Spring 2017


The most common “alternative” type of class is fully online—more than 33 percent of college students have taken at least one online course. Through the last decade, online classes have shaken the stigma of being only the purview of diploma mills and other shaky enterprises. Now, due to advances in technology, they are just as robust as classroom instruction. And they really aren’t all that new—they are really a continuation of the University of Minnesota’s pioneering work in the original “distance” programs, correspondence courses.

Building an Online Presence

Master in Business Taxation (MBT) Director Paul Gutterman says his program has been looking into offering online classes periodically for at least 15 years, but nothing much came from it. However, in the past few years, two major changes have taken place.

“First, the technology to deliver online education has evolved tremendously,” he says. “There are so many new and different tools to deliver material in so many ways. There is almost nothing that you can do in the classroom that you can’t duplicate online now.”

The second major change is that the Carlson School now has the experience and infrastructure to support online education. “The school now has a team of knowledgeable instructional course designers to help instructors envision and develop their online courses,” Gutterman says. “They start working with the instructor nine to 12 months before the course will be offered. And, the school has invested in both the technology and support necessary to build these courses.”

The target market for online instruction can be broken down into three groups. The first are those in the area who are interested in taking classes but don’t because they don’t want to come to campus. The second group are those outside the immediate area who have an even greater obstacle coming to campus. “We’ve had numerous students from Duluth, Alexandria, St. Cloud, and Eau Claire who commute one evening a week for three years or more to complete our program,” Gutterman says.

The last group are those outside the state. In the case of MBT, there are a limited number of graduate tax programs nationally and even fewer with the program’s reputation. Most of MBT’s target student body has no access to a live classroom program.

When it comes to designing a class for online instruction, Gutterman says there are many misconceptions. “Everyone who has developed an online course at the Carlson School will tell you that it takes far more time than a classroom one,” he says. “People think you are just taking a current course and creating a video, but it is not that simplistic if you are going to do it right.” Gutterman says instructors have to reimagine a learning environment different from those they have taught before.

Many things taken for granted in a classroom environment have to be thought through from a different perspective. “I do a lot of group exercises in the classroom,” he says. “While technology allows group exercises, you have to decide the extent you want students to find a common time to meet or whether there are alternative learning paradigms that will achieve the same learning objectives.”

Also, one might believe that once developed, an online course must be easier to teach. “That too is a fallacy,” Gutterman says. “The online environment has to allow students to ask questions and have conversations to replace those that regularly happen in the classroom.” So, everything from virtual office hours to electronic bulletin boards where questions are posed and discussed by both students and the instructor are needed.

Since flexibility is a driver of online education, the content must match that demand. Most of the class material is broken into six- to 10-minute increments to better match student’s attention spans. “Online classes allow students to fit in the material over a week on their schedule rather than having to be at the University on a particular night for three hours,” he says. “And because of the small vignettes, they can also view parts of the class over lunch or on the bus or light rail if they wish.” Another positive Gutterman has heard from some students is the ability to go back and review videos, something not possible with a live lecture.

Although flexibility is a major driver of computerized courses, it is not the only one. The biggest driver is technology—not just in the sense that online classes can be done, but that they are expected to be done. “Today’s students expect technology to make their lives easier and have both an affinity and ease to adapting and learning new technology,” Gutterman says.

Another driver, just as important, is a demand for work-life balance that carries over into professional education. “If we can make it easier to get the material delivered to students in a manner that affords them greater flexibility, then it is more likely they will take courses that will enhance their careers,” Gutterman says.

Angela Braud is enrolled in the MBT program and is expected to graduate next spring. Her primary reason for enrolling in the class online was to avoid travel time to and from class—she lives in Duluth working full-time at the Hansen House Company. “This is the biggest advantage of the program, and I am absolutely an advocate of offering classes online,” she says.

She has noticed that the instructor and other students in class are more engaged than they were compared to her previous exposure to out-of-classroom learning—as an undergraduate enrolled in independent study.

Even though traditional classroom learning allows for conversation as materials are being taught with all students hearing the same information, Braud says the online MBT course was more effective than a classroom. She can name multiple reasons.

