(Cambridge, MA - September 15, 2008) Moral Reasoning 22: Justice, taught by Professor Michael Sandel inside Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. Staff Photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office
Being there: no business school MBA class so far matches the standards set by undergraduate Moocs such as Michael Sandel teaching his Justice course at Harvard

When I did my MBA, my professors divided roughly into those who were great and knew they were great; those who were awful but thought they were great; and those who were awful and knew they were awful. And this was Harvard Business School, the Olympus of business academia. As teaching goes, it was a mixed bag, some tremendous, most good, some gnaw-your-arm-off terrible.

So I was intrigued to take a look at the new MBA Moocs, the business education version of Massive Open Online Courses, in which they supposedly take the very best MBA teaching and make it freely available online. On the face of it, the idea sounds terrific. Full-time, two-year MBAs for $100,000-plus require a huge investment of time and money. They start to make sense when you swaddle them in intangibles, such as the value of the social network, employer perceptions and the likelihood of higher earnings. But purely in terms of what you learn in the classroom, it is an expensive education.

If you could get something even halfway approximating that classroom learning for free, it makes a lot of sense. I began prowling the main university online platforms, Coursera and Udacity in the US, and FutureLearn in the UK to see what I could find. (Pearson Vue, part of Pearson, the owner of the Financial Times, has partnered with Udacity to offer testing services on Moocs generally).

What struck me immediately is that the free online MBA is still in its Precambrian stage. What few courses there are range wildly in quality. Open, online learning offers a dif­fer­ent set of opportunities and challenges to classroom teaching. And clearly not all universities or professors know what to do about it. Some are simply dumping their classroom lectures and course materials online. Others are really engaging with the vast new audiences out there.

The Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania recently laun­ched four Moocs on Coursera’s platform, offering the first-year MBA courses in marketing, corporate fin­ance and operations management, with accounting soon to come. It takes a couple of minutes to enrol.

I started with marketing, presented by Barbara Kahn, David Bell and Peter Fader. It is a nine-week course, each professor presenting three 180-minute sections with quizzes and an exam at the end. A score of 70 per cent or higher gets you a Statement of Accomplishment. The concepts taught range from building strong brands and strategic marketing to internet marketing and the “long tail”. There is an in-depth case study on Quidsi, an online retailer, with an interview with one of its executives.

Marketing lends itself well to this kind of teaching. You can dive in and out of the lectures, which are broken down into nuggety sections, none longer than 20 minutes and many less than 10. There is suggested reading, none of it too dry or specialist.

Prof Kahn is a natural. With her rectangular glasses and purple jacket, she could be running the marketing division of Coca-Cola. Prof Fader seems equally comfortable, talking outside in a shopping street, his pres­entation broken up by short quizzes.

Then comes Prof Bell. In one video he is wearing a freshly pressed pink shirt, talking sensibly in the distribution warehouse of Quidsi. But in an­other, he looks more dishevelled and his head is poking up from one corner of the screen. My hunch is that he does much better in the classroom, where he might seem an inspiring anti-professor.

But it is still considerably better than Wharton’s Introduction to Corporate Finance, filmed in front of a live class. This is the Death March of Moocs. If you make it to section 5b.4, The Capital Asset Pricing Model Part 1, without blood pouring out of your eyes, you deserve more than a Statement of Accomplishment. You des­erve a $300,000-a-year post-MBA job with the Blackstone Group.

The professor, Franklin Allen, provides add-ons, in the form of notes, slides and problem sets and a lively discussion board, but I could see little value beyond what you would get by plodding through a textbook. Prof Allen seems diligent and thorough. And it is certainly noble of him to try. Somehow I imagine his was the lone hand that went up among the finance faculty when the request was made for a Mooc. But the subject matter does not seem made for this medium.

In Christian Terwiesch’s Operations course, we see the hostage-video ap­proach, as Prof Terwiesch talks into the camera while pressed against an office bookshelf. He covers a lot of ground, with a deadpan sense of hu­m­our. His po-faced discussion of EU laws on the curvature of cucumbers as a prelude to explaining the Six Sigma method of quality control is pure Monty Python. This one is a lesson in how to present wonky material in an engaging way.

The accounting course has yet to start but Brian Bushee proves with his trailer that no one in business schools tries harder than accounting professors. He has created a cartoon in which three characters baffle each other with accounting language. “Do you ever feel lost and confused when your coworkers or random people you meet at the airport start spewing financial jargon that you can’t understand?” he says. (Who is he meeting in airports?) “Well, I’m here to help.” He promises fluency in accounting in six to eight hours a week for an as yet undisclosed number of weeks.

Overall, wherever I looked, I could not find an MBA Mooc with the panache of undergraduate Moocs such as Michael Sandel’s theatrical Justice course, taught at Harvard. The best was Organizational Analysis taught by Stanford’s Dan McFarland. He of­fers a long, rich course with features to take advantage of the medium. You can choose whether to watch his lectures with him sitting in the corner of the screen or not. Frequent quizzes keep you alert.

Prof McFarland does regular “screenside chats” in which he discusses questions and comments raised by students on the very lively discussion boards. You can buy a custom e-textbook for $5.86 and supplementary readings for up to $100. He arranges small group video discussions using Google Hangout and, if you like, you can shoot for a distinction or advanced distinction by writing papers evaluated by your peers.

Next year, many more MBA Moocs are coming on stream. They will range from great to awful and elicit different levels of commitment from students. They are more academic than practical. But for an investment of nothing more than your time, there is going to be a lot of value here.

The writer is the author of ‘What They Teach You at Harvard Business School’ (‘Ahead of the Curve’ in the US)

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