Thoughts on the 1st Quarter Workload, ‘Turbo Sections,’ & Online Courses

Thoughts on the 1st Quarter Workload, ‘Turbo Sections,’ & Online Courses

BY ANDREW AINSLIE, SENIOR ASSOCIATE DEAN

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Senior Associate Dean Andrew Ainslie

The Exchange asked me to offer up a few thoughts on a few issues facing us. I want to start by stating that this is my personal opinion. We are governed as a complex mix of a democracy, meritocracy and occasional autocracy, so no one person ever gets to decide how our curriculum works. So, that said, here are my current thoughts on a few issues that The Exchange threw my way:

Thoughts about the First Quarter Workload 

OK, what’s the problem that we face? Quarter-based schools have a huge impediment right out the gate– we have 10 weeks to get our students prepared for internships, where semester schools have 15. So there is a tendency to cram a lot into those weeks. Let’s look at what we have: three fundamental classes which are widely viewed as prerequisites for classes like operations, marketing and finance: economics, statistics and accounting. Many would also agree that accounting is directly useful for many interviews. Next, people either need finance or a case based class. We found a solution that no other top 20 school has been able to pull off (ignoring Chicago… more on that later), by letting people choose either marketing or finance in their first quarter, thereby saving one class. But when we redid the curriculum a few years ago, there was also a strong feeling among interviewers, faculty, students and recent alumni that we needed to find a way to get two more things in there – an introduction to the career process and a communications class.

The results in our first year doing this were dramatic. We jumped 20% in students placed at graduation. So any time we consider moving stuff out, we do it with great trepidation, as we would hate to backslide on that statistic.

Where might we find some wiggle room? The potential places, as I see it, are: 1) To shift some material to before the beginning of the quarter one way or another, or 2) to move the half of the communications class into the second quarter. I have been meeting with faculty, students and the administration to find ways to do this. It’s not obvious, but if we could get clever with hybrid technology, or find away to get key communications skills out really early in the second quarter or get people to skill up more, that would be great. It’s one of my biggest priorities right now, and I urge all of you to send me an email, stop me in the corridor or set up a meeting with me if you have ideas on how we can pull this off. I am in agreement with those of you who feel that this needs to change. We just need to find a way to do it without compromising students’ ability to fi nd the best possible internships.

Thoughts about Advanced and Intermediate Core Classes 

You all know the issue – it’s your first accounting class, and you’re just trying to work out what the hell a double entry system is and why anyone would do something so weird when the person next to you puts up her hand and asks some convoluted question about working capital… and you don’t even know what working capital is. In stats, you’re just working out what a standard deviation is when the engineer next to you wants to know why we lose a degree of freedom when computing it…. Huh? Statistical slavery? What are they rabbiting on about freedom for? How can you get an A when everyone seems to have taken the damn class before?

This is a problem that dogs all of us in top MBA programs. The good news is the impact over the whole MBA is pretty small. We did huge numbers of regressions of all sorts of things against all sorts of others and it turns out that no particular background makes you more ableto get a higher overall GPA. There is a slight uptick for econ and business majors but it’s smaller than you’d think. Of course, you’re going to get a bump in your econ class if you’re an econ undergrad… but good luck beating out the business undergrad in Organizational Behavior or Marketing. I also personally do wish that more people would take waivers, and one of the things thatI am looking at is ways to offer tools to help people waive out. Something like a refresher class in statistics for someone who’s done stats, so they can take a waiver and get out of the class. By the way, this would be one way to relieve some of the pressure in the first quarter that I discussed in the previous issue! But it’s hard for us to force anyone to waive and a few people will intentionally NOT waive so they can get the easy A. I really don’t know how to organize this.

So… onto the idea of “turbo” sections. The first problem is it’s a logistical nightmare. How do I schedule one person with strong stats and econ backgrounds, another with strong econ and marketing, another with strong marketing and Organizational Behavior into some complex mix of turbo and ordinary classes? How do I even tell? Is an A at school 1 the same as an A at school 2? How do I compare them? And what do I say to the person who gets a B- after I forced them into the turbo class, who says that they really should have been in the normal class and now may have missed out on their dream job because their GPA was too low? It’s an incredibly tough issue in terms of equity, perverse incentives (for people to fake out that they’re dumber than they are to get the easy A), and logistics.

No school seems to have cracked this… other than possibly Chicago. And for some reason, no one has really emulated the Chicago model. There, students do not have a structured core the way other schools do. Every time we talk about revamping the curriculum, we talk about Chicago, and perhaps one day we’ll bite the bullet and do it. It has its own downsides – designing your own curriculum and bidding for classes before you even arrive at a school has to be terrifying – but it’s definitely an option. Once more, if anyone has thoughts, let me know!

Thoughts about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS)

OK, plenty of people disagree with me on this one… but I personally think MOOCS are a total waste of time. People talk about them, but all the numbers show that very few people ever complete them. Which begs the question, why? My starting point is to observe that MOOCS are not really all that diff erent from a textbook, and indeed usually require a textbook as a backup resource. It’s incredibly hard to sit down in a room on your own and learn stuff , no matter how it’s presented. And there has to be a strong incentive.

Photo 2We offer a really strong one here at Anderson – finish your degree, get a GPA over 3.0, and you join a club where magically, on average, your salary almost doubles immediately,and you get a payback on your investment within 5 or so years… not to mention often finding a far more satisfying career than whatever you were doing before. And your fellow students offer you a combination of two seemingly contradictory ways to help you get there – they motivate you to work harder (because you’re ambitious and cannot bear the thought of not being as good as them), and they give you help in study groups. This combination of exclusive club, motivation through peer pressure and exposure to wonderfully bright classmates who can help you learn faster will always make in-class MBA’s the very best way to learn. Or put differently, I have a low opinion of MOOCS and always will.

So, does online learning have a place anywhere? Most definitely! – first, for people whose only other option is to NOT get an MBA. They’re perfect candidates for our online MBA. Second, for preskilling classes. We’re beginning to roll out increasing numbers of these types of resources. And third, to assist with the in-class experience. This is something that I personally think we need to do more of. But all of these are back-ups, not the whole enchilada. We are definitely increasing the footprint of online resources in our curriculum, but at the end of the day, we want this to be quality material designed to help you do better in a conventional MBA, not as a replacement to what you are learning with us.

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