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Hybrid Format Solves Online’s Student Engagement Challenges

The EvoLLLution | Hybrid Format Solves Online's Student Engagement Challenges
The hybrid approach provides a best-of-both-worlds approach to graduate education for students and faculty.

As students become increasingly non-traditional, the demand for highly convenient, flexible approaches to degree completion is rising. However, it’s critical that, in providing such flexible options for learners, institutions don’t ignore the non-academic elements that make their programs truly great. In this interview, Robert Monroe reflects on his own experience launching the Tepper Online Hybrid MBA and discusses the challenges in creating a student experience for hybrid learners that matched the on-campus offering.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is the Tepper Online Hybrid MBA and why did you decide to launch it?

Robert Monroe (RM): Carnegie Mellon has been an innovator and leader in education for decades. About five years ago, it became clear that online communication and collaboration tools had improved enough to substantially recreate and enhance a student’s experience in the classroom. We had developed substantial infrastructure and expertise in using these technologies to improve students learning in our on-campus classes and effectively delivered classes remotely to students on Carnegie Mellon’s satellite campuses throughout the world.

After extensive evaluation and focused experimentation, we developed the Online Hybrid MBA, which allows us to deliver the same MBA program at a distance as we do on campus: the same classes, taught by the same professors, to the same standards. We saw an opportunity in the MBA market for a highly selective MBA program delivered part-time and at a distance. Once we had proven that we could deliver a program that met our high quality standards, we launched the Online Hybrid MBA.

Evo: What are the advantages of running a program in a hybrid model rather than entirely online?

RM: Fundamentally, human interaction drives learning. We have found that our students greatly value the direct, personal interactions they have with their instructors and peers. The hybrid model, which requires students to meet in person six times per year and participate in live online sessions with their professors weekly, provides students the flexibility of an online program as well as the rich human interactions and intangibles of a traditional in-classroom program.

The Online Hybrid MBA has three different modes that students use for their coursework—live classes and sessions during Access Weekends on Carnegie Mellon campuses, live weekly online classes and discussion sessions and asynchronous online modules. These three distinct delivery formats provides a variety of tools for professors to create quality learning experiences for students—each delivered in the manner that is best suited for the task at hand.

Neither a purely online nor a purely on-site approach provides that flexibility, but a hybrid model can.

Evo: What were some of the challenges you faced in taking the program from concept to reality? How did you overcome these obstacles?

RM: Initially, we had expected the biggest challenge to be delivering high-quality classes. However, that turned out to be relatively straightforward given the quality of our professors and their existing use of technology. Faculty who have taught in the Online Hybrid MBA have enjoyed doing so and found the process of adapting their courses to a new format not only allowed them to deliver a quality online course but also improved how they taught on-campus.

What we underestimated was the importance of the intangibles of an MBA program and how difficult it is to recreate them when your students are located around the country (and to a lesser degree, the world). The Access Weekends are the solution and provide an invaluable opportunity to bring the student cohorts together for the networking, leadership development, professional development, corporate visits and alumni talks that round out an MBA education. Feedback from students is that Access Weekends are the best part of the program. We have also developed a variety of ways for hybrid students to interact, both virtually and in person, with on-campus students through student clubs and global recruiting treks.

Evo: How have students responded to this hybrid model? 

RM: Resoundingly well. Our current Online Hybrid MBA students are the program’s biggest supporters. Our students chose the Tepper program for a variety of reasons, but ultimately their decision was to enroll in a top-tier MBA program that does not require them to take two years off of work or move to a different city. The Online Hybrid MBA program provides the flexibility they need to continue working and advancing their careers, wherever they may be living, while still earning a degree from one of the top-ranked MBA programs.

Evo: From an administrative perspective, what are some of the key differences between managing a hybrid program and managing a traditional, face-to-face program?

RM: From an administrative perspective, our biggest challenge was recreating the intangible experiences outside of the classroom. In our on-site programs, a lot of learning takes place through students spending time together outside of class—in student clubs, leadership development seminars, guest speakers, case competitions, etc.

We provide similar experiences for our hybrid students and have been more deliberate in coordinating these experiences for the online hybrid program in comparison to our on-campus programs, where these events tend to happen more organically.

This interview has been edited for length.

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