Online MBA Program at Boston University | Interview with Paul Carlile

Online MBA Program at Boston University | Interview with Paul Carlile

We met with Paul Carlile to discuss the MBA program at Boston University, including the ways the pandemic affected the program, the typical student demographic, the unique design of the program, and more. Enjoy!

The Boston University online MBA program strives to provide a more accessible degree program geared towards adult learners. The program typically focuses on students 35 years or older who want to get an MBA that allows for minimal disruption to their current job and life circumstances.

This program has been carefully designed so that students can apply their education directly to their specific work field. Carlile emphasizes that the goal of the program is to “lower the price of education as an access point,” creating a more accessible path to an advanced degree. The program also optimizes technology in a way that creates a connection between students and teachers in an online environment.

While the pandemic forced many students to become familiar with doing education online, Dr. Carlile believes that younger students may benefit from face-to-face programs, while students with more work experience may benefit from the unique design of the Boston University online MBA program.

Boston University ranks highly for online graduate degrees in business:

Karina’s Interview with Paul Carlile


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Boston University has one of the most highly-ranked online MBA degree programs that do not require a GMAT for admission. If you would like to check out the full list, take a look at the Best Online MBA No GMAT Required programs.


Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:17.2How did your program get started?

Karina: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and we are here with another online program. And so coming out of pandemic, we have been seeing a lot of new interest in online programs, and so we just wanna hear how your program got started, what was kind of the original vision for that, and then we will kind of see how it has been transformed by the pandemic and also just by recent new digitalization of kind of our whole world. So starting off, how did your program get started and what was kind of the original vision for that?

Paul Carlile: Thanks. Yeah, and it is good to be here with you. The original vision came, we work with edX, they are our marketing partner, and so about five years ago, I developed a micro-masters series and in digital transformation that was purely online. And the hope of that program is that it would attract people to then come and matriculate in Boston at our university, to then pursue a face-to-face degree. So that program was very successful, we have touched nearly half a million learners, but what I quickly found out is that most people, adult learners, those who are in their 30s and 40s want to stay in their country with their school district, with their job and pursue their education there. And so that is when we begin began to think about there is an untapped online market and in the adult learner space, and so that is what we pursued with edX. And I think another thing is, as you know, with edX, they have historically been a very low-cost provider of online education, the goal there being to provide greater accessibility to people globally, whatever the conditions might be that may be inhibiting their access, so that became also a recognition that if the price point was low, we could go after learners who may have chosen because of life stage to not pursue one. So that was kind of the impetus to say, there is something out there that nobody’s touching, and nobody’s grabbing.

0:02:23.9What kind of students do you see in this program?

Karina: Right, and so you kind of touched on something, a common trend that we have seen and in a lot of online degrees, is that of the online degrees are best for people in this untapped market who wanna stay where they are. And so how do you think you have kind of seen a change maybe in more people who want an online degree, not have you seen a change in from just people who maybe have kids, they cannot leave where they are to go and travel to college as we were coming out of this pandemic, are you seeing more young people who are like, Look, I was just on Zoom for two years and I quite enjoyed it, and so now I wanna go get an online degree, or is it really staying at people who are adults pursuing an education who cannot move from where they are?

Paul Carlile: I think, whether you wanna call it upskilling through a certificate or in our case, an MS degree or a full master’s degree, in this case, an MBA, I still think we are seeing differences in the market in the sense of the adult learners are really going after that credential, the larger credential, in this case, a master’s, whereas I think the upskilling with the younger crowd is more around certificates and those are typically technical niche kind of things to build that skill based out. The particular learners we went after, we kinda had a target audience of 35 years old as an average age, 10-plus years work experience, and so that was typically a person who was maybe in a specialized business role, so it could have been product management, it could have been a lawyer, it could have been in finance, accounting, in analytics, and they wanted that general business education experience, but again, if I am 35, how am I gonna get that if I wanna stay at my company, if I wanna stay in my school district, that type of thing. So we kinda went focused on that way, and I think maybe one thing that was embedded in your first question is we did this all before the pandemic.

So what I would like to say is that the rising tide just kept rising. I think the pandemic kinda pushed that forward. And I think the thing that... One of the things we are quite satisfied with is that in some ways that adult market, that 35-year-old average age, 10 years plus work experience, we have done some surveys and some focus groups, but still until you build it, you do not fully know if they will come and we have been just really pleasantly surprised how they have come in and the volume that come in, so.

0:04:55.2Is your program completely online?

