We had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with Jack Baroudi, Senior Associate Dean of Academic Programs for the University of Delaware's Lerner College of Business and Economics. In our conversation he shared the secrets behind the University of Delaware’s 15 spot jump up to 32nd in the US News & World Report Best Online MBA list.
“Moving up 15 places and placing among the top 10% of the 300+ accredited programs reflects our continuous enhancements to the quality of our Online MBA program,” says Lerner College Dean Bruce Weber in an article by UD announcing the ranking increase. “We invest in a transformative experience and our students’ ultimate success. We constantly curate the content of our offerings and update the design of our courses.”
Baroudi is also a professor in the college teaching leadership. He teaches classes in UD's Lerner College online MBA: Positive Leadership and Building Emotional Intelligence and Critical Thinking. His hands-on experience allowed us to dive deeper into the online MBA’s ranking improvement.
So, what was that secret? Continue reading to learn how they targeted student engagement with a unique student engagement strategy that boosted student perceptions, while improving the MBA program overall.
In this post:
What goes into the US World News college ranking?
The US World News publishes lists of top colleges and universities based on select criteria. The list we will be discussing today is the Best Online MBA Programs list. The criteria they take into consideration are: Faculty Credentials and Training score, Services and Technologies score, Engagement score, Student Excellence score, and Expert Opinion score (out of 5). See UD's break-down below.
Baroudi emphasized during our conversation that the priority of the program is the students - not achieving a ranking. Yet, improving the ranking is important to helping students find the program, and any improvements made reflected in the ranking can only really be positive.
University of Delaware’s Online MBA
The UD Lerner College online MBA is a career-focused degree designed for working professionals. Unlike many other online offerings that require students to meet in person a few times each semester, UD’s online MBA is 100% virtual as opposed to a hybrid learning or in-person program. This creates the opportunity for students from around the globe to participate in Lerner’s online MBA program and learn together.
UD’s top online MBA program offers 7-week intensive classes that allow students to complete their degree in as short as 16 months.
There are many tangible benefits of the Lerner Online MBA, but, as Baroudi shares, one of the best parts of the program “is the care and concern of the faculty for their students.”
The program carefully selects faculty that will likely be engaged, interested, and excited about working with students online. This is very important for the types of students who enroll in the program that tend to have a lot of work experience and are committed to learning from their degree.
How UD's Lerner College targeted Student Engagement
Why did UD target student engagement?
First, they looked at their student feedback, and noticed that their students were getting engagement scores that were a bit lower than other programs. As Baroudi says, “it's all about the student.” So once they realized this was an area that students would like to improve in their online MBA, UD “looked for enhanced student engagement to really make sure that the student experience was as powerful as possible and as helpful as possible,” according to Baroudi.
UD views student engagement as a critical element of a Lerner MBA because when students engage, it helps them learn more completely. Engaging with peers and the instructor allows them to apply what they learned to their lives, their work, and can ultimately provide relevance and context to course material.
What were they using for student engagement originally?
At first, like many other online courses, UD’s online MBA used discussion boards “and standard discussion boards really don't create student engagement. It's just like another assignment. So, you know, we all use them, but we didn't particularly think they were very effective,” Baroudi explains.
The secret to boosting student engagement in online learning: what works and why?
The Lerner College invested in Yellowdig as a student engagement strategy that was easy to implement due to its automatic grading system and LMS integration. It was also highly effective due to its social media-like feel and gameful learning elements.
After finding out about Yellowdig, Baroudi shared, “we experimented in two of our classes, where it was really considered quite a success. And then we made it available to all of our classes in the online MBA program. So we limited it initially to the online MBA program.”
Given that UD’s focus on student engagement was spurred by student feedback, the reaction from students about their student engagement efforts with Yellowdig was a key indicator of their success.
“The students were very enthusiastic about it on almost all the evaluations, and I use it in both of my classes. We got a lot of very positive feedback that students enjoy the ability to have a conversation the way you know, it's very natural, with Yellowdig,” Senior Associate Dean Baroudi elaborates. “I always tell my students, it’s like Facebook for my course, you're going to a Facebook-like site but we do it privately. We can engage in all kinds of different conversations, and they can engage in their own conversations if they choose to.”
The key to online student engagement is really simple - give students the space to share about course content, ask questions, and create connections. This is especially critical for adult learners who often have upwards of 10 years of lived work experience to make connections to, and share about in the context of the course’s material.
Baroudi explains, “Yellowdig gives us a chance for students to talk about how they see this in action in their companies by sharing things like…
I actually see how psychological safety is a critical topic. And it's something that was missing in my last, my last company. And ultimately, that's why I left. And when I looked for a new job the whole concept of feeling free to speak up and, and not having to worry about making a mistake, being able to learn from it, as opposed to being punished for it was something that I was really looking for. And I found it in my current job. And this is how the company embraces that concept.
Well, that's very powerful, because it tells everybody else this isn't just some academic exercise, but in fact, it's things that really impact people in the real world.”
A look into Senior Associate Dean Jack Baroudi’s use of the Student Engagement platform Yellowdig in his classes
One course that he teaches is 4 weeks, and another one course is 7 weeks. Both are fully asynchronous with 1 hour per week of a synchronous video meeting that is recorded and optional.
Baroudi shares that he will often post conversation starters to make sure things are moving along in his short courses. The difference between the conversation starters he shares and a prompt that most instructors are used to is that he does not require students to respond, and it encourages students to share other course-related material.
