A Glimpse Inside an Online Course

A Glimpse Inside an Online Course

Thursday, September 29, 2016


The Carlson School offers a variety of options for students to earn their MBA online:

The Part-Time MBA Program features a blend of online and in-person classes for emerging professionals who wish to take full advantage of on-campus experiences, while keeping the option for virtual learning open.

Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship Senior Lecturer Rand Park teaches online and in-person sections of MBA 6315: The Ethical Environment of Business. Here, he addresses common questions about virtual learning and what it’s like to take classes online.

Q: How do students benefit from online courses?

A: There are numerous perks to online learning. First, the students can make progress on the course at the time and place that works for them, whether that’s at their desk over lunch or on their couch at midnight after the kids are asleep. Second, its helps students complete the program faster. My class is required for part-time MBA students, and now that they can take it online, they tend to fit it into their schedules and graduate sooner. Third, taking an online course helps these students learn how to be productive and effective through an online portal. I have students who work remotely all the time. Now that we live in a work world where we collaborate with people who aren’t in the same physical space, it’s an important skill for future leaders to develop.

Q: What are the assignments like?

A: The work is very similar to an on-campus course: I assign two multiple choice quizzes per semester that they complete online. I also give several mini quizzes throughout the semester that allow for multiple attempts. Right now, I have 48 students in the class who are divided into 12 groups of four: each of those groups does weekly discussions where they post a topic on our forum, and respond to one another’s topics. They also do a group project that they deliver and present virtually. There are no textbooks, instead the students use a digital course pack that includes articles and other materials.

Q: What are the challenges of online learning?

A: Psychological distance is a challenge. If you work all day and you go home and fire up your computer, becoming engaged in the course harder than it would be if you were in a classroom surrounded by your peers. You have to be a self-disciplined person to succeed in an online environment. But to make it easier, I tend to do a lot of repetition of concepts for people who go through the course in short chunks. You need to stage it so people can move in and out of the lesson at their pace.

Q: What are the differences between in-person courses and online courses?

A: The online course is of comparable difficulty and scope, but it’s not exactly the same. For an ethics class, in particular, it’s very discussion based. So it can be challenging to engage in those discussions in a virtual environment. I’m always pushing my students to look at something two or three different ways. We don’t want our business leaders using their gut instinct in the midst of turmoil, we want them to take a step back, think about the lessons of history, think about who’s affected by the decision, and take an informed action. I think the students in both the online and the in-person course will walk away better able to do that.

Q: How do you approach your lectures?

A: Instead of sitting in front of a camera and forcing students to watch a boring talking head for 40 minutes, I try to make my lectures engaging, personal, and introduce a little humor. I use short introductions at the beginning to give updates on deadlines and the progress of the class. And I try to bring in recent events to keep the content current: last week, I asked my students to discuss the ethical issues that arose from Pokémon Go. I also have tools that let me share my desktop screen and a document camera that mimics a whiteboard: I’m a doodle head: I like to fill up the board every night in the classroom, and I find myself doing the same online.  

Q: How is the Carlson School’s approach to online learning unique?

A: A lot of top business schools outsource the online portion of their MBA programs. From admissions to course delivery, an outside firm does at all. At Carlson, all the courses are designed and delivered in-house.

Q: How can students get support if they have questions?

A: I make myself very accessible for online students: It’s not uncommon for me to answer emails at 9:30 at night. And the forums are a great place for students to see what their classmates are doing, and to answer one another’s questions. Students turn to the members of their small groups often: with a small community of four students, they become each other’s support.

Q: What’s the biggest misconception students have about online learning?

A: The students think that online is fast and easy—like shopping on Amazon. But you can’t put a class in your cart and check out. The reality is, in some ways, it’s less efficient to progress in an online course, because in class when you’re having conversations, there’s so much that happens organically that takes a bit more effort when you’re participating remotely. Every communication online involves a click and a few keystrokes, so it’s more work than students might initially think.