Academic Leaders, Business Schools Disagree on MOOCs

Five of Bloomberg Businessweek’s top ten MBA full-time programs have decided to offer at least one MBA course online as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This fall, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School made its entire first-year MBA curriculum available on the online learning platform Coursera. Harvard Business School is developing an online learning initiative that may include MOOCs, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, Stanford Business School, and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business are also becoming more heavily involved in MOOCs. However, as the number of business schools who are developing or offering MOOCs increases, academic leaders are increasingly expressing skepticism about the online learning model.

There are enough business school MBA courses available as MOOCs that Poets & Quants published a course guide for students that encompasses all the fundamental classes that are part of an MBA. The Poets & Quants list demonstrates that a motivated student could piece together an elite business school education for less than $1,000, when an actual MBA program at an elite business school costs more than $100,000.

Unfortunately, the MOOC MBA sounds too good to be true and there are significant drawbacks to the $1,000 online MBA. Amy Hillman, the dean of Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, observed that the MOOC MBA must be valuable to employers for it to mean anything: “Unless there becomes some widespread acceptance from employers that the collection of expertise from MOOCs is equivalent to a business degree, I don’t see them as competitive.” Other business school experts have observed that the MOOC MBA doesn’t give students some of the crucial advantages MBA students gain from a traditional education, including networking connections, career service resources, and the opportunity to develop communication and teamwork skills.

Some debate over MOOCs has been provoked by Babson College’s 2013 Survey of Online Learning. The study found that although the growth rate of online learning is slowing down, the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 7.1 million. Study author I. Elaine Allen, the Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group, added “while the rate of growth in online enrollments has moderated over the past several years, it still greatly exceeds the growth in overall higher education enrollments.” At this time, a third of higher education students take at least one course online. The Babson study shows that online learning has become a crucial part of the higher education environment in the United States.

However, the Babson survey also found that less than a quarter of academic professionals believe that MOOCs are a helpful method for offering online courses. The authors, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, observed: “The chief academic officers at institutions with the greatest experience and exposure to traditional online instruction are the least likely to believe in the long-term future of MOOCs.”

In an article, Bloomberg Businessweek hypothesizes that academics’ and business schools’ relative experience with MOOCs may account for their differences of opinion on MOOCs’ value. Business schools are relative newcomers to online education. Businessweek observed that most MBA programs avoided online learning in the 1990s, “when schools didn’t want to risk their reputations on a model associated with such schools as DeVry University.” Business school leaders at institutions that adopted online programs before most other schools also expressed doubt to Businessweek that MOOCs will replace MBAs.

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