Several years ago administrators at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School noticed a gaping hole in their MBA offerings. There were large numbers of talented candidates who would like to earn a graduate degree at the school but, for a variety of reasons, could not uproot their lives and come to Chapel Hill.

“We wanted to meet the educational needs of a broad spectrum of people who are qualified to get an MBA, but for whatever reason are unable to matriculate,” says James Dean, dean of the school.

The answer was an online business programme designed for working professionals, known as MBA@UNC.

The programme, which will start in July, is targeted at students who require maximum flexibility. Perhaps they live out of state or even outside the US; perhaps their jobs require extensive travel or frequent transfers; perhaps they are members of the military, or are juggling young children or ageing parents.

“We’re not looking to attract conventional MBA students, many of whom are career changers – the engineer who wants to be an investment banker, for example,” says Prof Dean.

“Those people need a full-time programme,” he says, “because they need the infrastructure. Our online degree targets people who have reached a certain point in their careers, and want to accelerate, but can’t move here to do it.”

MBA@UNC, the first class of which is limited to 50 students, will have many of the same characteristics of the campus programme, say school officials.

Students are expected to meet the same admissions criteria required by the existing MBA programmes: the courses, designed and taught by UNC Kenan-Flagler professors, are based on the same syllabus as the residential MBA. The global immersions will serve as a capstone to the programme, as in the traditional curriculum.

Even the price is in line with Kenan-Flagler’s similar programmes. Tuition for MBA@UNC is set at $89,000 for the two years, including books, student fees, and lodging and food costs for four weekend immersions. This is the same price as the school’s weekend MBA.

Tuition for the traditional MBA programme, inclusive of living expenses, for two years is roughly $142,000 for non-resident students.

“Given the poor reputation of many online programmes, we knew we’d have to stand up to criticism that we were doing something that might damage our brand, and, for better or for worse, we couldn’t discount the programme,” says Prof Dean.

“We’ve worked hard to ensure the quality [equals the traditional MBA].”

The delivery and structure of MBA@UNC – which involves both “synchronous” and “asynchronous” classes – is very different from the school’s other offerings.

A typical course will include a series of asynchronous classes: course content that students may access at any time. “The asynchronous component is intended to replace going to lectures, but it will not be just video of a talking head,” says Susan Cates, executive director of MBA@UNC.

Ms Cates says the asynchronous portion will include: videos of interviews with chief executives discussing particular business issues; documentary-style videos featuring faculty lecturing; and simulation software.

During the asynchronous segment, students will read assigned texts and case studies.

In the live, or synchronous, class sessions, which will be held weekly, the professor and a cohort of 10-15 students will participate in an online classroom at prearranged dates and times.

These sessions, scheduled to accommodate students in different time zones, will use live, streaming video so that students and professors will be able to see and hear each other in real time.

Ms Cates says: “They will engage in a live class – it might take the form of a case discussion, they might break into small groups to role-play different activities and debate strategies, or they may go over a problem-set and quantitative reasoning.”

The technology also allows for live office hours and student-led study-groups, all of which will be recorded, so students can revisit them, even after they complete the courses.

Students will also be able to attend an immersion group – short standalone classes offered four times a year – where they will meet fellow students and faculty face-to-face.

Participation in all of these will not be required, but students must complete the course material for each immersion online if not in person.

The first immersion class will take place in Chapel Hill, but the remainder will be held all over the world.

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