to create a program like this, and to continue to invest in it, when it is what you are supposed to be doing as an organization,” Elliott says.