Soapbox

August 9, 2013 9:00 pm

Mooc technology will force MBA degrees to change

Naysayers argue the brave new “massive open online course” world of giving away free online classes by great academics from many of the world’s best institutions will destroy the business model of the university. They go too far. But that does not mean big technology-driven change is not afoot in business schools.

A better way to understand this revolution is to think about Mooc platforms – such as Coursera and edX in the US, and the UK’s FutureLearn – as the iTunes of higher education.

Apple did not change the way music was made, but it did revolutionise how people consumed it. While MP3 files are much lower quality than high-fidelity stereo, they are so much more convenient. Nonetheless, live music continues to thrive – just ask the Rolling Stones.

What will similar technological changes mean for business schools? Moocs, per se, are probably a red herring.

Universities are putting real money into developing their own Moocs to project brand and identify talent globally. They also want to experiment in new pedagogy and, they hope, inspire their troops to be better teachers. Universities certainly do not want their core business of granting degrees disrupted, and clearly they do not think they are doing so by investing in Moocs.

Neither do for-profit Mooc platforms such as Coursera. Signs are they may well be able to drive revenue from certificates of completion and licensing content to universities. They just are not contemplating crossing the Rubicon into degrees, which would put them at odds with the universities on whom they depend for content.

The bigger challenge to business schools comes from fully online degrees.

Georgia Tech in Atlanta has taken its $40,000 masters of computer science degree online and cut the price by 84 per cent, hoping to increase demand from 300 students to 10,000.

Surely putting degrees online, with high fixed costs but near zero marginal costs, endangers the price premium attached to face-to-face education?

The UCLA Anderson School of Management at does not think so. It is currently running traditional and online versions of its highly ranked Femba (fully employed MBA) side-by-side for working professionals, with the same admission standards, faculty and course content, and charging the same price for both.

The regular Femba at University of California Los Angeles is a conventional mix of evening and weekend classes. Its new “Flex” version is delivered largely online with a small number of intensive residential weekends on the UCLA campus, with collaborative online group work and web-based learning tools designed to make up for less face time.

Similarly, at the Australian Graduate School of Management we are making changes to our executive MBA. These changes are based on the assumption that working professionals value flexibility and convenience so highly they will continue to pay premium MBA prices for their largely online degrees. More of our core courses will be offered online to complement intensive residential experiences that focus on application and social learning.

“Flipping the classroom” is often seen as the best defence of the traditional university against online higher education. This usually means asking students to watch lectures online before class so that precious in-class time can focus on team work, problem-solving and learning by doing.

In this sense, the MBA classroom has been flipped for decades. What is new is the prospect of flipping the whole delivery model.

Instead of asking working professionals to go from their day jobs into an evening in the classroom, tech-enabled MBAs will allow students to do much of the work on their smart phones after their families have gone to bed.

This does not devalue the live magic of in-class dialogue, debate and problem- solving; it makes these things even more valuable. Because these in-person interactions will be less frequent, we will have to make them even better.

Short residential intensive programmes on the MBA will have to become more like executive education programmes, with even more thought given to cohorts, networks and group work woven through long days of intense interaction among students and facilitators.

Business schools’ best defence against Moocs is to use online efficiencies to refocus on what has always been the highest value addition of our degrees – the magic that happens when great teachers get up close and personal with talented and motivated MBA students.

Geoffrey Garrett is dean of the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales, Australia

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