Published on 2015/07/20
With Nancy Taylor | Director of MS Programs at the Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan State University

The EvoLLLution | On-Site Experience and Regular Engagement Key to Success
A service mindset that simplifies as many aspects of the administrative process as possible and regular communication are essential components to ensuring non-traditional students’ expectations are met.

Increasing numbers of working professionals are finding ways back to higher education and they are taking advantage of the innovations that have shaped the marketplace. No longer constrained to programs offered in their local areas, non-traditional students are weighing programs offered by universities across the country, trying to find the opportunity that best matches their needs and expectations. In this environment, it’s critical for institutional leaders to consider where they can bend to craft the experience students want, and where the must hold firm to ensure students are receiving the best-quality education possible. In this interview, David Closs and Nancy Taylor reflect on the work they did to design their hybrid MS in Supply Chain Management, and discuss the importance of crafting a highly-engaging experience for non-traditional students.

Click here to read key takeaways.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you and your colleagues decide to launch a hybrid MS program?

David Closs (DC): We’ve had on-site programs in Supply Chain Management at the undergraduate and MBA level for a number of years. We’ve also had single-week executive programs in Supply Chain Management. About 12 years ago, we were getting more and more questions from those working full time who wanted to complete a Supply Chain Management degree. That’s what led us to put together the hybrid program. More recently, we decided to move more towards an online program where now we have most of the credits online.

Evo: What were the most significant challenges involved in the early stages of taking the concept and making it a reality?

DC: One major challenge was convincing the university that the program was rigorous enough and that it was a format that would work, because there was nothing like that that the university had ever seen.

Nancy Taylor (NT): The university had to get used to a different way of looking at a student. This wasn’t the typical student who moved here in September, took classes full time, left in June, did something over the summer and came back again the next fall semester. This was a working professional student who had different schedules and we had to work around the whole gamut of what affects the student. We had to manage financial aid issues. We had international students coming in for brief periods and we had to work with them on how F1 visas would be utilized. It was a creation of all kinds of new standards for this.

DC: This isn’t any of the stuff you normally think about when you start a program.

Evo: How did your management practices have to evolve in order to serve this non-traditional student population?

NT: You don’t have the face-to-face meetings because they’re not here every day but you do have communication, usually through email or phone with them. You have to do a lot for them in some sense. We do the enrollment for them and we do a lot to keep them engaged and active. We communicate things regularly that they might see if they were physically on campus. Constant email communication with them has always been very useful.

DC: It’s really a different model. Most students are around the university and they feel part of the university. It’s very important that our online and hybrid students feel part of the university and have that type of interaction.

Evo: What was involved in actually reconfiguring course content so that it would work in the hybrid format as opposed to strictly face-to-face?

DC: We learned pretty quickly that it’s a different model. You’re dealing with people that are working full-time. The age range tended to be from 25 to 50, and the students’ professional positions ranged from analysts to corporate presidents. The model for the classes was more the facilitation role; you get the students involved and they collectively have a lot of insight. It’s a different model in terms of teaching. We had some younger faculty members and they tried to do it the same way they did undergraduate classes and that didn’t work very well.

Evo: What was the retention and success rate for students in the early stages compared to what they were in face-to-face?

NT: We have excellent retention and excellent graduation rates, in the 95 percent range. A lot of that is due to constant communication—staying in touch with students to make sure that things that happen in their life do not stop them from finishing their degree.

Evo: How difficult was it to ensure that students really did feel that level of support and that level of personalization?

NT: It wasn’t difficult at all. The persona of Michigan State University is very community-oriented. Instructors are involved with their students. There’s a very hands-on, practical attitude. For us to apply that kind of community to our remote students wasn’t all that difficult. Making them part of a community and part of network, they were actually vested in each other to make sure that their cohort members graduated as well.

DC: At MSU, we’ve had the same culture with executive education programs for years and that’s why it was not a big challenge for us to get there. These students became a network and a support team, and they got each other through. You had all kinds of expertise, you had project teams with a wide range of skills and they worked together to solve programs. They continue to work together to solve problems today.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about your experiences in crafting the hybrid master’s program?

DC: We strongly feel the on-site component is a critical component. If you don’t do that, you never get the relationship cemented. Many schools just want the pure online piece. Our students have told us that the on-site part is absolutely critical to create the relationships and the networks. There are many institutions that are going without that.

NT: Setting up a very logical and easy-to-access link to the students is important. We have one central portal that they can go into and get to all of their material. Whether they’re doing an application or communicating on financial aid issues, making that ease of access for them is vital so that they don’t have to struggle to stay in communication with us. That engagement and service is key to any program’s success.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • A critical step to designing a successful hybrid program is understanding the unique needs of non-traditional students and shaping the program and services to fit those needs.

  • Creating a concierge experience for non-traditional students—providing them a centralized hub for all course and administrative materials and supporting them through administrative processes—is central to matching their expectations.

  • Distance programs can be made far more successful through on-site components, which bring students onto the campus and create connections among students that forge academic and professional communities.
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