Karina: Well, that is just great. And is your degree completely online or do they still come in for a few hands-on or maybe classroom experiences?

Paul Carlile: So I made a decision very early on to go pure type largely because with the Micro Masters experience, people are gonna... If you are talking about a global MBA program, they are gonna stay in country, if you have hybrid activities, residential activities, that is just gonna add to the cost. And so one of our mantras was to lower the price of education as an access point, the other thing too, that you notice a little bit in design is, and maybe I could tell you what about how our curriculum is different. In some ways, our degree is focused on the adult learner, which means that instead of teaching curriculum that is around a siloed business education, you teach around the business problem, that is everything we know about research in adult learners, that is how they want the problems to be focused on because they want to... What they study, they wanna take the next day and apply it, and so we organize it around business problems, not accounting, finance, statistics, marketing strategy, and then given that we had to do an integrated curriculum, so we bring different faculty from different disciplines to do that, and then the other element that we pushed was to say, we want this to be driven by peer-to-peer, and so with those three elements that are quite unique in the whole space.

Then back to your question around, do we have a residential component? What you will notice a lot with traditional online programs is they go to the traditional silo approach, and then they say, save kind of the unique peer-to-peer experiences for when people come residential. And I did not want that safety valve, plus it would have driven up the cost, right?

Karina: Right.

Paul Carlile: And so my goal was to say, If we are gonna do this, let us do it right in terms of, if we are gonna leverage the online as a way to drop cost and a way to increase accessibility, anything residential would have meant that I would have seen a residential as the special place to create face-to-face experiences. So we have worked very hard to create... To use the technology and how we use co... We use a cohort, so it is not self-paced, we are very team-based in our approach. And so in some ways, many of our students report back that they feel more presence both the faculty and their peers than they do in their previous educational experiences, which were face-to-face. So again, as a designer, I am an innovation guy, I am a designer guy. And so in some ways, the residential would have created a safety valve that you would not have optimized the new space for to try to achieve kind of new and different things.

0:07:50.7Would younger students be successful in this program?

Karina: Wow, that is so interesting, and that is really great that you have seen such great turnout in this. And so what I am hearing is that you designed your program specifically for this 35 to 35-plus audience, and so have you... Do you think somebody who’s maybe younger, who has not had as much work experience would still do well in this, or would it be more beneficial for them to go in person and learn, let us say straight out of college, and go learn in person?

Paul Carlile: Yeah. I would... That would be what I would say, because in some ways, we have... The other thing with business schools, the MBA market has been a growth market for about 50 years, and so there is not been a lot of deep thinking about the segmentation of that market, and so what we did in our research is to realize there is a very clear different segments, so one way you could say the typical MBA market would be a 26, 27-year-old, and what we see in the marketplace is they are looking for highly specialized skills, so they are pushing against the general management skills, they wanna do analytics, digital marketing, things like that. Whereas our students have been in some kind of a specialty, but now they are realizing they want to be at the dinner table around that general business conversation to move up kind of in the business hierarchy, and earn the business to influence more of the business. So in some ways the trends are... I do not wanna say orthogonal, that is a little too deliberate, but the trends of the young are very different than the trends of the older student.

And so that was about us also painting bright lines between... because we still have a face-to-face residential program, and we believe very strongly that there is a unique value proposition there, much like there is a unique value proposition with our online MBA, that is another distinctive feature of what we chose to do. Most schools, what they offer their full-time students is they create a similar product on the online thing, and then of course then the challenges is you got questions of cannibalization, you got questions of bright lines, and you got questions of what is your strategy?

0:10:02.1How is your curriculum different?

Karina: Yes. Well, that is great and you kinda jumped ahead on what my next question was gonna be, which is how is your curriculum different than others? But I really wanna talk about this because this is so interesting, the way that you have chosen to really specialize for people who have already been in the work field who are really looking for, how can I apply what I am learning, this practical application? And so it really makes sense if you are 35 plus and you have already been working in the field for 10 years, and you are just wanting to move up in the ladder sitting in the same curriculum or even in the same classroom as somebody who’s fresh out of college, who has not worked, is really... It is not practical, but I wanna hear, how did you develop this? How did you kind of go from saying, Look, these people are our target audience, they do need a different curriculum to really deciding that this is how they can could best learn and really wanted to learn?

