Massive open online courses provided by business schools do not appear to threaten their existing markets, according to research published today by the University of Pennsylvania.

Penn researchers surveyed 875,000 students who enrolled in nine Moocs offered by its Wharton school. They found that far from cannibalising the market for existing programmes, as business schools have feared, the Moocs reached at least three new student populations which business schools are trying to attract.

“We would like to expand to other sections of the population,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, Penn’s vice-provost for global initiatives and one of the authors of the report, adding that even if the Moocs did not become profitable in the near future they seem to be serving as a sort of targeted advertising for these hard-to-reach groups.

The research, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that large numbers of people who registered were from outside the US – 78 per cent of them were from overseas and more than half of whom came from developing nations. In contrast only 45 per cent of Wharton’s full time MBA students are foreign and only 14 per cent of its executive MBA students come from overseas.

The Moocs also attracted a high proportion of foreign-born US individuals – 35 per cent of US individuals who enrolled were born abroad.

Wharton Moocs vs MBA enrollees

The researchers found that 19 per cent of American students enrolled in the business Moocs were from “under-represented minorities” compared with just 11 per cent of students enrolled in traditional MBA programmes at nine of the top US business schools.

“Students from outside the United States, especially developing countries, foreign-born Americans and under-represented American minorities are students that business schools are trying to attract,” the researchers say in their paper. They cite Graduate Management Admission Council research showing these groups were among the most likely to receive special, targeted outreach by business schools.

“Open online business courses are reaching them in droves. These Mooc courses might then provide a highly enriched recruiting pool for full-time and executive MBA courses,” the report concludes.

Prof Emanuel said one interesting aspect from the latest research is that it reveals students taking business courses are from a broader demographic than those taking Moocs in general. Penn researchers last year found that Moocs were taken by the educated few. In the latest research, women were still under-represented, he said, but business Moocs appear to reach more underprivileged sections of society.

“We don’t know why there’s a difference between business Moocs and non-business Moocs. We hadn’t anticipated it. It’s an area for further research,” Prof Emanuel said.

The nine courses provided by Wharton include four that introduce the MBA core – accounting, finance, marketing and operations management – as well as courses such as gamification and the global business of sport.

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