UIUC, Coursera partner to offer iMBA, a $20,000 graduate degree

The first all-MOOC graduate degree is expected to launch in 2016

Coursera and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign College of Business on Monday announced the launch of the iMBA, the first open, fully online MBA program to be offered through the MOOC platform. The program has been approved by the institution's faculty senate, and for many who have watched the massive open online course space over the last few years, the partnership is the latest step toward achieving MOOCs' promise of democratizing higher education.

"People of all backgrounds and life histories deserve a chance to earn the education they need to succeed in their lives," Coursera Co-Founder and President Daphne Koller wrote in a blog post announcing the program. "This model is unique in offering enormous flexibility and unprecedented affordability, while maintaining the academic standards and rigor of a top degree program."

With an expected price tag of around $20,000, the program is "less than a third of the cost of MBAs from institutions with similar stature," according to Koller's post.

The College of Business' Associate Dean of Outreach and Engagement Raj Echambadi, also a professor of business administration and James F. Towey Faculty Fellow, says the iMBA, developed over the last year and a half, meets the needs of the college's strategic plan. With three existing face-to-face MBAs, the College of Business knew it wanted to go online — and in a direction different than the 182 or so programs worldwide with an online presence.

"If you are going to do the same thing that everybody is doing, then you don’t stand out," said Echambadi. "At a philosophical level, we believe that this is a disruptive concept."

To his point about disruption, Echambadi cites three factors: its stackability, Specializations that aren't constrained by university structure, and a hybrid closed-open system that blends content across the MOOC platform and the university's course management system.

While some students will enter the iMBA program directly, applying to and meeting the criteria for the UIUC graduate college. Others, whether they're unsure an MBA is the direction they want to go or otherwise, can take a single course or a Coursera "Specialization" sequence of three courses for free with the option to apply and enroll later. According to Koller's post, this makes it the first graduate degree program made up of standalone, "stackable" building blocks that can be combined into a full MBA.

The caveat for students who don't initially apply to and get accepted into the iMBA program, but take the free courses and decide that they want to continue and receive credit, is that they'll still need to meet the graduate college's criteria for admissions. Their performance in the Coursera courses, however, will be considered with their other application materials

Each Specialization also has multiple people from across departments teaching a course in a single package. “It’s the way the business world operates," Echambadi added.

The Specialization topics include Improving Business Finances and Operations, Strategic Management, Leadership and Management, Business Tools for Successful Education, Business Environments and Corporate Responsibility, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and Digital Marketing, with six others pending approval in the coming months. Like other Specializations offered on the platform, each will include a capstone project completed with a corporate partner, though partners for the iMBA program are still being determined.

The third key detail of the program, Echambadi said, is that students are being educated as "one of the people not really fenced off" from the institution, putting them in contact with a rich range of people. The curriculum is freely available to anyone interested.

"At a philosophical level, we wanted people to kind of be a part of the larger public space," Echambadi said. "In other words, the whole world is captured in the Coursera platform, and if a student can seamlessly integrate between the Courser platform, where they have some content, and the platform that we have, where they have augmented content, then you have a perfect novel combination of the private space and the public open space, which I think is extremely gonna be important for a future business leader."

As far as the question of accreditation for such a program, Echambadi said the way the program is organized alleviated any concerns. The amount available for free via Coursera accounts for 20% of content — lectures, multiple choice quizzes, peer-graded activities, forums, etc. — while the other 80% is offered to admitted students via UIUC's Compass course management system and includes case studies, negotiation exercise, and deeper interactions with peers. Since the courses are offered by the University of Illinois and by the same faculty, Echambadi said, "the accreditation issue is a moot issue."

"Given the fact that this is probably going to be open to who a top flight MBA student is, we are going to open the gates to a much wider swath of talent, if you will," Echambadi said "While it talks about online and democratizing top-quality education, this is also about improving our full-time MBA ecosystem. We think these are very different value propositions.​"

Pending approval by the University of Illinois' Board of Trustees, the program is set to launch in Spring 2016 with an inaugural pilot cohort of 200 students. Applications are set to open in June.

"It’s not unlikely that, over the next five years, we will see many graduate degree programs offered in a similar way, putting learners first," Koller wrote. If UIUC's program sees success, it's not hard to imagine other top schools following in those footsteps.

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