“Online class allows students to study and learn when their schedules permit,” she says. “Everyone is busy, but family and work obligations still can be met when classroom work is flexible.” Also, a variety of learning media are accessed in an online class. She says presentations, articles, problems, and links all enhance learning beyond simply lecture and book readings, which are stereotypical of a classroom setting.

“The lecture presentations are prerecorded. In doing so, they could be viewed multiple times,” she says. “Especially for difficult concepts, this is useful to have a message repeated as many times as the student needs.” Another perk of a recording is that it can be paused so the student can work through difficult sections. “It was most beneficial when working through mathematical examples,” she says.

In an online class, interactions with classmates are generally restricted to discussion board conversations. These are actually conducive to generating more thoughtful participation. “Typed responses can be reviewed and researched prior to posting to the class discussion,” Braud says. “When a student has the ability to prepare a response with accurate information, both the student doing the research and the intended audience benefit.”

Also, because discussion boards facilitate, encourage, and oftentimes force participation—because they are part of a student’s grade—they cause the class to generally be current with the material to be able to engage in that week’s topic discussion.

As an advocate for online classes, does Braud think they can encompass a whole program effectively? “I’ve taken only one online class through MBT, but I could see how the network of students, alumni, Carlson School staff, and adjunct professors might not be as strong without a physical presence at the school,” she says. “I was grateful to have made a few friends from previous on-ground courses whom I could ask questions of when we were adapting to the online format.”

She feels her existing relationship with these students was an advantage in the online course, if for nothing else than peace of mind. “If an entire program is offered online, how does this student interaction relationship build, with each other and the instructors? I don’t have a suggestion, but I think this is the biggest barrier to entry regarding moving a program exclusively online,” she says. “How do you maintain an elite network of qualified individuals without them ever meeting or participating in real-time conversations?”

Student input can also drive how an alternative educational experience is offered. Board of Overseers Professor Karen Donohue teaches Logistics and Transportation, an online course for MBA students and a requirement for those in the Masters of Supply Chain Management program.

Students taking this course tend to be fairly experienced—they’ve spent an average of eight to 10 years in the workforce. “In online classes, many students are really starving for interaction with others,” Donohue says. “Most come to the Carlson School in part to learn from the experiences and viewpoints of other students. Online can sometimes be more of an individual learning environment.”

What has been successful in this class is offering weekly group activities where students work together to apply concepts to business cases. “For example, there is one case activity where teams are divided into different roles and work on a negotiation,” she says. In this instance, the project is to determine agreeable terms for an intermodal transportation solution with students representing entities such as the railroad, a third-party logistics agency, and the intermodal facility owner. “Everyone has to be comfortable with the terms, so they break into roles and negotiate through Skype until they come to an agreement,” she says. “Through these different kinds of interactive engagements, students get to know and learn from each other and wrestle with big and really contemporary ideas.”

Besides wanting more connection with their classmates, students have also shown interest in being able to interact with some of the class’s guest speakers. “In the past we’ve had some prerecorded guest presentations, but the students felt it would be even better if they could take part in some of these presentations so they could ask questions and pick the guest speakers’ brains,” Donohue says, adding that she plans to set up two such experiences for the class this year. The times will be open to all students wanting to take part in a Q and A with the guest. “I wouldn’t say this is a hybrid course, there are no requirements for face-to-face and these forums will be taped for those who cannot attend,” she says. “This is based on feedback from students who want to have touchpoints with these companies and a more enriching dialog. Even for those who cannot attend, I think it will be more fun to watch a video of conversation back and forth rather than an interview with canned questions.”

In terms of online classes in general, Donohue finds them a nice option as part of a portfolio, depending on what a student wants to get out of the experience. “A typical MBA experience should not be all online,” she says. “I think there will always be some elements of learning that are better done in the classroom. But, the technologies available to support interactive experiences within online courses are getting better and better.”

