Babson College: Creating a Blended MBA Program

The term blended learning has many meanings. Some people view it as a blend of technologies; others view it as a blend of experiences. Babson College defines blending as using the correct delivery techniques to achieve specific learning objectives. This allows us to leverage face-to-face and technology-based learning modes—whether synchronous and asynchronous, broadcast or simulation—based on our pedagogy and learning objectives.

During the 1990s Babson College transformed its course-based MBA curriculum into an integrated set of learning experiences that immersed students in the study of business life cycles. It also transformed its undergraduate curriculum by integrating its business core and liberal arts programs and migrating to a competency-based model for outcome measurement. These early innovations positioned its faculty and program administrators to develop an MBA program that blended technology and face-to-face teaching in a semi-customized approach to learning.

In the first phase of this program, which is now in progress, Intel Corp. employees are able to earn an MBA in 27 months without leaving their jobs and without moving to Babson. Through a unique mix of on-site classroom sessions and eLearning activities, Babson's modular curriculum is delivered to the students at their locations.

Design Approach
Babson's integrated curriculum was a natural starting point from which to build a blended MBA program. The development of an integrated educational program 10 years ago provided us with insights into how complex subjects could be woven together to form a complete learning experience. It also introduced the idea of segmenting or chunking the curriculum into units of learning—modules, streams, and sessions—without introducing a disruptive delivery mechanism like Web technology. This decade of experience provided Babson's faculty with time to develop a culture of integration in the design and delivery of the program. It also ingrained in them the practice of rapidly redesigning modules in a team environment, a skill that has proven critical for moving the experience online.

Technology Delivery Model

The blended MBA was developed to support easy access to learning content, collaboration, and flexibility. The core is a learning management system integrated to a synchronous conferencing system. Supporting these Web-based platforms is CD distribution for content that may be bandwidth-intensive and to provide some learning assets in a disconnected format. The resulting student and faculty experience is a blended one where the appropriate tools can be utilized to achieve the learning objectives. As with any system, human interaction is a key critical success factor. In this case, faculty and student support are required to ensure that the technology remains transparent. Additionally, face-to-face sessions are required to teach those subjects and concepts that are not naturally supported through the technology.

The design of the blended program began with the integrated curriculum, then added the idea of program delivery via technology. Several partners for platform and instructional design were chosen to form the core infrastructure and support services for the program. The decision to partner with external technology and program-design partners was driven by Babson's belief that it should concentrate on what the College d'es best and by the need to develop the program in a compressed time period.

During development of the blended core curriculum, the faculty was supported with instructional designers and content developers. The role of the instructional designer was to help the faculty members translate the classroom teaching experience into a blended learning experience. That is, translating content in a way that took advantage of the delivery technology to develop a high-quality program, not just transferring teaching and class notes. It was also important not to simply emulate the classroom but to explore modes of teaching and learning that were supported by the blended model. Current technology d'es not allow for the kind of rapid interaction, based on emotion and body language, that is experienced in a classroom setting. Nevertheless, state-of-the-art technology, when applied to addressing learning outcomes via creative approaches, can support a teaching and learning experience of high quality.

With a sound understanding of the learning objectives of each module and stream of learning, the design team optimized the face-to-face and eLearning portions of the program to fit the demands of the content. For each subject the teams considered issues of subject complexity, learning styles, and teaching styles to arrive at a blend of experiences. Resolving issues such as whether students needed to learn "tools" first rather than diving into group immersion and team building helped to determine the role, content, and timing of the sessions.

The design of the program also provided an opportunity for mid-course corrections. This was facilitated by the ability to refresh the Web-based learning management system and the use of conferencing software. In one instance, when it became evident that students were struggling with learning specific techniques using the asynchronous delivery system, the program was adjusted to use synchronous conferencing and application-sharing as a new kind of faculty office-hour. While not initially planned, the change enhanced the student and faculty educational experience.

Babson MBA Core Curriculum

A module is a carefully channeled combination of academic "streams" that flow together to define and shape a larger topic. Each successive module is designed to build upon the material of the previous one. This format facilitates the flexibility and interactive learning that are integral to an interdisciplinary approach.

Success Factors
Setting expectations and faculty training are the two critical success factors in developing any blended or wholly online program. Program administrators and faculty enter the design phase with a set of experiences and preconceptions based on prior teaching experiences. Students, depending on their age group, also approach it with notions of how the experience "should be." A successful implementation depends on level-setting expectations and quickly developing norms of behavior.

During the design phase, the development team needs a leader or visionary to guide them through the possibilities of the new delivery environment. This guidance begins with an introduction to the toolset but then dives much deeper into pedagogy and context. Early adopters need support in determining such issues as:

  • How do I teach a case online?
  • What is the best approach for teaching methodology?
  • What are the state-of-the-art technologies?
  • What works best for teaching complex subjects?
  • What should the behavioral rules for the online community look like?

Also, faculty immersion is critical. Learning how to teach in a blended format is best understood by practicing and is not easily learned through books and lectures. One idea is for educators to participate in a blended course as a student prior to teaching.

It is also important to clarify and maintain roles during the delivery of the program. Faculty need to clearly spell out the rules of engagement during face-to-face sessions and on message boards. Students will have a tendency to be the first person to respond to a new discussion thread or to monopolize a microphone during online office hours. This creates a crowding-out effect, whereby other students are discouraged from participating. To minimize this tendency, faculty and program managers must set behavioral norms early on in the program.

The technology must be transparent. While Web-based collaboration has grown in value and stability over the last few years, the technology is still not fool-proof. The wide array of personal computers, firewalls, and software requires that a full-service support model be factored into the design of the program. On the program-design side, the faculty also needs support with content development and technology experimentation. Instructional designers and content developers who understand the curriculum and who can partner with faculty-thought leaders are critical.

Finally, success depends on dedicated students: A willingness to learn at a distance and the maturity to cope with ambiguity are critical.

For more information, contact Stephen J. Laster, Director of Curriculum Innovation and Technology, Babson College and Chief Technology Officer, Babson Interactive LLC, at laster@babson.edu.

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