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Busting myths as the innovation continues

When UNC Kenan-Flagler announced plans to offer its top MBA program in an online format 10 years ago, the news was met with skepticism.

For-profit providers dominated online education, which had a less-than-stellar reputation. Existing programs were viewed as low-quality, and while online MBA programs were not new, few top schools offered them.

From the very start, the vision was no compromise in terms of the quality of the students, curriculum and faculty.

“High-quality teaching and learning experiences are critical to our approach, and we are ready to shatter perceptions about online education,” Doug Shackelford (BSBA ’80), then MBA@UNC associate dean and now dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler, said when the School announced plans for program.

In the last 10 years, MBA@UNC has gone on to shatter many myths about online education – as the School keeps innovating and staying on the cutting edge to ensure MBA@UNC remains the gold standard of online MBA education.

Myth: Students won’t learn how to collaborate in an online environment.

MBA@UNC shows online learning isn’t a solitary experience. Students don’t just watch lectures; they interact with and learn from classmates – talented working professionals – and their professors in live classes. That continues in study groups, group projects, simulations and case competitions.

“It’s an incredible community of working professionals,” says Erica LeBlanc (MBA ’16), technical field productivity and readiness lead at Amazon Web Services. “Everyone is eager to share experiences and we dissect day-to-day challenges during class. The experience instills the School’s core values in us.”

“Even though it is online, you really do build relationships and get to know people as if you were right there,” says Meg Thomann (MBA ’23), managing director and editor of One Grand Books. “It’s been a wonderful experience. I’m really glad for the structure of the live sessions with my classmates, I’ve collaborated with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met in my career, and it’s worked beautifully to expand my network and perspective.”

Myth: Employers won’t value an online MBA.

Skeptics said that employers wouldn’t value an online MBA. They were wrong about that, too.

“Getting my MBA really changed my job prospects, it quite surprised me,” says Erica LeBlanc (MBA ’16),  technical field productivity and readiness lead for Amazon Web Services. “Even while I was in the program, I had a lot of recruiters contacting me, and even C-level executives directly. The brand recognition that came with obtaining my MBA from Kenan-Flagler has been tremendous. When I graduated, I had many new career opportunities.”

Employers look at the business school where the students earned their MBA – the quality of the education – rather than the format. Many employers are excited about their employees entering the program because it signals how serious they are about their careers and developing their knowledge and skills. They benefit when students apply what they learned in class at work, having an immediate impact for the company and making them even more valuable to their organizations.

“When I decided to get my MBA, I wanted to gain knowledge that took my career global and beyond one industry,” says Damon Jackson (MBA ’19), senior manager, DOT foods, growth channels for KIND Snacks. “The power of the degree was that companies reached out to recruit me, the CEOs and CMOs I interviewed with really appreciated the fact that I was in one of the most rigorous MBA programs out there. It opened a lot of doors.”

After navigating COVID-19, employers are even more comfortable about online education and work.  MBA@UNC students become proficient at working and collaborating online – across industries, borders and time zones – using live and asynchronous communication tools. It’s all excellent preparation for the future of work: a mix of structured, self-driven projects and online collaboration.

Myth: MBA programs are cheaper to deliver.

Quality is the determining factor on price. “It’s not inexpensive to produce or deliver in the way we do it,” said Brad Staats, associate dean of MBA programs. “We teach live classes in very small sections to have high levels of faculty-student interaction. Our Summits are immersive and experiential face-to-face courses. To produce high-quality education, residential or online, is expensive. We need top faculty, experiences, student services and career support whichever format our students choose to earn their MBAs.”

Myth: Students can’t develop connections and engage with classmates and professors.

MBA@UNC was designed to provide a new online experience: deep connections and engagement. When students and faculty met in person for the first time during the first Summit in 2011, they didn’t feel like strangers. “Until then, they only knew each other in an online environment, but it felt like a family reunion,” Shackelford recalled.

Pre-COVID, students typically attended three or four Summits during their time in the program. Many students plan personal trips together before or after the Summits. The alumni Summit in 2019 drew graduates to Chapel Hill from 30 states and three countries to reconnect and continue learning.

“I can say without equivocation, we have made lifelong friends and collaborators – something many of us thought would be difficult, if not impossible, in an online program,” said Dr. Adam Brown (MBA ’14), chief impact officer at Envision Healthcare, at his graduation.

Sometimes an online class leads to love at first sight, Businessweek reported, as it did for students living in Orange County, California, and Durham, North Carolina. “That the relationship transitioned from the screen into real life isn’t just significant for the couple. It’s a sign that Kenan-Flagler may have overcome one of online education’s biggest obstacles: re-creating the personal engagement that comes with in-person interaction.”

The innovation doesn’t stop.

Innovation in the MBA@UNC program continues today, with more electives, more experiential learning, more opportunities to develop deep relationships with peers, more career support and coaching, and a passionate alumni network.

Changes since the program’s launch in 2011 are focused on students’ learning and helping them achieve their professional goals.

  • Students can customize their education with five concentrations, and they have the opportunity to take electives in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s other MBA program formats.
  • Faculty continuously evaluate, update and revise courses, and develop new ones, such as Corporate Financial Strategy and Python for Business Analytics.
  • After international Summits, students can attend “extension” courses to learn in more depth from faculty as well as local professors and business leaders.
  • Students receive individual career coaching targeted to their needs and goals, and have access to career services and support for life.
  • They solve real company challenges through participation in the experiential STAR consulting program.
  • Advisors provide support to students during the admissions process and throughout the program.
  • After they graduate, they can access the learning management system and all of their MBA coursework for life, and may take electives for a nominal fee.

The goal is to get better every year, says Shackelford. “We intend to remain the best online MBA program in the world, so we continue to figure out how can we do things better and look to the next frontier.”

Read about the launch of MBA@UNC in 2011 – deemed a risky bet by many at the time.