How Online Learning Platforms Drive Cohesion and Engagement

The best Online MBA programs facilitate high-touch interaction between participants and instructors

Today’s Online MBA degree courses are designed to be highly interactive, with business schools employing specialist teaching staff to facilitate a rich and seamless online learning experience. High-quality teaching is paired with effective technology and interaction.

The problem for prospective students is that schools take different approaches to achieve this, and so the quality of the learning experience varies significantly, both in the technology used by students to study and interact with their professors, and in the way classmates are encouraged to work with each other.

Susan Copp, director for the Office of Instructional Design at the GW School of Business, says that a best-in-class online learning platform should provide an engaging, organized, supportive, and collaborative learning experience for students through sustained reflection and discourse. That’s in addition to the opportunity to consistently apply course content in meaningful ways.

“Prospective students should look for an online platform that provides them with opportunities to build on course concepts and theories through engaging course materials, discourse, case studies, differentiated learning paths, and simulations,” Copp says. “They should also include opportunities to participate in real-world projects and experiential partnerships.”

Faculty at the George Washington University (GW) School of Business in Washington D.C. have developed the Online MBA program with the support of an instructional design team specializing in the development of online business courses in the school’s multimedia studio, which produces video, animation and podcast content.

“Traditionally, much of this content would have been part of the in-classroom lecture, but our online course design allows students to come to the synchronous sessions having already reviewed the content — so they are ready to engage with peers and faculty in active learning,” says Copp.

Smaller cohorts and flexible start dates

Rice Business (Jones Graduate School Of Business) works in conjunction with an American educational technology company to deliver online learning that leverages technology to engage students both in the classroom and beyond.

The business school based in Houston, Texas, has put infrastructure and tech-enabled services in place to provide a quality Online MBA at scale. This means that participants study together in smaller cohorts, while quarterly intakes allow students the opportunity to start the program when it makes sense for them, and the ability to access the MBA curriculum wherever they are in the world.

“Feeling supported by instructional staff and peers throughout the learning journey is an aspect of online learning that we use to measure success,” says George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs at Rice Business. “Using the technology at our disposal, we are focused on creating an online learning experience that allows students to engage at any level.”

Additionally, the Online MBA program facilitates on-campus experiences that provide rich learning opportunities as well as social activities for students to create meaningful connections with their peers and faculty. “Online MBA students have access to the same opportunities [that] on-campus students do, including participation in student organizations and field placement opportunities,” says Andrews.

Combining synchronous and asynchronous learning

At the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, every Online MBA course has synchronous live sessions on Zoom. “The experience is smooth, and it allows for different forms of interactions such as breakout rooms and chat,” says Paulo Prochno, assistant dean of part-time MBA and online programs. “We ask students to have their cameras on all the time, so it’s even better than being in a classroom, as everyone can see everyone’s reactions during the live sessions.”

For the asynchronous elements, the business school uses Canvas, a course management system that supports online learning and teaching. It allows professors to post grades, information, and assignments online. “Enhancements in technology for virtual classes have improved the overall experience, so the interactions are even more meaningful now compared to a few years ago,” Prochno says.

He says that learning from other participants and teaching staff is essential to the overall MBA experience. “An Online MBA is a professional degree focused on developing skills that are essential for senior management positions. There is a lot of tacit knowledge that needs to be developed during the program; exchanging experiences and working in groups to solve practical problems is an essential element,” says Prochno.

For Sarah Grant, associate director and head of operations for the Edtech Lab at Imperial College Business School in London, the best online learning environments will use machine learning and artificial intelligence to optimize student experiences. “Any competitive online learning platform will have cutting-edge learning analytics to optimize and contextualize [the] experience,” she says.

Imperial College currently uses the insendi learning experience platform, which is a spin-out from the Edtech Lab (and acquired by Study Group last year). The platform’s vision is that online learning should have the same transformational impact as top-shelf face-to-face programs, by creating human-centered, active learning experiences based on sound educational principles.

“We take an evidence-based and data-driven approach to online course design, and insendi offers advanced learning analytics that allows us to review and assess student engagement,” says Grant. “We can therefore evaluate our approach to help inform future decision making as we evolve to embrace new pedagogies in the future.”

Imperial College uses mix of other tools and activities to facilitate interaction, so that participants are constantly in touch with each other independently. “Studying for an MBA is about more than taking classes,” says Markus Perkmann, academic director of the Imperial MBA. “It’s a highly-personal and transformative experience, and this is largely shaped by the people who are on that journey with you.”

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