Will MOOCs Disrupt Traditional Business Schools?

A new topic of debate at business schools across the country is whether or not massive open online courses (MOOCs) will take students away from their enrolled student population.

On the contrary, writes Cory Weinberg in Business Week, it may just diversify their schools.

Research at Harvard Business School supports that notion.  When MOOCs are offered by elite business schools, they do not seem to be effecting existing programs.  Rather, they seem to attract non-traditional students who might not otherwise be able to attend high-quality business schools.

The decision that educators are pondering is should universities jump into the fast-growing world of online learning?  Jerry Useem writes in The New York Times that two of Harvard’s most famous faculty members have weighed in on the topic.  Michael Porter, sometimes called the father of modern business strategy, votes yes.  He does not, however, want to undermine Harvard’s existing strategy.

“A company must stay the course,” Professor Porter has written, “even in times of upheaval, while constantly improving and extending its distinctive positioning.”

Clayton Christensen, author of  The Innovator’s Dilemma, says go for it.  He has written that the only way for market leaders to survive “disruptive innovation” is to” disrupt the existing businesses themselves.”

“Do it cheap and simple,”  Christensen says. “Get it out there.”

Harvard has already begun its online course offerings. Credentials of Readiness (CORe),  teaches undergraduates the language of business, accounting, analytics, and economics.  But, Christensen said there is a danger of making technology the “strategy”.

So, the result, at Harvard, is HBX.  The dean said that any online program would have to be “economically self-sustaining; not be a substitute for the MBA program; and it should replicate the Harvard Business School’s “discussion-based style of learning“.  The other two parts of HBX are continuing education for executives and a live forum.

One foreboding prediction is that Harvard professors might trade being on the platform of a world-class university, like Harvard Business School, for the opportunity to build a brand online.

Gayle Christensen, Brandon Alcorn, and Ezekial Emanuel, reporting for the Harvard Business Review, say data show that so far MOOCs are not phasing out existing programs.  Also, no traditional business school can match the global reach of MOOCs.

This gives business schools an opportunity to reach under-served markets.  Almost one-half of the international students enrolled in Wharton MOOCs are from underdeveloped countries.  The most highly represented groups enrolled in MOOCs are:

  • Businessmen/women in developing countries
  • Well-educated, foreign-born, US residents
  • Highly-educated, foreign-born, unemployed Americans
  • Underrepresented minorities

MOOCs are failing in female student enrollment.  This is a demographic that would be well-served if targeted by online business school marketing.

There is much debate over the low rate of online  course completion.  The authors suggest that business schools may have to discard the model of “charging for certificates of completion”.