Can a full-credit course really be taught in just four days?

According to Karl Ulrich, the answer is a resounding yes. For the past two years, Ulrich, the CIBC Professor of Entrepreneurship and eCommerce, has been engaged in something of an academic experiment out at Wharton | San Francisco—an experiment that has proven, both to Ulrich and other Wharton faculty, that so-called “modular courses” do have a real and legitimate purpose in the curriculum. In fact, Ulrich says, modular courses, which are offered in an “intensive workshop format” and keep students occupied for nearly every waking moment for a period of days, offer an experience that conventional courses simply can’t match.

The modular course Ulrich developed for Wharton | San Francisco, OPIM 654 (Intensive Workshop on Development of Web-Based Services) is open to undergraduates, MBAs and Executive MBA students from both the East and West programs. In just two years the course has become one of the most popular Wharton has to offer; Ulrich has had to turn students away both years it’s been offered.

But as excited as students are when they enroll in the course, Ulrich says, they’re even more enthusiastic upon completion. We spoke with Ulrich in early February about why he developed OPIM 654, how the course is structured, and why he thinks modular courses have an important future here at Wharton.

What was the impetus for creating this course?

I had just finished chairing the School’s globalization committee a couple of years ago, and one of the things that emerged from that was the idea to teach courses in so-called modular format, which refers to a format in which students take a real course, but take it very intensively. The motive is two-fold. It lets you do some project-based learning and team-based learning in a more intensive way, without any interruptions, which can be quite good pedagogically for certain courses. The second motivation is that it lets you deliver these courses in different locations geographically. Initially, I was really thinking globally, but then I thought I would try it out last year and see how it worked. The obvious thing, to me, seemed to be to do it at Wharton | San Francisco—it was logistically simple, and because the topic was Web-based product development, the San Francisco location lent itself to that.

When you started developing this course, were you aware of any similar offerings, either here at Wharton or elsewhere? Was there a model you could follow?

There were none. I mean, as far as I know, this was the first course like this ever offered at Wharton. But for the past 22 years, I’ve been doing product-development courses, so I had experience with the subject matter. I also had taught at Wharton | San Francisco quite a bit, and in a similar format, for an elective that I took place over three weekends. It was similar experience because, like the modular format, it’s more intensive than the full-time program.

When you introduced the course, were students immediately interested?

The first year I offered it, I did a little bit of promotion; I made up a postcard flyer that I actually physically delivered to all of the MBA students. I was mostly worried about getting enough students to fill the class, because I felt the critical number to get to was 24. We needed that many to make it work. But then we ended up being dramatically oversubscribed. We had 50 or 60 WEMBA students interested, and then I had to figure out how to make some room for the full-time MBA students. We ended up going with 50 or so in total, with relatively few full-time MBAs in the mix. This year we set up a quota. It was first-come, first-served. It wasn’t a problem and I didn’t have to do any promotion.

Give us an idea of what the four days of your first OPIM 654 were like for the students.

We basically worked together from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as a group, but I tried to divide things up so they weren’t sitting there all day listening to an instructor. A third of the time we were in the classroom, a third of the time we were doing a group activity and a third of the time were doing a collective activity, just so they weren’t looking at a talking head for eight hours a day. Then, of course, the students were doing project work well into the evening.

One of the things that makes this course unique is the fact that all of Wharton’s student populations are involved. Does that make the course “better?”

I don’t think it’s critical pedagogically. But it is certainly a positive element of the program. Every student mentions this in the feedback we get. They all say they enjoyed meeting students from both coasts and all of the different programs, because they really don’t have any other opportunities to do that, at least not across all three populations. They viewed that as a huge positive. As for the course itself, I don’t think [having the three populations involved] was critical to the topic we were delivering. I mean, it helped. I think it was nice for students from Philadelphia to be immersed there in Silicon Valley, in that deep tech culture, because many if not most of the students at Wharton | San Francisco are employed in the tech industry. It added a nice dimension to the experience.

You seem enthusiastic about the modular format. I assume you hope to continue offering such courses in the future.

I know, personally, that I intend to offer the January Web-based course each and every year. My expectation is that there will be more of these offerings in the future and, in an ideal world, we would carve out one week or maybe even two separate weeks in the curriculum to have intensive learning experiences such as these as a part of the regular program.

I have to ask: Can you really get as much done in four days as you can in four months?

Well, that’s a good question. It’s certainly the question that both faculty and most other people ask about the experience. So I did some analysis to answer it. I teach the same course in a different format, and I have my own judgment as to what and how much the students get out of it. My own impression is that they get different things out of the modular experience. I think they actually spend about the same number of hours on their project work in this format as they do in the regular format, but I think they get … more of an experience where you learn how to coordinate a time-pressured, highly intensive project, which you can’t get out of a course that stretches over three or four months. I think this aspect is a very valuable learning tool, especially in a product development course. And I think the modular format offers some learnings that are simply not available in a conventional format.

Now, a lot of faculty might ask, ‘Well, this format doesn’t give them much time to reflect on the subject matter, does it? You can’t ask them to do some research on the topic and reflect on it and then come back and talk about it, can you?’ But I think it’s reasonable to ask how much of that is really going on anyway. I think, for a lot of students, they’re doing a lot of their preparation on the night before class. So just squeezing it all together doesn’t necessarily detract from the experience.

Finally, personally, I actually kept track last year of how much effort I put into it. I found that I spent slightly more hours on the compressed format than in the conventional format, but experientially, it felt easier for me, because I knew I was going to be with those students for an entire week. I wasn’t planning on doing anything else. And even though we spent many hours together, it felt fairly relaxed, and I got to know the students in a way that I never did in my conventional courses. So while the hours may have been slightly more, I think the overall experience was more positive.