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CMU's Tepper Online Hybrid MBA: Equivalent to Onsite

A Q&A with Bob Monroe

Can an institution's new online offerings match the quality it has established over the years in its onsite programs? At CMU's Tepper School of Business, the Online Hybrid MBA is designed to be equivalent to its on-campus MBA programs. CT talked with Bob Monroe, Director of the Online Hybrid MBA, to find out how Tepper crafts its Online Hybrid MBA to offer the same education as its highly regarded onsite MBA programs.

Mary Grush: Is the Tepper school's Online Hybrid MBA program designed to be identical to its onsite formats?

Bob Monroe: "Identical" is a bit of a tricky word. There are things that really are identical: the core curriculum — the classes that you need to take are the same across any of the formats in which we offer our MBA; the professors teaching — typically the person that is teaching the online hybrid class will also be teaching an onsite version of the same class; the material covered and the mastery expected — the standards to pass or to get an 'A' are the same from one delivery format of the class to the other.

But we like to think of the online hybrid format as "equivalent" to the onsite formats — or possibly "interchangeable" would be a better term.

Grush: How is the online hybrid program structured, to achieve this equivalency?

Monroe: What we've found is that we are able to work with the professors to think carefully through what part of their course really does require face-to-face human interaction — same place, same time, with people in the same physical space. For our hybrid format, that material and those particular activities can be covered in what we call "access weekends".

At the beginning of each of the six-week online hybrid courses, all of the students in a given cohort get together with their professors for an access weekend. Everybody flies, drives, travels to one of the Carnegie Mellon campuses (sometimes to our main campus in Pittsburgh; other times to one of our satellite campuses — in New York City, just around the corner from Wall Street; or in Silicon Valley on the west coast). The part of the course material that really does require face-to-face live interaction can get done during the access weekend sessions.

So, basically, the way the online hybrid courses are structured, each course starts off with five and a half or six hours of instruction during an access weekend — live, in-person instruction.

Other material covered in a hybrid course — material experience topics — may very much require live interaction, but not necessarily physical co-location. So after the access weekend, there are six one-week online modules. This time is spent in live, online sessions with the professor and a subset of the class. The sessions are kept small, more like a recitation section. Instead of sitting in a 50-60-70 person lecture hall for a class session, typically the hybrid course students will be in a live discussion session online for an hour and fifteen minutes with the professor and about 20 other students. 

Still more material is covered in a self-directed or asynchronous way. For this, typically professors will do some combination of producing videos (usually focusing on some concept they are working on), and combine that with readings, exercises, and so on. We've tried to do this in a very thoughtful way.

Grush: CMU has, for a long time, done extensive work in the learning sciences and the study of online learning. Has this work and/or CMU's learning research programs on campus factored into the design of the online hybrid courses?

Monroe: The Online Hybrid MBA at the Tepper School of Business is very much informed by the work at CMU in education and learning and the science of learning. A professor will typically work with some of the consultants we have at CMU's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. The consultants help the professors in our program craft the material and content — particularly the part of the class they have chosen to put into an asynchronous format — so that it is done in a very effective way for the students' learning.

When we originally sat down and decided that we wanted to create a partially online version of our MBA, the one non-negotiable aspect of it was having it be a very high-quality student experience. We didn't move forward with it until we had experimented with it enough for us to come to the conclusion that we could cover the same material and provide an excellent student experience in doing this.

We're not by any means the first university or program to discover that there's value in providing an online version of their offerings. But we've done this in a very deliberate way.

At CMU, I think we're very good at teaching in general — our curriculum, and the classes we've put together, and the way the whole program works. We've found over the years that our students learn a tremendous amount when they're here on campus, and now we're finding that they are learning a tremendous amount through the online hybrid program, as well.

Grush: How long has this program been in place, and how do you know that it's working to achieve your objectives?

Monroe: We're in the second year of the program. It's a 32-month program, and we're about 21 months into it. In steady state, we'll have three cohorts in a three-academic-year part-time program. We now have two of the three cohorts, and in August, we'll be up to full size with three cohorts. So, we're a little more than half way through with our pioneer class, and we have one class that's behind them.

