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Dec 22, 2020 Business Administration Faculty

Engagement is key for Gies professor Hayden Noel

Sitting in class with Professor Hayden Noel, you feel an instant connection. He's always smiling and eternally energetic – a man who has truly found his calling. But after 16 years of teaching at colleges and universities in Florida, New York, and Illinois, even he wasn't prepared for what the next chapter of his career would hold.

For the past four years, Noel has taught marketing courses for Gies College of Business’ online MBA program – called the iMBA. He had never taught online previously – enabling him to empathize with students who were new to online learning. Now he'll be the first to say online education is here to stay, and its impact is real and enduring.

"I think when done correctly, as we do at Gies, online education can be better for many students than in-person courses," said Noel. "I see much higher levels of engagement in my online classes. Since there's no back row when students are online, I can call on students more freely. In-person, they may be afraid to participate because of fear of speaking in public or some other reason; but online, there are different ways students can participate. For instance, they can type their thoughts in the chat, and I'll engage them by talking about the ideas they have shared."

Noel didn't always teach full-time, but education has always been in his DNA. The native of Trinidad comes from a long line of educators. And while he chose to start his career in banking, Noel couldn't shake the urge to teach. He taught GED courses on the side, and he'd go back to his old high school, Queen's Royal College, every Saturday morning for three hours to tutor the school's soccer players. After earning his MBA, he went on to work in advertising and public relations before he began to feel the pull of academia once again. He developed an interest in research and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2002. He joined the University of Illinois' faculty five years later.

Noel has taught in Gies’ residential MBA program since 2007 and in the iMBA program since its inception in 2016. The marketing professor has quickly become a favorite of his students, winning "Professor of the Year" awards in the iMBA program. Noel will tell you he subscribes to "3 Cs" of online learning: communication, connection, and congratulations. He strongly encourages his online students to turn on their cameras, which prevents multitasking and helps them connect emotionally. That communication leads to a strong connection; Noel believes it's paramount for his students to know that he cares about them and how they learn. And then he'll congratulate students when they participate in class, which encourages them and their classmates to continue engaging.

"Teaching in the iMBA has afforded me the opportunity to connect with students like never before," he said. "Since their names are displayed, unlike an in-person class, I never forget a name. I'm also able to look for cues from their surroundings as an entry point to connect with students – whether it's a hat or a poster. A student told me a couple of years ago that my class was the first time she had felt ‘seen’. That speaks volumes about the impact of online education.

“Having Professor Noel in class is like watching the greatest advertisement of your favorite product: attracts your attention immediately, delivers the message to you, and makes you remember it,” said Zoe Fan, a second-year iMBA student living in Singapore. “To me, teaching or training is not just about reading a script or dumping knowledge to students, but engaging students to join the teaching process. Not only does he make efforts to engage us during the class, but he also tries to create a warm, open, and happy learning environment for us to engage emotionally as well.”

Engagement is key for Noel. He learned certain phrases in nearly a dozen languages to help connect with students from around the world; after all, students in the iMBA program come from almost 100 countries. He flatly rejects the notion that online education can't be rigorous. And he believes the online format enables more students to be heard.

"People like when their opinions matter, and they consider it a success when they feel heard," he said. "In a way, we're giving a voice to the voiceless."

Faculty like Noel are a big reason why the Gies Business iMBA program has quickly become one of the nation's most sought-after business degrees. Gies offers a highly engaging, flexible, fully online MBA experience at the cost of approximately $22,000 all-in. Students learn from the top faculty at the University of Illinois and complete the program side by side with a diverse group of peers, who bring a wide range of experience from various industries. The iMBA doesn't require a GMAT, and there are five admissions intakes annually for maximum student flexibility.

"We're offering an education to all walks of life at a reasonable cost," said Noel. "And they don't have to give up their lives; we can become part of their lives. We are changing the trajectory of people's careers. We meet them where they are, and we can change where they land. We're in the business of changing lives, and the vehicle for doing that is online education."