Two b-schools base their MBA programs on experiential learning

As action based learning becomes more of a mainstay in higher education, business schools are designing more ways to integrate experiential learning into their courses. This fall, two business schools have taken that idea one step further, basing their entire MBA programs on experiential learning projects.

The new MBA at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, will integrate immersive experiential learning opportunities into most aspects of its redesigned MBA. For instance, students in an operations management course will consult with a local hospital on an operations problem it faces; students in a collaboration course will analyze and offer solutions to a dilemma presented by a guest executive speaker.

In addition, all students must complete a required domestic or global travel seminar to study real-world problems in their cultural contexts. In spring 2017, students will choose from among destinations in China, Germany, and England.

While the school drew on some existing experiential learning opportunities—such as the global travel seminar—most content for the new MBA was created from scratch, explains Michael Behnam, dean of graduate programs and professor of strategy and international business. This includes “World Class Clusters,” a required first-semester course in which students explore industry clusters while completing projects for companies in Boston’s healthcare, finance, startup, or biotech sectors.

Two other required courses include “Collaborate” and “Innovate,” co-taught by three faculty. Each semester-long course is delivered across three modules, linked by an experiential project tied to a cluster-based challenge. The program’s collaborative features will be supported by a newly opened graduate program space that replicates a professional environment.

The University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business in Colorado also is taking a completely different approach in its 21-month MBA, starting with the 55-member cohort that entered the program this fall. Its redesigned curriculum replaces its standalone core courses with what the school calls a “chal­lenge-driven” format. Over the four-quarter program, students will compete in small teams in four core challenges, each based on a different theme: enterprise, corporate, social impact, and global. Each core challenge is highly iterative, so that students can “do, fail, and learn” repeatedly as they grow more comfortable managing in uncertain business environments.

For the enterprise challenge, students spend the first ten weeks of the first quarter developing entrepreneurial ideas into startups. The next ten weeks will focus on the corporate challenge, in which they’ll work on traditional real-world consultancy projects; companies will pay at least US$10,000 for their projects to be assigned to student teams.

In the spring of their first year, students will complete the social impact challenge, putting their skills to work for a community-based nonprofit in the Denver area. For the global challenge, scheduled to last two quarters during the second year, all students will travel to two “frontier communities” in Uganda, Palestine, or Australia. This component of the program is supported by a US$500,000 gift from a donor interested in providing international experiences to students.

Courses will be delivered as five-week, integrated modules, with content tied directly to the context of the current challenge. The program also integrates ongoing individualized personal growth assessments, in which students craft leadership development plans.

One unusual aspect of the program is how it will end. In February of the last quarter, faculty will ask students to pinpoint concepts they would like to focus on, based on their previous projects. Faculty will then put content together that addresses those concepts in real time, and deliver that content in a special set of courses during the program’s last five weeks.

The business school was inspired to make these changes at the urging of employers who have indicated that traditional, lecture-based MBA programs aren’t meeting the needs of the market, explains E. LaBrent (Brent) Chrite, dean of the Daniels College.

“We wanted to fundamentally change our approach and integrate experiential learning in more than a one-off capstone or summer program,” says Chrite. “Making this transition wasn’t easy—some departments lost courses and everyone has had to change the way they teach—but we realized that we had no choice but to pivot in the direction of the market. We think it’s a risk worth taking.”