First class excels in “hybrid” master’s program

The first students to graduate from MIT’s cutting-edge “hybrid” master’s program, which combines a year’s worth of online learning through its MicroMasters program with one semester on campus to earn a full MIT master’s degree, have not only met all expectations, they ended up performing as well as and being virtually indistinguishable from traditional students in their overall performance.

There was some initial trepidation among the MIT faculty, recalls Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, and director of the master’s program in supply chain management. People wondered, “Will they be as good?” as the traditional students, he says. Now that the first blended class has completed the program, “The answer is they are as good and, in many cases, even better!” he says.

Sheffi is not at all surprised. This new set of students, who might never have been able to make it to MIT through traditional channels, faced obstacles that typical residential masters students may not. “They have spent about 18 months, usually on nights and weekends, going over tough assignments in MIT-level classes,” Sheffi says. “They have to do it on their own, after work and family obligations, at the end of the day. It shows their commitment, tenacity, and dedication. These are as important, and even more important, than something like intelligence.”

“The grit required to complete the online courses also helped prepare them for the fast pace of the on-campus classrooms,” adds Chris Caplice, executive director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics and director of the MITx MicroMasters program in supply chain management. The blended students tend to be a bit older and more experienced, typically having worked for an average of eight years. “It was amazing and gratifying to see the blended students jump back in and exel in the intense MIT academic environment,” notes Caplice.   

Many of the students, who will now return to their jobs, tackled real-world problems from their businesses as their capstone projects for the degree, Sheffi says. “What they’re interested in is knowledge, not grades.” But they ended up with both, he says. “In all the courses they took in the spring [residential semester] they had better-than-average scores. And the residential students have a very high average!” The MIT program in supply chain management (SCM) has consistently been rated the top such program in the world, he points out.

One of the course instructors, MIT Senior Lecturer Jonathan Byrnes, says that after 27 years of teaching in MIT’s SCM program, “My class this year was the strongest that I ever have taught.” He adds, “It is interesting to note that the SCM students were mostly from our new ‘blended’ program — web learning plus six months’ residence at MIT. They were extremely strong relative to the other MIT students I have taught over the years.”

Others who taught in the program shared that view. “The blended learning students were top of the class,” says Richard Pibernik, who taught at one of the program’s two satellite campuses (in Zaragoza, Spain; the other is in Malaysia). “They were well-prepared, had good knowledge of all the relevant concepts, and seemed more mature and serious. That was a very positive surprise; before, I was somewhere between curious and skeptical about how they would do.”

“I have always enjoyed the high quality of the [SCM] students and the high level of class discussions,” notes Paulo Goncalves, who has taught at the Zaragoza center for six years. But this year with the blended group, he says “class discussions were markedly better than ever before. The diversity of the students is also clear. Students had more real work experience, more diverse backgrounds, were more engaged, and brought very rich perspectives to the classroom discussions.”

Students have also given the program high marks. Dan Covert, a student from Maine, said the program was “definitely challenging, but everything that I was learning, I could apply directly to the job I was doing. Although it was very difficult at times, it really kept me engaged because it had this direct feedback for my job the next day.”

In the online five-course program, which led to an MIT MicroMasters certificate after completion of a rigorous online exam, 1,900 students completed all the classes, and 622 successfully completed the final exam. Forty-two of the students ended up starting the residential semester in January of this year.

“We get hundreds of applications,” Sheffi says, “but we’re space-constrained.” In addition to the 42 students at MIT’s Cambridge campus, this year there were 17 in Zaragoza and 12 in Malaysia, and those numbers are expected to continue with next year’s class.

“The amazing thing,” says Sheffi, who has taught at MIT for 43 years, “is that you get people who never had a dream of getting an MIT-level education.” Now, they have demonstrated that such nontraditional students are up to the challenge.

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