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Sep 14, 2023 2023-09 Business Administration Faculty Student

Gies Business professors bring new level of engagement to iMBA digital marketing course

When online learners join weekly live sessions for Marketing in Our New Digital World, they’re left with a memorable experience – and maybe even a digital memento.

The fully online Gies Business MBA program (iMBA) prides itself on offering interactive courses learners can apply directly to their careers. Professors Aric Rindfleisch and Steve Raquel take that interaction to the next level in their eight-week digital marketing iMBA course. 

“We have this stigma that whenever we’re enrolled in an academic journey, everything needs to be formal or very academic,” said Monique Reis, an iMBA student who took the course in Spring 2023. “When they bring in the lightness, it keeps the students engaged. And you have all of these resources and tools that you can apply to something that is very current.”

Rindfleisch and Raquel set out to balance applicability and engagement, finding unique ways to foster participation in their course by focusing on relevant topics through an innovative lens. Many business schools offer some form of digital marketing courses, often focused on data analytics or social media marketing. Gies Business is no exception. These courses teach relevant, valuable skills for MBA seekers’ careers. Marketing in Our New Digital World focuses on something just as valuable, but with a twist.

Rather than teaching specific data or marketing skills, it encourages learners to think more broadly about how the digital and analog world affect each other, using real examples, like artificial intelligence and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

“The course really focuses on the future, not necessarily just what you need to learn to get your MBA, but how you look at marketing, the future of marketing, and how we prepare you to look at it differently,” said Raquel, clinical assistant professor of business administration. “There are iMBA classes that are all about digital marketing and analytics. If you look at the syllabus and how we teach this course, it is really looking at the world differently, both in terms of the benefits and drawbacks of digital and of analog.”

The course content is housed in two Coursera MOOCs, or massive open online courses, available to anyone. The first four-week MOOC, The Digital Marketing Revolution, focuses on how the digital revolution has affected the physical world. The second four-week MOOC, Marketing in a Digital World, examines the foundations of marketing and how they’ve shifted since the rise of the digital revolution.

Rindfleisch launched the Marketing in a Digital World MOOC in 2015. Since then, more than 550,000 learners have enrolled, making it the largest online course offered by the University of Illinois and one of the 30 most popular MOOCs of all time as of 2021.

Along with the valuable, applicable content in the MOOCs, iMBA learners have access to live sessions that truly set the course apart. Each live session starts with an intro video. The current video features Rindfleisch and Raquel imitating classic professional wrestling entrances, filmed in the hallways of the Business Instructional Facility. The video is more than just a fun, over-the-top way to greet learners each week. In the past two iterations of the course, the professors have broken the video into NFTs. Learners could earn the NFTs by participating in discussions and other activities, giving them a unique digital keepsake.

“A lot of people seem very concerned about grades in this program, and we try to relax people and say, let’s focus on learning,” said Rindfleisch, who serves as area chair of marketing, John M. Jones Professor of Marketing, and Vernon Zimmerman Faculty Fellow. “It helps bring relatability, anything we can do to establish warmth.”

“We knew some people were going to engage no matter what, but our hope was to move the needle for people who were on the fence about certain things, to get them engaged at a higher level,” Raquel said. “And it’s also doing things that reinforce what we’re teaching.”

In addition to course participation being tied to a digital concept students learn about in class, Rindfleisch and Raquel featured new concepts last spring, like ChatGPT. Learners teamed up in small groups to create a promotional message for the iMBA program using the chatbot. They also participated in a digital scavenger hunt, finding examples of each of the concepts they had learned about throughout the course.  

“This is where I really enjoyed Steve and Aric’s class,” Reis said. “It’s timely. It’s the real world. They’re using updated references. It’s not something from years ago that they’re bringing in.”

During online office hours, a time when iMBA learners can ask questions outside of live sessions, Rindfleisch and Raquel were excited to learn that the engagement they foster in class continues after the live sessions end, further illustrating the ways the digital world impacts life.  

“We were encouraged to hear that many students actually connect with each other,” Rindfleisch said. “The live session connections actually carry forward. That’s the whole basic idea behind all of this – get people to interact not just with us but with each other, to feel that this is a warm community. There’s a sense of fellowship, and we’re exchanging knowledge and ideas and hopefully connecting on a human level.”