In February the FT business education team launched the Business School Challenge, a quiz in which teams of MBA students pit their wits against each other in aid of the FT’s annual charity – this year it was World Child Cancer.

I was impressed by what students knew about business, as reported in the FT. They knew how much Twitter shares soared on their market debut in 2013 (73 per cent) and that London-based trader Bruno Iksil, who worked for JPMorgan, had the nickname London Whale. But the one question that completely stumped them was: What does the acronym Mooc stand for?

It brought home to me that while academics obsess about Moocs – massive open online courses – most business school students have barely heard of them.

At the moment most of those who enrol on Moocs are educated professionals who want to study topics that interest them or are useful at work. These Moocaphiles live in developed economies and many are business managers and corporate executives.

This demographic is rather embarrassing for providers, who espouse Moocs’ potential for social good – that they will deliver high-quality education to students in developing economies who cannot afford the cost of university study.

But it could also prove embarrassing for business schools that are developing Moocs, especially those that rely on short executive courses for revenues. There is a theory that Moocs might threaten the take-up of degree level education. What seems more alarming to me is the idea that schools could spend millions developing Moocs, only to find that these free courses cannibalise their money-spinning open enrolment short courses.

In a time of recession, one of the first things that company bean-counters cut is executive short courses. But even in times of economic growth it hardly makes sense for companies to sponsor students on business school courses if they can get the same training free.

illustration by Nick Lowndes
© Nick Lowndes

So, in the next few years, what are the chances of the learning and development people in large corporations deciding that for junior managers to make it to middle management level, they must complete a prescribed list of six or eight Moocs? Even if corporations require certification at the end of courses, the cost will be a fraction of that for open enrolment programmes – and that is before you factor in time saving and convenience.

At the lower level, online training for specific skills – reading a spreadsheet, say – is widespread. Online programmes for junior management training have also been mooted for at least a decade. When Duke Corporate Executive was established in 2000, part of its philosophy was to cascade material throughout businesses using different teaching styles depending on the level. For those in junior management roles, online courses were seen as the way forward even then.

What is increasingly clear is that there is plenty of free material out there as the number of Moocs relating to business and management rockets. In September 2013, when the FT started its Mooc tracker, there were fewer than 30 such Moocs; today there are more than 100.

How will business schools counter this threat? Some will not need to. A programme such as Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Programme has the brand to guarantee longevity. In developing economies, Harvard’s AMP has probably more kudos than its MBA: it is the programme of choice for the corporate elite.

Others are not so lucky. So, what added value can business schools offer? A network of contacts in other corporations, plus knowledge of working practices across different sectors is clearly one advantage. But online networking techniques are developing all the time. And let’s face it, junior managers who cut their teeth on Facebook know how to do online networking.

I can also envisage a situation in which learning and development managers set up online networks so that participants can exchange ideas, helping create friendship networks across the company.

Of course, open enrolment courses have far fewer participants than Moocs. This means students will be better placed to interact with professors and take advantage of mentoring opportunities and corporate visits. This clearly has a value. But what value?

What business schools will obviously bet on is that some Moocs will so impress companies that they will decide to use that school for other management development and customised programmes. But it may prove a dangerous bet.

The issue for me is whether business schools, which have just seen the business for their open enrolment programmes return, may have already sown the seeds of their own destruction.



Just one-third of those who responded to a Financial Times poll had heard of Moocs – and 29 per cent of those had taken such a course. The 531 respondents were executive education clients and participants.

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