Farhad Zmarai Photographed in the Bay Area of San Francisco, USA For the Andrew Jack iMBA story for Work and Careers.
The benefits of virtual study: Farhad Zmarai in San Francisco © Jason Henry/FT
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It was an explosion in Kabul’s Green Zone that took Farhad Zmarai’s attention away from the marketing module he was studying for his MBA.

While many students struggle with concentration, few endure the extreme distractions Mr Zmarai faced. He balanced studying in war-torn Afghanistan with work, family, poor internet connection and no financial aid.

Mr Zmarai was working for the World Bank when he started his course in August 2016. While Afghan culture puts a premium on technical degrees like engineering, Mr Zmarai was working for international organisations and “sensed the value” of an MBA.

Mr Zmarai, who graduated in 2018, is part of the first class to complete the iMBA, launched by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The qualification is part of a growing trend towards digital delivery of MBAs. While many schools have programmes that blend classroom and online approaches, with the course at Urbana-Champaign, all teaching and learning takes place online.

Statistics from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) show that between 2013 and 2018 there was a 69 per cent increase in the number of business schools offering online MBAs accredited by the organisation, with growth particularly focused in the Asia-Pacific region.

Jeffrey Brown, dean at Urbana-Champaign, says: “It’s been incredibly challenging, but exciting, building a new venture in a 150-year-old big, lumbering, bureaucratic institution.”

70%

US business schools that reported a decline in applications for their two-year programmes in 2018

Like other US institutions, Urbana-Champaign faced growing competition in recruiting students for its full-time MBA. Figures for 2018, compiled by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), showed 70 per cent of US schools reported a decline in applications for their two-year programmes.

Citing Urbana-Champaign’s historical commitment to accessible, affordable education, Mr Brown set the fee for the entire iMBA to $22,000. He also waived the traditional GMAC exam entry requirement for students who had significant work experience.

Being online-only allowed the university to recruit students from a much wider field. It could target far more potential students, including those who did not live near good-quality alternative universities, and those from around the globe like Mr Zmarai.

Mr Brown also deployed a “stacking” approach where students can take courses online for free, and then pay if they want credits to use towards qualifications, including full degrees.

Urbana-Champaign teamed up with a digital learning platform, Coursera, to deliver its iMBA. It was keen to avoid its online course being seen as second-best to its campus offering.

While some universities have treated online education as an afterthought — simply filming existing lectures or employing more junior teaching assistants for courses — Urbana-Champaign invested in production and talent. It hired broadcast cameramen to make the films, built virtual classrooms and tapped its top professors.

Data helps the university respond to students’ needs. The school provides supplementary materials or different approaches when the data shows, for example, that students watch content multiple times or struggle in tests.

So far, Urbana-Champaign’s decision seems to have paid off, with strong growth in the number of students taking the iMBA over the past three years. Some 270 of the 293 students offered a place on the iMBA in 2016 accepted. In January 2019, the school admitted another 600 students on to its iMBA, and will run a second recruitment cycle in August.

“It’s exceeded our expectations in every way,” says Mr Brown. “In student satisfaction, retention, graduation, faculty perceptions — and in the amount of work required to pull it off.”

Mr Zmarai’s experience at Urbana-Champaign exceeded expectations, too. He cites an earlier distance-learning MBA that he began, but then abandoned, with a British university. “It was not even comparable,” he says. “There were no videos, no lectures. They just gave us a few textbooks and assigned a tutor who was not even a professor.”

Mr Zmarai says he did not miss out on an important lure of campus-based study while on the iMBA — personal networking. “The most surprising thing was the iMBA gave me the opportunity to get to know people through our assignment groups,” he says.

The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan pushed Mr Zmarai to move to the US after completing the course. He now works as a contractor with Facebook. For him, the benefits of virtual study are becoming real.

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