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Degrees of Relevance: A Basic Qualitative Study of How MBA Students Make Their Education Relevant as They Cross Boundaries Between School and Work Open Access

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The purpose of the study was to explore how working professionals enrolled in MBA programs make their education relevant. This inquiry was guided by the following central research question: How do students enrolled in MBA programs make their education relevant as they cross boundaries between school and work? The central research question was supported by three subquestions: What are the objects crossing the boundary between the MBA program and students’ workplaces? How do MBA students broker learning at the boundary? At what level are interactions occurring and to what end? Grounded in social constructivist epistemology, a basic qualitative method was chosen for this study. Data were collected through 18 semi-structured interviews with 10 students and eight learning partners, 18 field notes that described the context of the interview and early insights from the data collected, and 28 documents such as course descriptions and work presentations. Study participants shared a total of 39 critical incidents of learning that crossed the boundary between school and work. Data were analyzed and synthesized to produce three overall themes, which were translated into a typology of four relevance-making types, which provided the basis for 10 participant profiles. Then, patterns of content, process, and outcomes for each type of relevance-making were analyzed and synthesized. This study found that relevance-making differed by type and depended upon students’ intentions for Innovative Climbing, Identity Switching, Introspective Exploring, or Fast Founding. In Innovative Climbing, students integrated new business concepts from school at work in order to earn promotions. In Identity Switching, students changed how they saw themselves and how others saw them in order to change where they work. In Introspective Exploring, students reflected upon their experiences in ways that informed their career goals. In Fast Founding, a student rapidly introduced business concepts from school into the workplace to sustain his business venture. It was through discovering or realizing these intentions that relevance was made.

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