Twenty years ago, when professor of operations and information management Bob Nakosteen agreed to teach Isenberg’s first online graduate course to 18 MBA students, it did not start out well. “Online classes were more like the old ‘correspondence course’ format,” he recalls. “All written. Not a good way to learn statistics.”
But Eric Berkowitz, who was director of graduate programs for Isenberg at the time, says he had invited Nakosteen to teach that first experimental class for a reason—because he was a great instructor. Very few universities were offering classes or degree programs through the internet so there weren’t a lot of models to emulate, but Berkowitz knew that Isenberg could never create a successful online program without engaging the faculty and taking advantage of their creativity and enthusiasm for effective teaching. “At that point in time, faculty were not too aware of online education, as would be expected,” Berkowitz remembers. “That’s why I said we’ll just try with one course. I said, if it doesn’t work, we’ll shut it down.” And it wasn’t looking good early in Nakosteen’s first course: “Bob came in halfway through the semester and said he didn’t think it would work.”
Nakosteen could tell the early technology platform wasn’t allowing his online students to feel engaged, but rather than giving up on the concept, he decided to rethink the course’s format. “I tried to overcome the distance by inviting my class to Amherst for a Saturday morning session,” Nakosteen says. He paid a student to film the session using a borrowed camera and posted the recording online for the students who couldn’t make it to the get-together. “The response was very positive,” he says.
By the end of the semester, Nakosteen was confident that online teaching could work as long as instructors were willing to be flexible, sensitive, and creative in their methods, so Berkowitz added a second class the following term. “After that, we rolled it out fairly quickly,” Berkowitz says—they purchased web cameras and invited faculty members who were great teachers to take on some online classes, which were initially offered to students enrolled in off-site part-time MBA courses in Springfield, Pittsfield and Shrewsbury.
“I said, someday this is going to overtake live teaching for working professionals,” Berkowitz recalls. “They have families, they travel, and this is more convenient.”
Big Demand and Rapid Growth
MaryBeth Kimball, director of new business development and administration for professional programs at Isenberg, began working with students early in the existence of the online MBA program. “In the beginning, students were concerned about diploma mills,” she says, recalling information sessions she hosted. “We instantly put that to rest, because we were teaching the same core curriculum, the same courses, and using many of the same faculty as our bricks-and-mortar programs.” She had faculty members speak to prospective students as well. “Our faculty went above and beyond to make sure students felt comfortable with the new platform.”
Coupled with confidence in the program’s high quality, the flexibility of online learning was exactly what many professionals needed, especially once Isenberg began establishing partnerships with organizations including the American Association of Physician Leadership, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the American Bankers Association Stonier Graduate School of Banking.
“Sometimes, I would give a talk at a medical meeting,” Berkowitz recalls. “I would be so impressed because a doctor would say, ‘I’m taking Pam Trafford’s accounting course on the treadmill at 5 a.m. before surgery.’”
Part of what made the program work for busy professionals was the care taken to support them as students. Thomas O’Brien, who as Isenberg’s dean at the time of the Online MBA program’s founding, credits student support staffers, including Kimball: “MaryBeth was in charge of the morale of the MBA students,” he says. “She really paid attention to that issue and tried to help them.”
Kimball confirms that many online MBA students come in because their professional colleagues recommend the Isenberg program. “Overall, what created this success was the demand of students who need maximum flexibility and an asynchronous platform,” she says. “But the biggest factor of our success is our faculty. They deserve the credit because of their creativity and dedication to students—our program is what it is today because of them.”
Online Learning in the Zoom Age
The Isenberg online MBA program has grown from those first 18 students in Bob Nakosteen’s statistics class two decades ago to more than 1,400 current enrolled students and more than 5,600 alumni around the world (many of whom have taken Bob Nakosteen’s statistics class). The program is highly regarded by both alumni and peers, as evidenced by years of rankings within the top 30 online MBA programs listed by U.S. News & World Report and multiple #3 worldwide rankings in the Financial Times.
“Online learning is much more accessible now, with better technology and many potential students who are comfortable in that space,” says Traci Hess, current associate dean of graduate programs and Douglas & Diana Berthiaume Endowed Professor of Information Systems. “The pandemic has shown us that online learning is ubiquitous from kindergarten to college and beyond, but our students know that the benefit of Isenberg’s online graduate programs is our deep experience in making online classes come alive through rich faculty and peer interactions and our dedication to helping students not only learn the material but also incorporate it into their own professional work. Our online graduate students report back that they use their lessons immediately, and their knowledge, skills, and degrees immediately translate into more senior-level positions, salary increases, and greater satisfaction at work.”
She adds, “Our faculty members are seriously invested in teaching this population—online students are a core focus at Isenberg, not an afterthought. That is what has made the program successful for 20 years, and will make it stand out as a leader in online education for many decades in the future.”