May 12, 2013 10:00 pm

Online learning: The ghost in the machine

illustration of a ghost haunting an executive office by Nick Lowndes©Nick Lowndes

It may be the hip topic of the moment, but when I first heard about Moocs (massive open online courses), I thought surely we had seen all this before? More than a decade ago, when companies such as Quisic (known initially as University Access) and UNext signed lucrative deals with many of the world’s top business schools to teach business programmes online.

One dean likened it at the time to the airline industry, where international carriers were fighting to join global partnerships such as Oneworld or Star Alliance. The fear was that business schools would miss out on belonging to one of the top groups and be condemned for ever to be second-rate.

The cream of the business school alliances was undoubtedly UNext, which attracted top US schools such as Chicago, Columbia and Stanford, in addition to the London School of Economics. Quisic went with Kenan-Flagler and London Business School.

But it all ended in tears. The dotcom bubble burst and fledgling companies were bought out by larger corporates or simply evaporated into thin air.

So why will it work this time? The technology has moved on, of course, and the population generally is much more tech-savvy. But the big difference is in the funding.

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A decade ago it was the likes of UNext that footed the bill for development; these days it is the universities that are paying. How much varies, but Bob Bruner, dean of Darden School of Business and someone who is very cogent on the subject, suggests each online business course probably costs the school about $75,000 to produce.

But this is peanuts compared with the figures bandied about in the sciences. Rumour has it that one undergraduate statistics course has cost $15m to produce, although these numbers are difficult to calculate, let alone verify.

So at a time when business schools are seeing MBA numbers fall and revenues from executive education programmes stall – not to mention the cuts in funding from government and the decline in revenues for endowments – can they afford to invest? Or will it be only the schools with the deepest pockets that will keep a foothold in this new market?

The argument seems to be that business schools cannot afford not to invest, whatever the consequences, if their competitors are putting their programmes online. But I have yet to meet a dean who can really articulate the consequences of these changes, both for degree programmes and for executive short programmes.

The question I have for executive education providers is not for “destination schools” – Harvard and Stanford are the prime examples and top managers love to study there – but for schools that have been active in developing online programmes for clients. Why would these companies continue to buy into these programmes if they can get something for nothing with a Mooc?

Of course, many universities believe – or at least pay lip service to the belief – that the real value of Moocs is that they democratise education, that they give those who could only dream of studying at a top US business school access to their teachings.

This raises a further issue, highlighted to me in a recent conversation with a management professor who had signed up for two Moocs. The first was from an Ivy League business school and the second from a lower-ranked school – Vanderbilt: Owen, which the FT ranks at 53rd in the world for its full-time MBA programme. She was extremely complimentary about the Vanderbilt programme and the professor who taught it, but had dropped out of the Mooc from the higher-ranked school because she found it boring. If the Mooc-viewing public takes the same approach, what will this mean for business schools and their professors?

Today’s most bankable professors, and those who reach the top of the tenure tree, are those who publish most frequently in the top-ranked esoteric journals. Although there has been a real backlash against the tenure system in recent years, not to mention the perennial debate about whether research should be academically or managerially orientated, any changes to the business school “publish or perish” regime have been peripheral.

Could Moocs change all that? Could we finally see a situation where the most sought-after professors – and the highest-paid – are those that are most popular with the Mooc-viewing public, rather than their small circle of academic colleagues?

In other words, will it be the best teachers that rise to the top of the pile, rather than the top researchers? If so, that really would be the democratisation of education.

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On the cyber syllabus

Coursera, the leading Mooc platform, has more than 20 free online courses in business and management, from an introduction to finance to creativity, innovation and change

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