Online at-Scale is Coming of Age: A DL&I Milestone

In December 2021, BU announced the creation of a new unit that will support the development, production, and delivery of “a select number of online-at-scale graduate programs”. The creation of BU’s “online at-scale” unit is a major milestone for DL&I; it represents the coming of age of institutional capabilities that DL&I worked hard to incubate over the past eight years.

In 2013, DL&I’s precursor, the Digital Learning Initiative (DLI), was launched to help build capacity in developing online at-scale courses (formerly known as MOOCs) and establish BU as a leader within the edX consortium. DLI quickly acquired a solid reputation within the consortium, as a partner who produced high-quality MOOCs and was willing to experiment with new ideas. When edX launched the Micromasters concept in 2016, DL&I reached out to several BU schools and colleges to find a partner who would be willing to experiment with it. We found fertile ground in Questrom, and this led to the production of two Micromasters in Digital Leadership and Digital Product Management. The Questrom Micromasters were a 100% bottom-up faculty-led initiative, proposed and co-managed by Professors Nitin Joglekar and Paul Carlile. DL&I fully funded and helped produce the initiative. Our strategic reasoning for this effort was that the Micromasters would serve as a seed that would help train some of the best Questrom faculty on the processes of online teaching and learning and would pave the way for further online learning adventures to blossom down the road.

Questrom’s Micromasters were highly acclaimed for their quality by learners as free-standing certificate programs worldwide and achieved modest financial success. 

What happened next exceeded even our own imagination. In 2019, edX was looking for a partner to produce an online MBA. At that time, Questrom was the only US business school that had produced content on edX. So, Anand Agarwal, edX’s CEO, asked Provost Morrison if BU would be interested in launching a low-cost online MBA in partnership with them. Provost Morrison saw the potential of this opportunity, not only for Questrom but also as a pilot of a broader online at scale university strategy. She engaged Dean Susan Fournier and me to make it happen. 

The legacy of the Micromasters project facilitated Dean Fournier's work with faculty to implement this innovative idea. Paul Carlile, who co-led the Micromasters initiative, became Questrom's online MBA project lead. Senior Questrom faculty who had taught the Micromasters courses and were familiar with the process stepped forward and volunteered to teach in the first module as well as advocate for the idea to their colleagues.

Questrom’s online MBA design called for a degree of student interaction and experimentation that was beyond what BU’s more traditional online degrees supported. DL&I stepped forward to help. We rapidly expanded our Instructional Production Services (IPS) group to serve as the online MBA’s highly agile instructional design and media production partner. Furthermore, our Educational Technology team worked with Questrom to put together a custom delivery platform that piloted student interaction and peer-to-peer feedback features that were needed by the online MBA program design. This all happened within a very compressed timeframe and through the pandemic. Miraculously, or more accurately, thanks to the amazing leadership of DL&I folks like Romy Ruukel and Ern Perez, it all worked.

Encouraged by the success of the online MBA degree, BU is now launching an ambitious online at-scale degree unit. The institutional capabilities that DL&I has built will pay hefty dividends in helping the new unit get off the ground fast. The IPS team that DL&I created in 2019 and evolved under challenging conditions to a robust service group of 13 professionals, was transferred to the online at-scale unit last month. And the experience that the Educational Technology team has accumulated in designing and supporting online MBA’s delivery platform will benefit subsequent degrees that the new unit will launch.

The creation of the online at-scale unit represents a pivotal point in DL&I’s evolution and marks the successful fruition of our 8-year incubation efforts in this space. One of DL&I’s children is graduating with honors and becoming an adult. And although there will always be a connection between DL&I and BU's online at-scale, our focus is now expanding to embrace new challenges. 

One such challenge is the transformation of the residential student experience. In the post-COVID world, the field of teaching and learning is entering an exciting phase of transformation, in part driven by student demands for inclusive and personalized learning, active student engagement, better support for learning communities, tighter integration of learning experiences inside and outside the classroom, stronger emphasis on developing future-proof “transferable” skills, and better preparation for the ever-shifting world of work. The recently announced Shipley Center for Digital Learning & Innovation will focus on pursuing digital innovation in residential education and will be an important partner, catalyst, and accelerator of these objectives.

Stay tuned about announcements of new DL&I initiatives and programs. Onwards!

Chris DellarocasAbout the Author: Chris Dellarocas was Boston University’s Associate Provost for Digital Learning & Innovation and Richard C. Shipley Professor of Information Systems at the Questrom School of Business. As Associate Provost, Dellarocas leads the advancement of activities that enhance education at BU through the strategic use of digital technologies.