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Kenan-Flagler Business School launches online MBA program

First class to begin in July

UNC shared Monday its plans to develop an online MBA program, the first to be offered by a top-ranked business school and a major move by the University into the business of online higher education.

The program, MBA@UNC, is a joint one between the Kenan-Flagler Business School and 2tor, a New York-based startup focusing on online education. MBA@UNC Executive Director Susan Cates said it is a chance to “redefine global business education.”

“We’ll offer something that’s better than anything out there,” Cates said.

For-profit online degree programs have long been seen as lesser versions of traditional programs. By collaborating with 2tor, UNC is challenging itself to prove its online courses are just as rigorous as those taught at the McColl Building.

The plan fits with UNC-system goals to make higher education more accessible. And the program can be expected to bring in money for the school at a time when state funding is dwindling due to budget cuts.

Still, the gamble with the Kenan-Flagler name has left many students wary of the impact it will have on the future value of their degree.

“The one answer we can’t get is what defines success for this program?” said Brad Hudson, a second-year MBA student. “Financial gain? Rankings? How do you judge the success of the program?”

Designing an online MBA

Like the executive MBA programs that run on weekends and in the evenings, MBA@UNC is targeted at professionals looking to advance their careers. The full-time MBA is geared toward those looking to change careers.

MBA@UNC’s curriculum isn’t developed yet, but will be modeled after the full-time MBA program, Cates said. Only core classes will be offered initially, and electives will be added as the program expands.

Students in the first class, beginning in July, will go through the same admissions process, will take class with the same Kenan-Flagler professors and will pay what students in the weekend MBA program pay — $89,000.

Coursework will include independent readings as well as live video conferences with professors and classmates. 2tor will advise on online instructional methods, but UNC faculty will create each course.

Whereas a full-time student might be assigned a case-study to read at home and then discuss in class, those in the online program might watch actors re-enact the scenario and then discuss via video chats, Cates said.

And each quarter, students will gather in-person for three-day workshops and instruction.

A unique partnership

2tor jumped into the online education market in 2009 with the launch of a Master of Arts in Teaching program through the University of Southern California.

The program won a best practices award in February from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, and USC has since launched a second program with 2tor, this time in social work. Fast Company identified it as one of five education “startups to watch.”

UNC faculty traveled to USC earlier this year to observe their two programs. Their example will help UNC, said Douglas Shackelford, a long-time faculty member and the program’s associate dean.

“We’re at a big advantage,” he said. “We’re not the first.”

The exact relationship between UNC and 2tor is unclear. Shackelford said profits would be split by the two groups but did not know more specific details. Initial costs will be fronted by 2tor, Cates said.

“They’re investing heavily on the front-end of developing this in a way that minimizes the front investment required by the University,” she said.

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In an October memo to students, business school dean James Dean said money from the partnership would help supplement state funding and an endowment that lags behind its peers’.

Cates said the contract between the two was protected with a confidentiality agreement. UNC spokesman Mike McFarland said the contract would have to be reviewed first “in case there are any proprietary terms that require redaction.”

Students point to the University’s withholding of the contract as another reason to be wary. N.C. public records law makes most University records public.

UNC began talking about the program earlier this year, Cates said, and discussed it with a variety of stakeholders. “People were not surprised” by Monday’s announcement, said Dillon Twombly, a second-year MBA student.

Students said Monday they hope to be more involved testing out curriculum and giving feedback.

“The faculty and students live with the brand for the rest of their lives,” Hudson said.

“A program like this deserves to be fully vetted.”

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