Cohort learning aims to have graduates more valuable to employers
ROHNERT PARK — Sonoma State University welcomed the first group of students into its newly revamped part-time MBA program last week, the newest iteration of a 25-year-old program that was updated to include the latest teaching methods and input from the North Bay business community.
Leaders at the university’s School of Business and Economics said that a cohort-driven approach will help graduates to be effective in an increasingly collaborative professional world, with courses that emphasize the practical skills demanded by today’s employers.
“You need students that are ready to contribute to the organization and start producing results,” said Dr. William Silver, dean of the business school. “It’s one level of education to teach people how to read financial statements. It’s another thing to teach people to make decisions based off those statements.”
The new structure, developed over 18 months, follows a so-called “4-3-2-1″ model — four core courses during the first year, three required theme areas with multiple course offerings, two electives and a final capstone. The cohort remains intact through the first year, and the changes also extend to the Wine Business MBA.
The approach differs from prior years, when students were allowed greater flexibility in the order that courses were selected. Yet in mandating a common progression through the core of the MBA, the program joins a wave of cohort-style reforms to MBA programs around the country.
“We really wanted to drive-in the ability to work in collaborative situations,” Dr. Silver said. “If you add the collective experience of the cohort together, you have hundreds of years of business experience in the room.”
Those changes incorporate what the school refers to as “best practices” from the executive MBA, another cohort-style program launched in January 2010 that caters to current executives.
The inaugural 20-student group began the program with a newly developed immersion weekend known as “eMBArk.” Students met with notable alumni during the two-day event, along with mentoring, planning and networking activities.
Events like the eMBArk weekend represent a greater focus on learning outside of the classroom, a co-curricular approach that has been implemented with success in the school’s executive MBA, Dr. Silver said.
Planning for the new MBA began shortly after Dr. Silver joined Sonoma State as dean of the business school, including the appointment of Kris Wright as MBA programs director and the allocation of more resources to that position. In the school’s annual “Stakeholder Summit” in 2010, Dr. Silver and other staff encouraged attendees from the business community to suggest updates to the program.
“Part of what came through from them was a strong desire for graduates to hit the ground running — that it was practical, and that it was not just theory,” Ms. Wright said.
A planning committee from the school then developed the specifics of the program over the following 18 months.
Terry Lease, a member of the committee and managing director of academic programs at the school, said that he considered the new cohort approach to have the biggest impact. Reducing the number of required courses in favor of theme areas will also allow a greater degree of customization, he said.
“In effect, many students will be able to, if they choose to do so, design an informal concentration. Over time and as the program grows, the revision provides a framework for adding formal concentrations without having to start over in designing the program structure.”
Those themes were selected to help address issues affecting professionals in the current economic climate, with multiple courses offered within each: Leadership and Ethics, International Business and Global Issues and Contemporary Business Issues.
Ethics have always been a feature of the program, but Ms. Wright said that the new model includes a greater focus, responding to a downturn in demand for MBA degrees amid a souring of public opinion towards business during the recession.
Dr. Silver said that the revision process was continual, literally beginning anew in meetings held during day following the cohort’s first day of instruction.
“If you’re doing a good job as a business, you are re-evaluating continuously, even if things are going well,” he said.
Another 30 students are taking steps to join the MBA program when a new cohort begins in August 2013, Ms. Wright said. Joining the program requires three course prerequisites, all of which will be offered during a new foundation course series that will be offered as an evening class during the spring semester.
Information sessions will be offered monthly, from September through December. Details are available at www.sonoma.edu/sbe
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