“I'll put a posting up there about ‘I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the content and here's an article you might want to read to think about something that relates to the course, and feel free to discuss this or whatever else in the material that you think is interesting,’” Baroudi explains.
How effective was his active learning community?
Building connections does not happen in a big lecture hall or clunky Zoom classroom. A smoother and more personalized approach like Yellowdig is necessary. Take a look at how connected students in his online course are in the network graph generated on Yellowdig's platform below.
Over the course of the semester you also see that the number of comments his students created far exceeds the number posts with a conversation ratio (comments/posts) of 5.25. The typical “1 post and 2 comments” discussion board would have a conversation ratio of 2 for reference. Baroudi’s class’s high ratio shows that students were having more in-depth discussions around topics and were going back and forth with each other.
Getting an online course started with community
Similar to how many instructors start off an in-person course by having students introduce themselves, Baroudi uses Yellowdig to give students the opportunity to share about themselves to the whole class asynchronously. Students can share a written bio, a picture - maybe even one of them doing something they love or related to the course, or even a short video they record on the platform. Instead of just taking note of students who align with your interests or may be good to network with, posting to Yellowdig enables students to immediately start connecting with each other.
This is something he does in every class because “reading the introductions that people share about themselves gives much more of a sense of who's in the class, who your classmates are. And I think that that's helpful for getting the course off to a good start,” Baroudi points out.
Using Yellowdig instead of a synchronous video call or even an in-person discussion for these introductions can be very beneficial to make every student feel comfortable and included. For example, say you’re a more introverted student or as Baroudi explains, “you're the only diverse member in a class, Yellowdig sort of levels the playing field. Everybody gets a chance to participate. Nobody's gonna feel like a second class citizen or feel like I can' get my voice heard.”
How Baroudi views the role of an instructor in a virtual classroom community
Using Yellowdig for your class’s student engagement strategy makes the instructor’s role differ greatly from using a traditional discussion board. Given the nature of the auto-grading, an instructor’s time no longer needs to be spent assigning a value to each student’s writing. Instead, an instructor can use their time to converse with students and provide real feedback and support.
The beauty of the gamification system is that it motivates students to create a lot of conversation, and as Baroudi can attest: “the discussion is quite robust, eventually, it gets to the point where I can't read every word. I like to provide feedback early on, on everybody's posts, just so that they know that I'm engaged, and I'm paying attention, and I'm reading. And then as the thing gets moving, like after the second week, generally people know I'm going through and so on, then I tend to use the little emojis to let them know that I was there. Unless it was something particularly valuable, then I'll make up a longer comment, but it works well. The students are motivated to do it.”
Another way that Baroudi lets his presence be known in their conversations without taking over is with the use of accolades. “I think they also take a degree of pride when I give out accolades...I find that I have a couple students who are very active because they like that kind of activity. Other students like reading it or comment, and other students will say, this article really didn't help, because we've already had this. So we get some interesting dialogue going.”
How Baroudi uses Yellowdig to keep his class relevant
An up-to-date class is sought out by all MBA seekers. Nobody is getting an MBA to learn what was important in business last year — they want the most up-and-coming methods and information.
Baroudi shared how his students in Yellowdig help him refresh his course content every semester. “They're posting articles, they're posting videos, and what I've discovered is I will take a lot of the content that they post, and I'll end up using it when I revise my course. Because what'll happen is they'll find new material, they'll find material that contradicts something that I have in the course, that might be a more recent discovery. And so I'm always taking that material, looking at it, and then making some decisions of how I want to change, the next time I roll the course out. And that helps me keep things very current, and also helps students know that because I tell them ‘this is a really good article, I'm going to assign this in the next class.’ So they know they're having an impact in terms of the future participants in the class.”
How UD’s Online MBA program seeks to continue to improve online learning
Increase Comfort: Improve Virtual Student Orientation
Students learn best when they feel comfortable because they feel like they have a support network of other students going through the same process. Baroudi talked about how they would go about creating this community using Yellowdig because Yellowdig is a platform proven to work for student orientation.
“I think all of our online orientation programs, even for the MBA on campus MBA, is really creating a Yellowdig community that students can engage in early on, meet each other and continue to have a conversation,” Baroudi explains.” But the idea was to really give students a way to get to know each other and meet each other in a way that would be helpful. And give them some support, peer support as they go through the program.”
Build job-ready skills: Include Certificates in Courses
“One of the things we have to make sure is that we are providing the types of skills and competencies and knowledge that are important to the business community, so that our students are always able to get good jobs.
And we've been very successful in terms of employment. And a lot of that is because a lot of our programs, they do go out and they work with industry, and they do audits, to make sure that the content of the courses are really appropriate.
But then there are some skills that you might not think of as perhaps more academic in orientation. And that's what we're talking about stackable certificates for.”
An example that Baroudi discussed was in a Management Information Systems course for business students, there are a few programming languages that a professor requires students to learn and earn a certification in.
Certification of a skill is becoming more important across industries and helps students quantify their education to potential employers.
As Baroudi emphasized, “It is all about the student.” So, an approach to improving education that is focused on getting students involved more deeply in their own education is a clear path to increasing student success, satisfaction, and although not the ultimate goal, boost external rankings. That explains their success with the student engagement platform Yellowdig, and why they plan to expand various student engagement programs in the future.