So far, it seems to be working really very well. Of course we did set up, in the beginning, criteria by which we'd evaluate whether it's working or not, tied to our objectives.

We decided, right from the start, that we didn't want to expand our offerings to include an online program unless we can do it in a way that's as least as good an experience as we are offering our students now, and preferably a better one. So our first goal is to match, for our new, online students, what we can do onsite, and provide them an equivalently good experience. But the broader goal is to learn how to use technologies and new tools to provide a better experience for all of our students (onsite, full-time, part-time, online, across the board). We didn't want to re-create the curriculum; we wanted to re-create how we deliver parts of the curriculum.

Grush: What are some of the key things you are doing to ensure you reach these goals?

Monroe: A key strategy is that, at least for the first couple of years, while we can do it in terms of capacity, we will have the same person teach the hybrid version of a class, who teaches the onsite version of that class. We work very closely with the professors as they are adapting and delivering the material, and we ask them to use the same evaluations and evaluation criteria for the online and hybrid classes. And if the hybrid and online courses are scheduled concurrently, we ask the professor actually to grade the online students in the same pool as the onsite students. While all of that is no absolute guarantee the material covered is the same, these are pretty substantial efforts we are making to make sure the learning objectives are met just as rigorously across the two formats. (And we have found that they are.)

Another important strategy for us is really not just to create an online program (as I have mentioned already), but to incorporate these tools across all of our teaching, programs, formats, and methodologies. We are very actively moving — we are practically there already — to a point where any of the students can sign up for a class in any of the formats. Most students continue to take classes in the same format they originally started with, because that's the one that probably makes the most sense for them, most of the time. But we do have some people moving between formats, and we find they perform comparably in either format.

Grush: When will your first group of students from the online/hybrid program be graduating?

Monroe: In May of 2016.

Grush: Given that the online/hybrid student group will become so accustomed to being online with the Tepper school, is there an opportunity, after they graduate, to give them some role on the academic side, as alumni? Perhaps have them as guest lecturers, community contacts out in the field, and so forth? I know that these things are already being done to some extent, but it seems like there might be some opportunity to increase that, given everyone's familiarity with remote connections — particularly those who will have spent maybe three years in the online hybrid program.

Monroe: What's interesting is that we are already doing that, but it's not specific to the graduates of the online program. We're doing that type of thing with our Tepper alums in general. For example, an entrepreneurship professor has often, in past years, brought in Tepper alums to be guest lecturers. But historically it's been those alums who were working in the Pittsburgh area. That's changing, now. For his next offering, this coming fall, the professor is bringing in, online and virtually, alumni from all across the U.S. (and potentially beyond). It's a great way to expand the pool of guest lecturers.

Another example is a capstone class called Management Games, where teams compete in a simulated business competition. An important part of the games is that each team works with a board of directors, and those boards are real — made up mostly of Tepper alumni. The students are bumped way up in management in the simulation, and they must learn to deal with a real board of directors. Again, we will be using the technology to bring in alumni virtually and online — not just those who happen to work in Pittsburgh.

So, we are definitely exploring ways to use the technology with alumni. We haven't focused on whether the online/hybrid graduates will be any different from our other alums in this regard, but we are actively experimenting with ways to help Tepper alumni in general stay engaged with our students and our community.

Grush: Has the technology been challenging to work with?

Monroe: No, actually the technology is the comparatively easy piece. And we've built a full infrastructure: We have studios, we've gotten some fairly sophisticated videoconferencing systems… People get a very good, interactive experience with the class or project they are involved in.

But the key message is that it's not about the technology. That is perhaps our biggest learning from all this. The technology is a tool to help you teach effectively and help your students learn. There are many ways to use it, but getting the technology right is relatively easy. Getting the curriculum and teaching right, and setting up the learning experiences — those are the more challenging pieces.

If you are going into the process of setting up an online or an online/hybrid program, and you're thinking just about the technology, the odds are you are not going to put out a great program. But, if you are thinking about how you can use the technology to improve the experience for the student, and using that as your starting point, you are a lot more likely to succeed with it.

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