UNC brings rarity to online MBA programs: Credibility

March 23, 2012: 11:14 AM ET

Online MBA degrees have been proliferating like daisies in an open field in recent years, but UNC-Kenan-Flagler's program takes its task quite seriously.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

UNC Kenan-Flagler's Chapel Hill campus

UNC Kenan-Flagler's Chapel Hill campus

(Poets&Quants) -- Marissa Hunt and Ben Walker are trying hard to coax a few million bucks from four venture capitalists in a San Francisco conference room. But they're pitching a rather peculiar idea and there's skepticism all over the faces of the people they're trying to sell.

The idea: a retractable shield that covers the top of a kitchen drawer when closed to keep out dust and prevent the drawer from jamming. They call the product "Drawer Shield" and the tagline they're using to promote it is "Content protection with NO CATCH."

"It's made of sturdy material," says Hunt, imagining something quite different than their prototype, which is taped together from bits of Styrofoam, cardboard, paper and balsam wood. "Think of the cover on an iPad."

"It's really easy to install and real cheap," insists Walker, trying to gin up some enthusiasm. "This can help sell kitchen cabinets."

But no one is buying it. The feedback is tough.

"I personally have zero use for this," says one potential investor.

"It's just not a problem for me," adds another.

Nonetheless, the four venture capitalists hand over $500,000, a pittance for the pitching pair who were hoping to get at least $2 million.

Hunt and Walker are students studying for an MBA degree at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. The venture capitalists are fellow students handing out Monopoly cash. All of them are on a weekend immersion experience in San Francisco devoted to innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. It's one of the very few times that Hunt and Walker will be with their classmates in person because they're enrolled in a new and highly ambitious online MBA program dubbed MBA@UNC.

While online MBA degrees have been proliferating like daisies in an open field in recent years, Kenan-Flagler's program is significantly different because it is the first time a top 20 school has put together an online effort with the publicly stated goal of making it the world's best MBA program delivered over the Internet.

UNC's partner, 2tor Inc., a startup with over $68 million in venture funding, is investing more than $10 million into this one effort alone. It also has online degree programs in nursing at Georgetown University as well as social work and education at the University of Southern California. Kenan-Flagler has 20 of its full-time professors, many of them considered the school's best faculty, deeply involved in the online initiative, developing and recording special lectures and teaching live classes online.

Together, 2tor and UNC aim to make online education both respectable and credible. If they succeed, the number of MBA candidates in this two-year, $92,725 program will vastly exceed Kenan-Flagler's full-time MBA student population on-campus and the program will reach a worldwide audience.

"We're not Phoenix," insists 2tor CEO Chip Paucek, dissing the massive for-profit online education player. "Online education has been dominated by the for-profits, but nothing is even close to this in terms of quality. We're doing this at the highest possible level."

Same teachers, same curriculum

When UNC's faculty voted to approve the move online, it did so with the understanding that MBA@UNC would be held to the high academic standards of its mainstream MBA program. "It's the same faculty, the same students, and the same curriculum," says Doug Shackelford, who teaches tax policy and business strategy at UNC and heads up the academic team for the online program.

Shackelford concedes that when he first heard that Kenan-Flagler was considering an online MBA program he was aghast. "'Oh my God,' I thought, 'the budget situation must be desperate.' I told the dean [James W. Dean Jr.] that this is such a big bet that either he will be a hero for doing it or burned in effigy from a tree on campus if it fails."

So far, UNC has signed up 134 students for MBA@UNC since taking on an inaugural class of 19 students in the fall of last year. The school enrolls a new group of candidates every quarter and, on April 4, it will bring in some 45 new students as part of a fourth cohort.

Students typically take a pair of live, or synchronous, classes a week that each run an hour-and-a-half. They also spend about two-and-a-half hours engaged in what the school calls "asynchronous learning," lectures and cases that have been videotaped and archived on the Internet. Another six to eight hours a week is devoted to group projects, readings and homework. All told, MBA@UNC students are devoting 20 to 25 hours a week to the program.

Nowhere to hide when you're on a webcam

Shackelford says the live classes are far more intimate than one would think. Instead of having 70 students in an on-campus class, a typical webinar session has little more than a dozen. "These guys are being taught in groups of no more than 15 students," he says. "It's an intense experience. Everyone sits in the front row so there is nowhere to hide."

Students who check into the MBA@UNC dashboard see a Facebook-like interface with separate places for academic and social posts and a pull-down menu for "My Courses" with every lecture or class session to date. During a live session, students hear and see the professor teaching the course as well as each other.

The archived programming varies from highly produced video -- roughly 5% to 15% of the asynchronous class material -- to lectures by professors videotaped in their offices via webcam. Among the more produced material are taped interviews with managers and executives and on-the-ground lectures by professors outside the classroom.

For Kenan-Flagler's faculty, getting it all off the ground has been a massive undertaking. Shackelford says it takes roughly 100 hours per credit hour for a professor to create the canned lectures. "We've had faculty lock themselves in the office all night long or come in over a weekend to get this done," he says.

Kenan-Flagler's professors have developed 32 hours of asynchronous teaching material and have another 36 hours under development. Three professors -- including two adjunct hires -- are teaching their live sessions from India, Israel, and France. The students, meantime, hail from all over the country and the world, including China and Kuwait.

A few field trips to keep things personal

The San Francisco experience -- which runs from a Thursday to Sunday evening -- is one of four in-person immersions in the program. Another one is devoted to leadership development and held at the school's Chapel Hill campus in North Carolina. Two more will be global, with an immersion in San Paulo, Brazil, focused on managing in a high-growth environment, and one in London centered on global markets. Each student is required to do two immersions during the two-year program.

Other than a few minor technical glitches, says Shackelford, the professors teaching the online courses are receiving the highest possible scores on their evaluations from the students. "We are scoring almost straight fives on a five-point scale for everything we're doing," boasts Shackelford. "I'm waiting for all hell to break loose."

That seems unlikely. Hunt, 29, says she enrolled in the program because she didn't want to quit her job as an internal auditor for a biotech firm in Boston and yet wanted an MBA for her career. Her husband is in a doctoral program, and she travels 40% of the time, so an online degree seemed like a good option. "It's better than I expected," she says, "and this is how I do business now, with video chats and Adobe Connect."

Her make-believe business partner, Walker, 25, agrees. "I was a little worried about the online interface and the perception at work that an online program isn't quite the same as an on-campus experience," says Walker, who is in a leadership development program at Lockheed Martin (LMT) in Washington, D.C. "But this is not the traditional kind of online program. I've taken marketing strategy and financial accounting and I've used both of those courses already at work."

The immersion, adds Walker, helps to "cement" the relationships that are forming among students online. While in San Francisco, the students were brought to Google (GOOG) for a half-day series of presentations on how to create and sustain a culture of innovation. They also heard Pandora (P) CEO Joe Kennedy speak on disruptive business models. Kenan-Flagler professors Sridhar Balasubramanian and Brad Staats lectured on "Innovation and Consumer Insight" and "Disruption and Accelerating the Curve of Innovation," respectively. A panel of four venture capitalists spoke about "Turning a Great Idea Into A Great Business" and also heard presentations from students on their product ideas.

"We run them hard and it's intentional," says Susan Cates, executive director of MBA@UNC. "They are all working professionals. We want to maximize what we're doing with them while they are here."

At the end of the day, Hunt and Walker didn't do nearly as well as some of their fellow students. But the experience of working with four other students to develop the product and then pitch it to fellow students seemed like a worthwhile exercise.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 2tor has raised over $100 million in venture funding. It has, in fact, raised over $68 million. 

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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