Another format that offers flexibility to students is a “condensed” class, such as Persuasion and Influence, taught by Marketing Professor Vlad Griskevicius. In a traditional class, students may meet for three hours a week for eight weeks. Reverse the numbers and you have a condensed class: eight hours a day for three days, such as three Fridays in a row.

Students spend 24 hours in class in both versions, but the condensed class compresses the timeframe of the course. Course material remains essentially unchanged.

“The class is fundamentally similar regardless of format,” Griskevicius says. “But some of the projects or assignments need to be modified to fit the structure of the course.”

Persuasion and Influence is designed for part-time MBA students and Griskevicius has found the response to be very positive. “Demand has been huge, with my class filling up almost every time it is offered,” he says. “I also think that some students appreciate getting a few days off from work because they can use the Friday class as an excuse.”

Students also seem to cater to the novelty of the course. “Our Part-Time MBA students like to have a mix of class formats,” he says. “My sense is that a typical student does some traditional format classes, some online courses, and some condensed courses. This allows students more flexibility and gives them more options and variety.”

Griskevicius says there are several advantages to a condensed class.

First and foremost, greater student focus and presence. “In a traditional class that meets many times over many weeks, there are bound to be lots of student absences,” he says, offering examples such as a job interview or someone needing to travel out of the area for a short time. “There is almost never a time when everyone is in class at the same time.”

In his class, however, attendance is almost 100 percent for the three days. “I think this is wonderful for the class because it creates a better sense of community,” he says. “It also allows everyone to be focused and present for the entire time. This kind of physical and mental presence is rare in the modern world.”

The great efficiency of a condensed class, however, leads to its major disadvantage. “In traditional classes that last many weeks, students have more time to reflect on the material. There are many shorter class meetings and much time in between,” he says. “Some types of learning work best when they are stretched out over time. This kind of learning is more difficult in a condensed course because there is less time for prolonged reflection.”

A condensed class also makes prolonged group projects more challenging.

“There simply isn’t enough time to have groups meet many times to do a project well,” Griskevicius says. “I find that the condensed class is more useful for several smaller projects rather than one big project.”

Ali Weideman, who expects to graduate from the Part-Time MBA program in 2021, says she was initially drawn to the Persuasion and Influence course not only because of Professor Vlad Griskevicus’ reputation as being both knowledgeable and interesting in the classroom, but also because she wanted to try her first condensed-style course. “The format makes it easy to fit classes in without skipping a beat professionally or in your personal life,” she says. “I used vacation time for this course, but am glad that I did and would do so again.”

Since class time was compressed, she read the entire assigned text prior to stepping foot in the classroom. “This allowed me to keep up with the number of assignments and essays over the shortened length of the course,” she says.

Although the biggest benefit of the class was being able to take an entire course while only slowing down life outside the classroom for a few weeks, Weideman adds that another significant benefit was that the class felt more like a seminar or crash course. “It was a nice change of pace from courses that meet once a week for an entire semester,” she says.

Weideman says the main downside of the class format is that you do not become as immersed in the course when it is taken over a few days versus an entire semester. “There is also not as much time for discussion boards on the course page or group work, so less peer networking is involved in a compressed class,” she says, adding however that “from my standpoint, the benefits far outweigh the negatives of a compressed class. These classes offer the flexibility of an online course while maintaining a true face-to-face classroom experience.”

All in all, she feels condensed classes are a nice addition to the curriculum. “I would urge anyone interested to try a condensed class,” she says. “These classes are a great way to knock out some credits in just a few weeks and take pressure off of the rest of the semester.”


The University of Minnesota is one of a number of universities that partner with Coursera, a company that offers massive open online courses (MOOCs) in numerous subjects. There are two specializations from the Carlson School—Human Resource Management: HR for People Managers and Healthcare Marketplace. The courses harness the power of technology and respond to a growing interest in online education.

Healthcare Marketplace was created by Medical Industry Leadership Institute Director Stephen Parente and colleagues. He has found it a huge success. “We’ve had more than 9,000 learners,” he says. “And received more exposure of what I do and what the Carlson School does with healthcare than I ever expected to. More interestingly, one of our MBA students came to the Carlson School with only two months’ notice because he saw me do that MOOC.”

Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies Director and Professor John Budd, along with several of his colleagues from the Department of Work and Organizations, built the Human Resource Management specialization. The offerings in this module are intended to leave students with a new-found understanding of the range of options available for managing employees and helping them develop their own human resource management skills.

Budd says that teaching a MOOC has more up-front, intensive development and production than a traditional classroom-taught course, but less interaction with students.

Budd made a total of 47 videos for his four-week course, one of five courses that are part of the module. Most of the videos were produced at the Carlson School in a recording studio in front of a green screen. He also created a short, ungraded practice quiz for each lesson, as well as a longer, graded quiz each week.

“Most of the work occurred before the course even launched. Now that the course is running, students can sign up at any time and they start with a new cohort of classmates every two weeks,” Budd explains. “I monitor the discussion boards to make sure everything continues to run smoothly, and I add some thoughts to the discussion boards when students have questions or make insightful comments. But they can watch all the videos and complete all of the assessments at their own pace without any involvement from me.”

According to Budd, teaching this MOOC has been very rewarding so far. Since the course has become available last year, more than 18,000 students have enrolled. Because this course is freely accessible online without any entry criteria, it has reached students from more than 100 countries who are interested in learning more about human resources management.

“It’s particularly rewarding to think that we can provide the leading expertise of our HR program to individuals in countries who otherwise don’t have access to this kind of education, and that we can make a difference in their lives,” says Budd.

Although it has been a positive experience overall, Budd does note that there are challenges when teaching a MOOC. One of these challenges is deciphering how to create a personal connection with the students, given they have no personal interaction with the professor. Students are encouraged to communicate with each other, however, and they have access to student discussion forums that Budd can monitor. He also created a LinkedIn page that helps students keep in touch with each other after completing the course.

Participants rate the course overall on a 5-point scale. So far, Budd boasts a score of 4.7. Students can also comment on specific videos if they have a question or comment. In a MOOC, anyone can watch all of the videos for free, but as of now 1,764 students have purchased the paid version of the course and earned a certificate.

Budd says the process of creating this MOOC and preparing it for students was the busiest time in his entire career. And although it was exhausting and at times overwhelming, it has been a great experience because of the positive feedback from the learners and the truly global interest in the course.

Visit Human Resource Management at:

Healthcare Marketplace can be found at:


During the last five years, the Carlson School has experienced tremendous growth in both the demand for and delivery of online courses for our MBA students. We have grown from approximately five online course sections five years ago to nearly 90 online course sections by the end of this academic year. As a result, approximately 50 percent of Part-Time MBA courses are now being offered in an online or compressed schedule course. MBA students like the change as evidenced by overall student satisfaction rising from 72 percent to 92 percent in evaluations given four times a year. MBA students appreciate the flexibility of being able to choose from a variety of course formats towards completing their MBA degree around a busy work life.

One aspect of online courses that many people are unaware of is that it takes a team of people behind the scenes to bring an online course to launch. As the Academic Technologies and Instructional Design Manager, I lead a team of three academic technologists and one videographer. In the background, we are assisting with the design and development of online courses and flipped courses as well as supporting academic technologies around the school. With online courses we are managing multiple tasks and working closely with faculty members to bring these classes to launch.

There is much about our team’s work that remains invisible in the background. One of the visible elements, however, is online video lectures. To assist in video production, we have a green screen studio. Faculty work with our instructional designers to prepare presentation materials. Then the videographer shoots a video and inserts faculty into the resulting presentation as if they were standing “inside” their slides. Many faculty utilize the green screen studio for the creation of video in their online courses.

One of the things I like about this field of work is that the benefits frequently reach beyond the original online course. For example, many faculty wish to provide their online video lectures to their face-to-face students as well. This leads to discussion of the flipped classroom model, which results in more active learning in face-to-face sections of the same course. It’s not about making everything online, it’s about augmenting courses using digital tools. It’s about finding the right mix of technologies to support faculty and Carlson School students in achieving their academic goals.

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