Five Years Later: Reflections on the launch of the online MBA program

The Raymond A. Mason School of Business launched its online MBA degree in the fall of 2015 with a diverse cohort of 49 professionals led by a set of accomplished faculty members who up until then, had taught strictly in William & Mary’s residential undergraduate and graduate business programs.

The program was the first of its kind at William & Mary: asynchronous learning in a completely virtual environment that leveraged the institutional reputation, expert instruction, and innovative approach to business that the Mason School’s in-person courses of study were known for throughout higher education.

Five years later, we caught up with some of the alumni and faculty who were a part of the initial program launch. Learn more from Chris Gordon ’17, CFO of Virginia Medicaid; Harris Ligon ’17, Business Development and Strategy & Planning for Uber Freight; and professors Deborah Hewitt, Rajiv Kohli, and James Olver.

Professors Hewitt, Kohli, and Olver, you all signed on to be instructors and teach during the first few courses of the online MBA program as it launched. What was your experience instructing that inaugural cohort of students?

Olver: Along with Graham Henshaw, I developed and taught – and still teach – the very first course, Renaissance Manager. We built it around the idea of “wicked problems” and using design thinking principles, techniques, and mindsets to prepare students for the disruptive changes that characterize the 21st century. To my knowledge, no MBA program had ever started with a course like that, and we were both really excited to develop and launch the course. The night before it went live, I woke up thinking, “we think this is really cool, but will the students buy into something that looks so non-traditional?” They did, and they jumped in with both feet on day one.

Hewitt: It was a thrill. Despite the asynchronous design of my course, in particular, I was able to get to know each student well through multiple types of interactions. The discussion boards served as a regular means for students and me to communicate with and learn about all the class members and their business experiences. And the feedback loop on weekly assignments provided a very personalized approach to teaching, much like that in the face-to-face environment.

Kohli: It was a learning experience to be a part of this transformative mode of instruction. I carefully evaluated how each topic contributed to learning and the value of each assignment to student learning. The experience of instructing the online MBA students helped me improve my teaching in residential courses.

How would you characterize the William & Mary online students? What makes them special?

Hewitt: They are an interesting and diverse group. I always enjoy the wide range of industries they represent as well as the extensive life experiences they bring to class. Many have traveled widely. Others work in really interesting jobs or industries. I often feel that I learn as much from them as they do from me.

Olver: I have been really impressed by the students’ grit. These are students who are committing to another 20 hours of work on top of really busy lives juggling work and home responsibilities, and they don’t complain. I’ve also been amazed by how collaborative they are. They have to figure out how to work together, often asynchronously, and often across time zones. That in and of itself requires a real investment of time and effort and they rise to the challenge.

How have you seen the program evolve over the last five years?

Kohli: On the curriculum side, the program has continued to fine-tune the content by sharing best practices in order to be responsive to the needs of the students. The program has evolved to become a community where students form friendships, foster entrepreneurial ideas, and share experiences.

Hewitt: The biggest change I have seen is on our side as providers. We are now much more skilled in various modes of delivery and instruction than in the first go-around. We have added professional staff who keep us apprised of industry best practices and help keep us up to or ahead of the rapidly changing expectations of online students.

How would you like to see the online portfolio of programs continue to grow?

Kohli: Online programs provide a valuable service to dedicated professionals who want to expand their skills and contribute to society but their work or family responsibilities may not fit the structure of residential programs. I would like us to continue to excel at the general MBA program while pursuing online specialized master’s, shorter non-degree certificate programs as well as customized courses to serve needs of an industry or a profession.

Olver: We’re launching an online MS in Marketing this fall and an online finance degree is in the works. That was a blessing when the pandemic hit because we had some experience and perspective on how teaching and learning is different in the online space. Personally, I think the pandemic accelerated something that is inevitable: a move to more and better online content. In a world of accelerating change, what you know becomes less important, and how quickly you can learn gets to be more important. In online, you’re not constrained by time or space and you can “chunk” modules for on-demand delivery.

Chris Gordon and Harris Ligon, you are both alumni of the inaugural cohort. Looking back on the last several years since you completed the program, what value has your MBA degree brought to you professionally?

Gordon: I originally registered for the program because I wanted to prove to myself that I had what it took to be successful in the administration of state government. I knew the challenges I faced everyday were significant, and I was hoping that the program would give me a compass. Not only did it give me a compass, it helped me find my voice that had gotten lost in the flurry of day-to-day bureaucracy.

Ligon: The way that I view the value of my MBA and the experience that I had was that it shifted the way I perceived the working world. It changed the framework from which I view operating businesses that actually make a massive impact on the world and it propelled me to really consider new opportunities and alternatives which in a way encouraged me to take a position at an early-stage start-up which is now Uber Freight.

What has the trajectory of your career been since you enrolled in the program?

Gordon: When I started the program, I served as the Chief of Staff for Community Health Services at the Virginia Department of Health. I supervised a team of 10 people. Now I am the Deputy for Finance and Technology/Chief Financial Officer for Virginia Medicaid, overseeing a budget of $16 billion and supervising six divisions with a total staff of 167.

Ligon: I was looking at a very exciting career at Norfolk Southern in the marketing and sales organizations but going through the online MBA program helped me realize what it means to be creative, have high-impact, and be an entrepreneur. I was ready for more risk-taking, more creative function and I wanted more ambiguity and opportunities to have an outsized impact on the organization I was a part of which led me to join Uber Freight as one of the first 30 people out of the Chicago office and as a result we’ve made history in the way we’ve been able to enter a digital surface transportation marketplace. William & Mary unlocked that desire to go and have that experience.

What does the William & Mary online MBA experience mean to you?

Gordon: I truly value the experiences I had learning from the faculty as well as my peers in the program. It was definitely a pivotal experience in my professional journey. I found it so valuable that now I’m returning this fall to take the “Fundamentals of Business Analytics” six-month certificate program. If it’s as exceptional as the OMBA was, I will likely transition directly into the Masters in Business Analytics online program. The thing about William & Mary is that the opportunity for knowledge-gain has never stopped.

Ligon: I finished my final course and a handful of weeks later I was back teaching in the online program and have been for about four years now. I consider the online MBA to be rocket fuel for people’s thinking, perceptions, careers, and their ability to process information. It’s been an immensely rewarding experience because I know every time that I teach a course that by week two, there will be 20-25 people who will go through the experience I went through. The lightbulb will go on and they’ll begin thinking about problems in a different way and believe in their ability to solve those problems.