Online programs have become commonplace in higher education, and are growing more and more in prestige with elite universities across the country and the globe initiating new offerings.
But that wasn’t the case in 1999. The Internet, as we know it, had been around for less than a decade, and the thought of pursuing a venerated degree like an MBA online seemed absurd to some.
Where others saw uncertainty, Dr. John Kraft, Dean of the Warrington College of Business Administration, saw clarity. Under his stewardship, UF MBA at the Hough Graduate School of Business entered the online marketplace with its FlexMBA in 1999. Since then, UF MBA’s Internet Program has grown into one of the world’s elite online MBA programs, and has been recognized by esteemed business publications like The Economist, the Financial Times and U.S. News & World Report.
The origin of the Internet Program began in the late 1990s. Looking back, the concept seemed like a sure thing. The Internet was gaining in popularity, there was a generation of students familiar with technology and the online education market was barren. But reputable and accredited universities were hesitant to take the plunge.
Dr. John Kraft, Dean of the Warrington College of Business Administration, was not.
“A lot of it had to with the fact that we’re located here in Gainesville,” Dr. Kraft said. “We’re not in a major metropolitan area. We needed to find a new way to compete for the best students nationally, and differentiate us in the marketplace.”
“Dean Kraft deserves an incredible amount of recognition for being a visionary to put this together,” said Alex Sevilla, Assistant Dean and Director of UF MBA Programs. “I don’t know how many deans would have made that play at that time.”
Planning began in 1997, and was influenced by a faculty study that identified four key components for the program to succeed: A flexible schedule for students, a limited requirement for students to come to campus, flexibility for the faculty in constructing their courses and structuring the program around cohorts to promote connectivity and team-building.
The program’s most immediate concern was establishing credibility with prospects.
“One of the biggest challenges early on was convincing people that this was a legitimate way of earning an MBA,” Sevilla said. “Now it's more commonplace, but back then there was a fair amount of skepticism around the concept itself. We had many people asking us the simple question, 'how is this thing going to work?'”
Two significant changes were implemented shortly after the program launched. First, they changed the name from FlexMBA to its current name, Internet MBA. Sevilla said flexibility is a cornerstone of the Internet Program. But from a branding perspective, he said it gave the impression that everything, including deadlines and campus visits, were at the students’ discretion.
“That was an early and easy change to make,” said Sevilla, with a smile.
The second fix was establishing uniform requirements for laptop computers.
“That was a significant challenge for us,” Sevilla said. “We had people coming with machines that weren't strong enough for the software, with company firewalls that would not allow us to install software essential to the program. Every single person that would call our technology team had a different problem.”
Distance learning would not be possible without advances in technology, and staying ahead of this curve is critical to improving student experience in online programs.
The technology utilized in UF MBA’s Internet Program has constantly evolved over the past 15 years. When the program began, students were given compact discs to retrieve course material. Now, students are provided first-rate Dell laptops where they can access lectures, post their ideas and work on class message boards and interact instantaneously with fellow students across the nation and the world.
The College’s technology team has a demanding task providing the newest enhancements in technology, yet producing a seamless and uncomplicated user experience. It’s a delicate balance.
Sevilla is the first to admit his affinity for pushing the technology envelope with Eric Olson, the College’s Director of Information Technology and Distance Learning.
“My role in collaborating with Eric and his team is to try to be a positive agitator,” Sevilla said. “I want to make sure we're always looking at what's around the corner, never getting stale or resting on prior success, and never saying 'that's good enough' because technology changes at a rapid pace.”
The College’s faculty is its backbone, and the opportunity for distance-learning students to learn from these world-renowned thought leaders—just as full-time students do—was a major selling point. But would the College’s top scholars want to be involved with this new venture?
Dr. Sandy Berg, Distinguished Service Professor and Director of Water Studies at the Public Utility Research Center, was one of the first to enter the fray. Dr. Berg was already a mainstay teaching UF MBA’s full-time students, and was eager for a new challenge.
“I was in a stage in my career where I wanted to try something new and exciting.” Dr. Berg said. “I wouldn’t say I was skeptical, but I was more hopeful than optimistic.”
Students need initiative and motivation to be successful in distance learning and the same goes for faculty teaching via distance. If a professor does not convey passion for the subject matter, students may not be as motivated.
“I wouldn’t say I was a showman, but I’m an extrovert,” Dr. Berg said. “I wanted to exude excitement and enthusiasm about the material.”
Elizabeth Bond Gipson had always wanted to attend business school and earn an advanced degree, but she couldn’t commit to a full-time program because of her sales position at KHOU-TV, Houston’s CBS affiliate, and starting a family.
She found an answer with UF MBA’s Internet Program.
“What made me comfortable was how seriously they took teamwork,” said Gipson, (MBA ’12), who was pregnant with her first child when she started the program. “That was one of my biggest concerns. The students are working full-time and most have families. It’s easy to feel isolated, but we were able to stay connected.”
Like Gipson, Tim Megginson’s life was demanding. He was married with two young children and served as a Senior Marketing Manager at Universal Orlando Resort. A full-time program simply wouldn’t work for his situation.
“You say to yourself, ‘This is the level of success I want to achieve professionally,’” Megginson said. “In order to achieve those goals, I felt like an MBA was a requirement for me. Plus, I wanted the personal challenge. I thought if I can do this and be successful, I can do anything I set my mind to.”
Megginson said he was initially apprehensive about beginning an online program, but those fears quickly disappeared.
“There was a little skepticism, but, ultimately, I got rid of it,” said Megginson. “UF MBA has great brand equity, and you know they would not do anything to jeopardize that. That gave me some piece of mind that I was in a rigorous, legitimate program.”
The landscape is changing rapidly with more programs—both for- and non-profit—entering the online education marketplace. So what role will UF MBA’s Internet Program play in this emerging field?
“This is a space that will continue to grow,” said Sevilla, “and I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon.”
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have been receiving a lot of attention, and some believe these free courses could divert some students from pursuing an online MBA. Sevilla, however, believes MOOCs could actually increase enrollment in online MBA programs. He said students who enjoy taking a MOOC may want to pursue a degree with more richness and depth.
The key point, he said, is how online MBA programs react when growth is stifled.
“Clearly, at some point in the online market, we will deal with saturation,” Sevilla said. “We've seen the full-time market mature and become more competitive. For the past 10 years, it has been the executive programs and part-time programs that experienced significant growth nationally, and now that market is maturing as well. I expect that we will see the same evolutionary market curve with online programs as well.”
While that may be a cause for concern for most programs, Sevilla said UF MBA’s Internet Program will take that opportunity to innovate.
“Increased competition is invigorating. It ensures that we continue to push the envelope in all phases to stay on top of our game and remain one of the world's best online MBA brands,” Sevilla said.