Free Moocs act as try-before-you-buy model for online courses

Study shows less privileged students report more tangible career benefits
Barbara Drexler: only a quarter of the students on Frankfurt’s online programmes are based in Europe

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In the early days of online learning, schools and students were optimistic that the advent of Moocs (massive open online courses) would revolutionise business education. However, an evaluation published in September by Stanford University professors John Mitchell, Candace Thille and Mitchell Stevens suggests that most Mooc students to date have been college-educated men from industrialised countries.

Course completion rates, they discovered, remain low. Without a solid academic background, or face-to-face instruction, the classes may be proving too difficult for many students to follow.

So far, not-so-good. Yet for all the flaws in the design of online learning programmes and Moocs, there are signs that such courses are beginning to introduce business schools to a wider and more diverse audience.

Separate findings for online course platform Coursera by academics at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington suggest that people with lower socio-economic status and with less education are more likely to report benefits from online learning.

The survey of 780,000 people from 212 countries found that in developing nations, online learners with lower levels of socio-economic status and education are significantly more likely to report tangible career benefits. They also found that older people are using Moocs to prepare for an eventual return to education.

For some students, a free, or inexpensive online course is an priceless try-before-you-buy taster. “It’s very easy to start a course, but it takes a lot of effort and commitment to finish it,” warns Zhdan Shakirov, a student from Russia who took the Foundations of Business Strategy Mooc run by Darden School of Business the US. Two years later, he has gone a step further and enrolled on a Darden MBA, becoming the first international student on its dual MBA/MEd programme.

So far, Darden’s Moocs have reached more than a million learners, says senior assistant dean Michael Koenig. The large majority have at least a bachelors degree, more than half are employed full-time and about half are from the US. A fifth of those enrolled live in Africa, Latin America or Oceania.

According to Mr Koenig, most online students are taking courses for career benefit. Similarly, Coursera estimates that about half of the site’s nearly 18m learners are using Moocs to advance their careers.

Increasing awareness of Moocs also means a growing number of employers are recognising them as “micro-credentials” — 57 per cent of employers polled by Duke University said they plan to accept Moocs as qualifications when recruiting new staff.

Helen Bowman, a US resident who describes herself as an “engineer turned stay-at-home mom”, says she usually takes online courses just to explore interests. Most recently, however, she took the Codapps Mooc on coding for entrepreneurs at EMLyon. “I had considered developing my own mobile apps so I was already predisposed to the idea,” she explains.

Dan Evans, chief innovation officer at EMLyon, says the school’s Moocs are also proving popular among students on full-time programmes such as the MBA or specialist masters programmes.

“The Moocs offer them a great resource to upskill in a specific area on top of their studies and we try to provide extra credit opportunities for students who do this,” he says.

There are signs of increasing diversity. Alison, an online learning business with 5m students, reports it is seeing significant growth in India, Latin America, and African countries and that 23 per cent of its learners this year accessed Alison via a mobile device, up from 12 per cent a year ago.

At French business school Skema, 2,057 participants from more than 50 different countries have enrolled on its latest Mooc on globalisation, says Sophie Gay Anger, who is in charge of pedagogical innovation for the school.

Barbara Drexler, associate dean of international affairs at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, says only a quarter of the students enrolling on its e-learning certificate programmes are based in Europe. About 30 per cent of Frankfurt’s online students come from sub-Saharan Africa and another 25 per cent live in Asia.

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