A shift underway in Opus College of Business graduate programs is helping faculty adapt to a technology-enabled environment and teach students the way they prefer to be taught. The moves are driven in part by research showing student outcomes are equally strong in blended environments as they are in face-to-face classrooms, if not greater.
Three trends are reshaping the college’s graduate offerings: the move to online; specialized education; and compressed, shorter formats.
“Technology is at the point where you can have a consistent learning experience,” Carleen Kerttula, associate dean of graduate programs and strategic outreach for Opus, said. “Individual students can adapt their learning and by virtue of analytics, faculty can have deeper insights into the areas where students struggle the most.”
The move to online
More than half of Opus graduate courses are now delivered in either the blended or fully online format, a 19% increase in just two years. All the core courses as well as many electives are now taught in a blended format. Last year, Opus launched its first fully online MBA. Student response to the fully online classes has been very strong based on feedback on quality of experience and connectedness to classmates.
The shift to fully online courses was more of an evolution, according to Kerttula. Around a decade ago, the college started with the blended (combination of in-person and online) format. The college followed a slow, but deliberate, adoption given trends in the market, advancements in educational technology, and the desire to maintain a high-quality experience for both faculty and students.
“It took us time to be confident in the technology. We now know that the community and connection that are hallmarks of a St. Thomas education can still be built even though you meet less face to face,” Kerttula said.
She said faculty are gaining confidence in teaching online thanks to the university’s investment in the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) center. “Faculty who aren’t experts in online pedagogy can partner with professionals who are experts in online pedagogy to design and deliver a high-quality experience for students … having instructional designers paired with our faculty has been incredibly powerful,” she said.
The first graduates of the fully online MBA are expected in the next two to three years. “We’re pacing nicely in terms of both student demand and student openness to learning in a fully online format, as well as preparing our faculty and having the resources at the university to be able to develop and deliver a quality experience for students that St. Thomas can be really proud of,” Kerttula said.
"I wanted to do an online MBA program because of my other commitments outside of work," said Online MBA student Adam Ettestad. "I was making a career change and thought an MBA would help me in the next steps in the field of business, finance and leadership. I work full time, have a young family and am busy with activities – so I’m happy with the flexibility that it provides."
In just five years, Opus College of Business has moved from offering a single product to a portfolio. In academic year 2014-15, 98% of the school’s enrollment was in MBA programs, while 2% was in MS programs. Compare that to last academic year, and there’s quite a change: 68% of enrollment was in MBA programs, 23% in MS programs and 9% in graduate certificates.
Kerttula said this transition from the traditional in-person MBA has been both proactive and reactionary.
“The overall demand for graduate management education continues to increase, but how people want to consume their information has shifted,” she said. “The market
has moved to more specialized offerings – even more graduate offerings that have a specialized flavor to them – because the market is seeking specialized talent in addition to general management.”
In addition to specialized education, Kerttula said students want more compressed, shorter formats. This has resulted in significant growth in specialized master’s programs. Rather than the two to five-year commitment an MBA requires, the specialized programs typically take one year to complete.
The newest Opus offering, graduate certificates, provides a fast track to specialized business knowledge. With topics ranging from business analytics to strategic growth to integrated marketing communication, graduate certificates require only four to six courses.
Some students use a graduate certificate as a steppingstone to an advanced degree – an MBA or a specialized master’s degree – while others choose to complement their existing degree with the specialized certificate.
“When we designed the graduate certificates, we deliberately focused on emergent topic areas that were in high demand with the business community,” Kerttula said.
Bridget Rissman ’18 MBA earned a secondary credential with her MBA elective courses. She was happy with her decision. “Getting an MBA was always on my bucket list. The Graduate Certificate in Marketing Communication has given me specialized knowledge in my field.”
The most popular one by far is the Graduate Certificate in Business Analytics, which gives students experience in statistics, data modeling, data analysis and industry analytics. Kerttula said that a very common trend is for students obtaining that graduate certificate to transition to a master’s degree in business analytics.
One area of focus is understanding the industry contexts and applications for analytics. Juhaan Johar ‘18, who was working as an inventory and pricing analyst at the time, appreciated this aspect of the program. “It wasn’t just us learning data analytics – it was applying that knowledge to actual business cases.”
On the horizon
Opus plans on developing more online offerings to be able to offer high demand electives to Online MBA students. The college also is continuing to pursue development of more innovative programs that emphasize the college’s strengths in health care, principled leadership and entrepreneurship, and meet the ongoing demands for shorter, more specialized offerings.
The MBA offerings will continue to evolve as well. “Research still shows that the long-term payoff in an MBA degree is significant,” Kerttula said. A large percentage of our students get promotions or raises when they are in the program. We have every confidence that the education is worth it.”