Paul Carlile: Yeah, I think it is a little bit... We could even talk a little bit about how traditional academics is structured and whether you wanna see it has a positive sides and it has some problematic sides. But often, curriculum is developed by faculty who are very specialized, that is the whole incentive system, peer review journals, and what we do is... I am one of those kind of people. So I am are very specialized. Therefore, our courses are built around our specialization, which means then the student has to do the translation between what we teach around a business silo, say marketing, to take it to a business problem, because a marketing problem is never just a marketing problem, it is an operations problem, it is a financial problem, it is a strategic problem. And of course, faculty will touch on those elements, but in some ways, if you have a course where you are teaching both operations strategy and marketing, which we actually have a course that teaches those all together, that means the translation distance, again, if I am an adult learner and I am getting them defined that way, the distance I have to go to take it to my workplace tomorrow or next week is this big versus that.

And I think some ways what we have historically done to the traditional student is we took them out of their context, placed them in a classroom. And said, You have to come to us. We will not come to you to some degree. So what we are trying to do is we are challenging that approach. And in some ways with younger learners, since they do not have a lot of experience, you may... That more traditional approach is more appropriate, but we felt like with the adult learners, we really needed to do that, and I think that is what is appealed to the people who have come and they... Fortunately for us, they are seeing it actually in their experience.

0:12:45.5What advice do you have for potential students?

Karina: Wow, yeah. And so just finishing up, is there any advice that you would like to give to people who are maybe considering doing an online degree or kind of hesitant about it, and they are really in that target audience and they are watching this and they are like, Wow, I did not enjoy my previous school experience, because I did not feel like it was very practical, I did not even see why I was learning it, and so now they are coming to see this and they are seeing the approach you have taken, what advice would you have for them if they are still on the edge of whether they should go back and pursue a degree?

Paul Carlile: A good question. I think, again, going back to maybe the target audience, I would like to just get this kind of product in front of them, and I think too a little bit, we saw the Zoomification of education through the pandemic. So maybe a couple of questions I would encourage people to ask themselves is, the Zoomification of education overall was not overly positive, because basically we took what we had done in the face-to-face classroom and just took it online and put Zoom around it. I think one thing you are gonna wanna look for is how deliberate is the learning journey, because the opportunity you have with an online education done well, done right, is a curriculum that really thinks about the user in mind, what is the learning journey I wanna take them on? How are all those elements between what is a synchronous video, text, what they are consuming that way, the order of which it is taught, and then how is the... What I refer to fancy words might be the synchronous format, but I just use Live, so when you come to spend time either with peers or with the faculty, how is that connected to that?

And then what would be the connection after that live experience, would you be coming to work together as a team, would there be some kind of peer-to-peer? So I think that is how I would heighten their consumer knowledge is, is the program really not just Zoomifying the experience, are they being very deliberate? Because in some ways, you have to do that with a virtual experience, that is certainly one thing that we have learned is that, well, we know about face-to-face, the things we know that makes face-to-face good, we have to do that with any kind of virtual experience, because once we are face-to-face, we can kinda constantly course correct, we do not have to be that deliberate, we can fix things, but once we go virtual, we have to kind of have that really clear and upfront. So that is one thing I would just kinda say, ask some deep questions around, what does the program look like? Is it again, a Zoomified experience? I would also say is it... Do you want self-paced experience or do you want a cohort experience? Do you want high engagement versus low engagement?

One thing we built ours for is we always deeply feel that an MBA is a highly engaged experience, so that is the challenge of a scaled online MBA program, because in general, business is a multi-disciplinary experience, they are there are not clearly right or wrong answers. Business is complex, it is constantly moving, there is competition, there are good answers and bad answers, and often the how of that, figuring that out comes through interacting with peers who represent different business points of view. And so you have to try to replicate that as much as you can on an online program, so they are seeing the trade-offs, they are seeing how to innovate, I would have to construct a new category, not just use the existing category I have, and I have learned about that by listening to another person here who has a different set of experiences in a different industry, and so I think that is another thing that I would do, particularly for business education, is to look for something that allows this kind of peer-to-peer kind of engagement to kinda maximize the learning experience.

0:12:45.5Sign Off

Karina: Yeah, well, I think that is gonna be super encouraging for people who have maybe not had the best experience with online, because I think you are right. I mean, everybody was kind of thrown into this virtual setting, and so they took what they were doing in person and just threw it up on Zoom and it did not always lead to the best experience, and so I am so glad that there are programs out there like you guys who have really carefully tried to make a virtual experience that is actually beneficial, and so I hope this is encouraging for people who are looking to go back to school and have maybe been struggling to find a really engaging program. So thank you for talking with me today. It was such a pleasure. And yeah, thank you.

Paul Carlile: Thank you, Karina.