March 11, 2013 12:01 am

Academic freedom goes global

Although Kevin Werbach has made his name teaching about games, there are some things that the Wharton business school professor takes very seriously. One of those is the latest generation of online courses – Moocs, or massive open online courses – and just how his Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania, can take advantage of them.

“They are an extraordinary opportunity for us,” says Professor Werbach. “For me it’s a platform to experiment on ... I think these online resources free us up to do in the classroom the things that can only be done in the classroom.”

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Though Moocs have been around for less than a year, they are one of the trendiest topics in education, says Jeff Seamen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, which publishes an annual report on online learning. “What we see at the moment is a genuine excitement that this represents a fundamental change in the way we can deliver education.”

On campus, business schools have often been quick off the mark to adopt the latest technologies. From Kindles to iPads, and from videoconferencing to the latest online networking, MBA programme directors have been enthusiastic adopters.

Just as technology has advanced, so has the perception of online programmes. In the early days, they were seen as local alternatives to classroom programmes, says Idie Kesner, interim dean of the Kelley School at Indiana university. “What’s changed today is that, unlike residential programmes that tend to compete in a specific geographical sphere, online education is competitive worldwide.”

This gives established business schools access to students in inhospitable regions. Kelley is launching a degree with the American University of Mongolia in September, says Prof Kesner. “We will do courses completely online – particularly in the winter months. As you can imagine, it is very cold in Ulan Bator.”

Increased bandwidth and the latest internet technology are giving a second lease of life to more traditional technologies such as videoconferencing.

Soumitra Dutta, dean of the Johnson school at Cornell University, says there are plans to extend the videoconferencing executive MBA it runs with Queen’s university in Canada. In the past year the programme has been run in Mexico and Colombia using boardrooms, where students participate in broadcast lectures. In the coming year the schools plan to expand further in South America.

“This is an interesting hybrid market,” says Prof Dutta. “It is running and it is successful.”

The Wharton school has recently invested in this kind of point-to-point video through agreement with computer giant Cisco to link classes on its two campuses, in Philadelphia and San Francisco. It is still in trial phase, says Wharton dean Tom Robertson. “I don’t know what percentage [of programmes] we would deliver [in this way].”

Online technology permeates all levels of business education, from undergraduate degrees to executive courses.

In the UK, Nicola Adamson has been studying for a Masters degree in management from Ashridge, the UK business school, while working full-time in senior management at a healthcare trust and looking after three children under the age of nine.

She began studying online in 2010 and has taken breaks as family and job required. As with many online students, flexibility has been the key, she says. Ms Adamson also appreciates the ability to apply instantly business principles in the workplace. “I’m really beginning to understand how to make [healthcare] services high quality and viable.”

In executive learning, where short courses dominate, technology is likely to play two roles: delivering low-cast scalable education and training on the one hand, and supporting high-cost face-to-face teaching on the other.

In the finance sector, Charles McIntyre, chief executive of Ibis Capital – supplier of services to the investment banking industry – says as elearning has become more available it is seen as an efficient way of providing courses to meet regulatory frameworks. Traditional business schools also look set to benefit from this style of training. With on-campus executive courses costing up to $10,000 a week per person, the market is demanding low-cost scalable alternatives for junior managers.

Face-to-face learning will still be the ticket for top executives, though, says Dominique Turpin, president of IMD in Switzerland. “For the segment we are in, elearning will be a complement, not a substitute. We are selling an experience. You don’t become a global leader by sitting behind a screen.”

In a world where the cost of university education is increasing beyond the means of many, low-cost scalable training and Moocs, which are free of charge at the initial point of entry, could help business schools reduce costs and reach a wider audience. Many already use online programmes to teach basic calculus or accounting.

This could be taken one step further, particularly for second or third-tier schools, replacing expensive professors. “This is a very easy way for them [undergraduate programmes] not to teach the first-year courses,” says Anand Anandalingam, dean at the Smith school at the University of Maryland.

The strategy behind Prof Werbachs’s course on gamification – using the design technology of computer games in a non-game context – is clear. Although it took him 200-300 hours to develop, Prof Werbach says he has been able to use, and re-use, the videos in his campus-based courses.

He is extremely happy about the reach of his first Mooc. Although 82,000 people registered for Prof Werbach’s course in 2012, only 8,280 completed it. Though just a 10 per cent completion rate, it would take Prof Werbach a lifetime to teach that number of students in the classroom.

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