Online MBA degree coming to U. of I.’s College of Business

The University of Illinois College of Business will launch an online-only Master of Business Administration degree program, pending approval by the U. of I. Board of Trustees.

The degree, called the “iMBA,” will be the first online graduate business degree offered in partnership with Coursera, the Silicon Valley educational technology company that already offers a number of U. of I. courses through its platform of massive open online courses, more commonly known as “MOOCs.”

The online degree will democratize access to both the coveted business credential and the world-class faculty of the Urbana campus, said Larry DeBrock, the Josef and Margot Lakonishok Endowed Dean of the College of Business. “The University of Illinois has a tradition of excellence and a distinguished reputation as a leader in research, teaching and public engagement, and our faculty is at the heart of that tradition,” he said. “All of the classes for the new degree program will be taught by faculty members from the College of Business as well as industry experts. In leading the new endeavor, they will continue our college’s tradition of excellence.”

According to DeBrock, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the U. of I. College of Business was the impetus behind the development of the program. “We considered it an opportunity to reinvigorate the land-grant mission of the University of Illinois as a public university,” said DeBrock, who noted that the iMBA program will cost one-third as much as a master’s degree from an institution of similar stature. “We’re entering the online MBA field motivated in part to find new ways to return to the tradition of great public universities making an elite education available to all.”

The program also amounts to a total rethink of the online MBA degree curriculum, said Raj Echambadi, the associate dean of outreach and engagement for the College of Business and a professor of business administration. “This will be the first for-credit graduate program from a top university to offer individual certificates in subject areas that can double as building blocks to earning a full MBA degree,” Echambadi said.

The “stackable credentials” will be offered in topics such as digital marketing, accounting and finance – courses that have their own appeal for current professionals, Echambadi noted.

Illinois is also leveraging Coursera’s innovation-friendly platform to reconceptualize business subject areas. “Rather than simply transferring traditional MBA content online, we’re mixing academic disciplines into active learning packages about how businesses work that are pre-assembled for students,” Echambadi said. “This is part of what makes stackability possible: self-contained classes with execution-ready content.”

“We’re finding new ways to mix content and active learning that’s better suited to high-level business leadership while also democratizing access to the degree,” DeBrock said. “For business education, it’s a truly historic occurrence.”

The stackable nature of the degree program also means that students are not locked into a particular course sequence. “Students can take any set of courses in any order that suits them,” Echambadi said. “The iMBA program will work for the entire spectrum of potential students, from those who are curious and merely want dip their toes in the water to those who know they want to earn a full master’s degree right away.”

Students also have the option of taking a course sequence free of charge, receiving a Coursera-verified certificate or continuing their studies for academic credit through the Urbana campus.

“The iMBA is perfect for those who want to round out their STEM or liberal arts educations with business know-how,” Echambadi said. Students can apply for the iMBA either before they’ve enrolled in classes or after they’ve already sampled one or more classes. “A student or working professional could sign up for a class in a topic they need right away for their work and keep stacking courses and credits to build toward a full iMBA degree,” Echambadi said. “This is part of what makes stackability possible – each sequence brings together all the pieces of the puzzle in one place. The iMBA really redefines business subject areas so that they’re not confined to the way other b-schools or universities are organized.”

Offering an online-only MBA degree will ultimately help the U. of I. connect with students around the world who wish to earn a master’s degree in business administration but can’t afford – in terms of time or money – to push the pause button on their career or go back to school full-time, DeBrock said. “The iMBA really leverages the power of MOOCs for the first time,” DeBrock said. “The first portion of every course is open-enrollment and involves people from all over the world, not just those who have applied and been accepted into an online MBA program. Instructors lead through a cohort system that creates constant, direct interaction among peers.”

Daphne Koller, co-founder and president of Coursera, said the iMBA program “reimagines graduate education to be more flexible and accessible.” “Aspiring professionals from all over the world will be able to earn meaningful certificates for the business skills they need and always have the option to earn the full MBA degree, at an unprecedented affordable cost, from a top business school,” Koller said. “This is an educational model that puts learners first and is well suited to the needs of today’s workforce.”

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