When the Cox Online MBA launched in 2019, it joined SMU Cox’s Professional MBA and Executive MBA programs as a viable degree program alternative for working professionals whose schedules made enrolling in a full-time MBA program complicated. What began with 16 students has, in just two years, grown to accommodate more than 400 — and that number is steadily increasing.
As the Cox Online MBA prepares to graduate its first cohort this summer, Cox Senior Associate Dean and Herman W. Lay Professor of Marketing Bill Dillon reflects on the program’s creation and successes, as well as its future. Dillon led the design of the 27-month, 52-credit program. Broken into 14-week semesters, the Cox Online MBA program’s structure creates space for intimate, experiential learning.
Through what Cox calls a “flipped classroom” structure, tenure-track faculty deliver course content asynchronously through pre-produced videos, PowerPoints with voice-overs and other technological tools. Students spend time with the content before attending a live, weekly, 90-minute interactive session. In this synchronous session, students and secondary instructors take a deeper dive into the course material, working through problems and engaging in discussion.
“We’re not watering down; we’re not filtering,” Dillon says. “The content is the same content [that is delivered in face-to-face instruction]. It’s just delivered with different modalities.”
Through those modalities, the Cox Online MBA is continuing to deliver the highest-quality education to working professionals after a successful first two years.
A Competitive Advantage
Back in 2017, SMU Cox started discussing adding an online MBA program to its portfolio. Faculty and administration were motivated by the possibilities of ever-changing technology and students’ familiarity with it. “If done well, online instruction enhances learning,” Dillon says. “And it allows one to meet some learning objectives that otherwise would be more challenging.”
Maintaining a competitive advantage was another catalyst, as other similarly esteemed business schools have added online counterparts to their MBA programs, Dillion says.
A strategic bonus to an online MBA offering is the creation of assets that SMU Cox can effectively use to meet learning objectives in traditional, face-to-face courses as well. These efforts served a greater, unpredicted purpose last spring when COVID-19 forced institutions of higher learning across the country to halt — and shift — their usual operations.
Having the core online MBA programs in place allowed the Cox School’s other graduate programs to pivot quickly — a silver lining that will continue to come into play as the program grows. “Going forward, I don’t think we’re ever going to return to what was pre-COVID,” says Dillon, noting the advantages this modality has created.
Set Apart by Faculty and Experiential Learning
While general online MBA programs are becoming more common, the Cox Online MBA has two main points of differentiation: the continued involvement of tenure-track faculty and the advanced integration of experiential learning.
At some institutions, tenure-track faculty are integral in the early development of an online program’s content but then hand off instruction to secondary instructors. At SMU Cox, tenure-track faculty keep their hands on the pulse of the ongoing program and consistently offer input on courses. “I don’t want to paint with a broad brush, but it is somewhat unusual,” Dillon says.
From course design to immersion programs, experiential learning is a critical component of the program. For example, in the core marketing course, the latter half of the semester is dedicated to a brand management student simulation.
Online MBA students also have the opportunity to participate in a series of four-day immersion trips, the first of which was held in London (pre-COVID-19). These immersions allow Cox Online MBA candidates the opportunity to bond with their fellow students while using classroom knowledge in real time by working on client-facing projects from SMU Cox corporate partners. “It’s a real learning exercise in terms of being under very acute deadlines, as well as getting a team to function properly very quickly,” Dillon says. “Other online programs do have immersions, [but] we’ve tried to make [ours] a little more value-added, perhaps a little more exciting and interesting from the students’ perspective.”
The Right Place at the Right Time
The Cox Online MBA’s inaugural class that began in 2019 will complete the program in August. Since there is no August commencement ceremony at SMU, 12 of the first cohort’s 16 students will walk during the May commencement ceremony. Two of the founding 16 students are Jake Christoph and Celina Garcia, Cox BBA ’99. The program gave Christoph, a frequent business traveler, and Garcia, a resident of Southern California, the flexibility and opportunity to pursue their MBAs from a trusted, reputable university while advancing in their careers — exactly what the program was designed to support.
Although unsure of what to expect, Garcia had no trepidations about the program. “I had enormous trust in SMU and knew that whatever they delivered was going to be carefully planned and executed,” says Garcia, who earned her BBA in marketing at SMU Cox in 1999.
Garcia was “pleasantly surprised” by the continuity of content, with each term seamlessly integrating into the next. Although Christoph had to adjust to the asynchronous, flipped classroom setting, the approach helped reinforce course concepts.
“After understanding and experiencing the technical depth and breadth of the program, I’m glad I chose the Cox OMBA,” he says. “The opportunity to be a part of the first cohort to go through the program was a welcomed bonus. The growing faculty has a vast experience base they bring with them to help solidify the students’ understanding of the material. If you’re on the fence about the OMBA experience, attend a class or reach out to the staff. You’ll quickly understand why everyone involved has such a high opinion of this program.”
Garcia and Christoph acknowledge the “unmatched” camaraderie among students in the program’s inaugural cohort — a characteristic for which SMU Cox is known.
“It feels like one of those moments where you’ll look back and realize that you happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Garcia says.
The Cox Online MBA program has been so successful that enrollment is about 18 months to two years ahead of schedule, Dillon says, though he notes that a portion of the elevated enrollment numbers can be attributed to COVID-19. “Our graduate enrollments have increased 50% in the COVID period,” Dillon says.
Faculty and administration are continually looking for ways to move the program forward and strengthen its quality. At the moment, that involves strengthening the immersion programs and creating fulfilling, diverse electives.
“Really, I couldn’t have thought of a more favorable point than where this program is right now,” Dillon says. “We’re so far ahead of where we thought we were going to be.”
Learn more about the advantages of a Cox Online MBA.