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Idea clicks: UM launches online MBA program

Working professionals now have a more convenient way to earn an MBA from the University of Maryland’s highly ranked Robert H. Smith School of Business, which just unveiled its first master’s degree program designed to be completed almost entirely online.

The school will begin accepting applications later this week for the program, which kicks off its first term in January and will be taught by existing UM faculty. The format targets individuals who want to earn their degrees without disrupting their careers, officials said, while also enabling the university to test the waters of new educational delivery methods.

“President [Wallace] Loh is encouraging faculty to experiment with different modalities of blended, online learning to understand student experiences and learning outcomes and figure out how best to deliver the information,” said Greg Hanifee, who, as assistant dean of executive programs at Smith, spearheaded implementation of the online course.

To launch the program, the school is partnering with Pearson Embanet, a company that helps design, finance and operate online learning platforms for major universities nationwide. Hanifee would not provide details about the cost of launching or operating the program, but said Embanet and UM are splitting the financial investment 50-50.

Terms begin four times a year — in January, April, July and October — and can be completed in 21 months, officials said. Students enrolled in the online course must visit the College Park campus twice, but all other instruction takes place online.

The first campus visit will be held over a weekend at the beginning of the program, primarily for students to take care of administrative tasks. During the second visit, at the end of the term, students “compete” in a simulated business scenario and celebrate earning their degrees, Hanifee said.

Most coursework can be completed at the students’ convenience, but twice a week, they are required to log on to live, hour-long sessions that enable them to interact with classmates and professors. They can pursue one of four specialty tracks — accounting, marketing, finance or information systems and analytics — or they can choose the general track if they want to take a range of classes.

The business school also offers full-time and a part-time MBA programs (the latter was ranked No. 24 in its category by U.S. News and World Report in 2013), as well as an “executive MBA” program designed for experienced business executives, which served as the model for the new online format.

“With the executive MBA program, we typically are teaching working professionals with very busy schedules, so the curriculum has to be designed in a way that allows them to finish fairly quickly,” Hanifee said.

The online course is taught at a similar pace and level of difficulty as the executive program, in which material from one class builds rapidly upon material from another. Both programs are “very rigorous,” Hanifee added.

“Different educational formats work best for different kinds of learners — this program is best for working professionals who can learn within a rigorous, structured program, but more so on their own time,” Dean G. “Anand” Anandalingam said in a statement. “The elements that make our MBA degree programs so successful will still be in place with this program, but the key difference will be the level of flexibility.”

The 21-month timeframe, however, isn’t up for discussion.

“If a student wants to take more time, the part-time MBA would be an option for them,” Hanifee said. “We’ve consciously decided to create a program for people that are committed and want a rigorous program that they can finish in less than two years.”

That’s not typical of other online MBA programs, which are usually administered by for-profit institutions rather than universities, Hanifee said, adding UM officials felt there was room in the market for Smith to offer another option.

Evaluating that market and planning their approach took time, though.

It’s been about two years since Smith officials hatched the idea, solicited feedback from faculty, coordinated the details with university administrators and cleared their plans with state officials. The Maryland Higher Education Commission gave final approval earlier this month, Hanifee said, after much discussion with all involved parties.

“Part of the discussion, certainly, was around where the market is going,” he said. “The world of higher education is being transformed by outside forces,” like massive open online courses, which are offered online to the public via universities or some other platform.

“So, for instance, where are MOOCs within the whole spectrum of what’s going to happen?” he continued. “Those classes are free now, but they won’t be free forever, so should we pursue a model like that? Or should we partner with other universities to create something, or should we do it ourselves?”

Ultimately, the school decided to partner with Embanet, which will provide a range of technical support services for the courses, while the school coordinates faculty participation and invests in “student experience,” Hanifee said.

Participating in the program is voluntary for faculty members, as some expressed concern about adapting their classes to the different format and others hesitated to accept additional time commitments, Hanifee said.

University President Loh said in a statement: “The Smith School is combining a state-of-the-art online platform with the academic rigor that makes it a leader. University-wide, we are exploring how best to use technology-based learning, and this is an excellent model.”

Several of those technology-based initiatives are already in place. The A. James Clark School of Engineering, for instance, offers online master’s degree programs, but in a different format: In-person lectures are uploaded for students to watch on their own time.

Additionally, the university partners with another online education platform, Coursera, to deliver free classes online that are taught by Maryland faculty but aren’t for credit.