The phrase “experience is the best teacher” has never been more true than for students at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. The school has created a way for MBA students to learn business by conducting business through its new virtual reality iMBA program.
The “i” in iMBA stands for immersive. The idea for launching the 22-month online program in February was to immerse students, who are still working in their particular field, into a world of business much like the real one.
The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management (LFGSM) was established in 1946 and has been known to offer its business education to experienced professionals. The average student age is 38 with a work experience average of 14 years.
“We wanted to expand our mission by providing practical, relevant learning to aspiring professionals as well, and to do so in a way that was truly innovative,” said Kate Colbert, director of marketing and alumni relations. “We believe in the value of experience, so it was important to us that we find a way to deliver business education for this less experienced audience and do it in LFGSM fashion – meaning that it wouldn’t be overly theory-based and that it would be taught by business-leader faculty.”
There are currently 11 students going through the iMBA program. Placed in a virtual reality called the Virtual Corporate Experience (VCP), students conduct business with avatars. According to Colbert, the students spend 75% of their time in each course engaging in the various major departments of a company through the VCP. The courses, though self-paced, include group projects and structured assignments with due dates.
“Think of the iMBA program as being 75% virtual ‘internship’ and 25% application, discussion and collaboration with their classmates and business-leader faculty,” she said. “The students have been incredibly engaged and are demonstrating not only enjoyment in the program but impact on their understanding and application of key business skills. The students have reported that the program format fits well into their busy lives and that it feels meaningful and relevant to their lives in a way that their traditional undergraduate learning did not.”
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Matthew Fitzjerrells, an iMBA student starting his fourth course while working in the business development department for General Electric Commercial Finance, said the real world scenario is much better than the traditional classroom setting. He said while other MBA students have to confront problems through a text book, the iMBA courses confronts students with different business situations requiring them to create solutions to problems and deal with the pressures that come with working in various departments.
“It’s like practicing for the ‘big-game,’” he said. “You deal with the same situations you will deal with in the real world. In the virtual experience, you can afford to make mistakes and learn from them. We’re not regurgitating information – spitting it out for a test and then forgetting about it.”
Along with the VCP and being engaged online with other students through group projects, students are partnered with business mentors, mainly experienced C-suite businesspeople, who volunteer their time to assist students. Career services are also built into the program.
“The company I work for is pretty small and what I learn has a much larger impact,” said iMBA student, Kyle Thomas. “I can learn something one night and bring it up to a client or to the staff the next day and make headway.”
Thomas is an adaptive personal trainer for SCI Recovery Project, based in Boulder, Colo., and is scheduled to graduate in 2014. He agreed with Fitzjerrells that it is the experience model that separates the iMBA from traditional MBA programs.
He said he thought it would be more difficult communicating with fellows students through online methods, but added that in the real world most communication is now done digitally. He said communicating digitally was something he needed to work on and that getting projects done over the phone or through email improved his project management skills.
“It’s extremely beneficial,” he said of the program being completely online. “I don’t think I would be able to do it any other way. You want to progress. I wanted to get my MBA, but I wanted to keep my job. This has made everything possible and within the same time frame.”
He added that the VCP is a very surreal and a “kind of strange” experience.
“It’s mapped out how you would want to get a project done,” he said. “It’s really how you would do it in real life.”
The courses for the iMBA are taken in eight week terms with new students being admitted every term. The next opportunity to enroll is Oct. 8 at a tuition rate of $37,426 for the entire program.
“The best way to learn is by doing,” Colbert said. “iMBA students will graduate not just with an MBA degree, but with meaningful experience.”
Follow Dustin Bass on Twitter @dbass_cmn.