Ask the Expert

The past year has seen a turning point for online business education. With the launch of high-cost online MBA programmes for high-calibre students, and the move by top-notch business schools such as Wharton into the market for Moocs - massive open online programmes - online learning has lost its image as a low-cost, low-quality product.

But what will 2014 hold for online learning? Will the increasing uptake in free programmes threaten the profitability and even the continued existence of any but the most prestigious degrees? Will online learning make good on its promise to democratise education, providing first world learning for those in developing countries?

These and other questions were addressed by the FT panel of experts on Wednesday March 12, at 14.00-15.00 GMT.

On the panel were:

Douglas Shackelford
Douglas Shackelford, dean of the Kenan-Flagler school at the University of North Carolina, in the US

Prof Shackelford served as the first associate dean of MBA@UNC from 2010 until he became dean of Kenan-Flagler in 2014. He is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US and is the founder of the UNC Tax Center. He has a PhD from the University of Michigan.

Mark Taylor
Mark Taylor, dean of Warwick Business School in the UK.

Prior to becoming dean of Warwick in 2010, Prof Taylor was a managing director of BlackRock, the asset management group. He began his career as a foreign exchange trader in London and has worked as a senior economic advisor at the International Monetary Fund. Prof Taylor has a PhD from Birkbeck College and an MBA rom London University’s Institute of Education.

Simon Nelson
Simon Nelson, Chief Executive of FutureLearn, the UK Mooc platform

Mr Nelson joined FutureLearn in 2012 and the first open online courses began in October 2013. The platform now has 26 university partners, as well as content agreements with the British Library, British Museum and British Council. Mr Nelson has also worked for the BBC where he was involved in the launch of the BBC iPlayer.

Della Bradshaw © FT

Della Bradshaw, FT Business Education Editor


Charlotte: Welcome everyone, here is the first question:

I am deliberating now on the choice of a part-time or distant MBA programme. While talking to several alumni of IE, Chicago and IESE schools, they were all unanimous in that the value of an MBA programme comes from the direct interaction with people of different origins and backgrounds. How does an online programme overcome this lack of a direct interaction? ~ Alex Larionov


Doug: When we started MBA@UNC, this was my sole concern. I knew we could do everything else well, but I didn’t know if we could recreate the community.

The MBA@UNC community has proven as interactive and close-knit as those in any of our other MBA programmes. First of all, our students are together in small classes via video, conferencing throughout the week so they have the classroom experience. Outside of class, they work together on group projects, are involved in countless teams and clubs. Plus, they meet after hours to socialise virtually.

One class meets in their own “virtual room” and goes drinking virtually after work on Fridays. I think people who don’t think that you can recreate community are probably like I was – people who don’t fully appreciate how social media – can make neighbors of people from around the world.

In fact, the community you develop in an online programme can be better in one aspect than those in residential programmes because they are not geographically constrained. Thus, they are more diverse than any you would experience in a traditional programme.

Of course, if the programme were limited to asynchronous content alone, you wouldn’t have the rich community that we enjoy in MBA@UNC.


Mark: The Warwick MBA by distance learning is taught predominantly online, with the opportunity to visit campus and mix with other students during week or weekend long modules. Our bespoke online learning platform, my.wbs, which has helped us achieve our high placement in the FT ranking, lets our students interact with each other during and after classes. We have a hugely lively community working together within its secure walls.

We make it really easy for students to have a fantastic experience with WBS, wherever they are in the world.

Externally, we have a large (around 19,000) presence on LinkedIn, which allows students and alumni to network online. This is then supplemented by face-to-face alumni meetings, guest lectures etc.

It’s also important to realise that an online MBA can develop other important soft skills. Apart from direct interaction, an important part of the Warwick DLMBA programme involves working on projects remotely with team members all over the world: leading, managing and shaping virtual teams is a key skill that’s becoming increasingly important in today’s business world.


Della: I wonder if this will become less of a problem as the Facebook generation moves into this kind of online learning. But yes, most online course providers recognise personal interaction and the teaching of soft skills as the two things that are most difficult to get right. It seems you have a choice about whether to study on campus or online, but for those who don’t, online programmes are really important.


Simon: Hi Alex. I run FutureLearn and we offer free, open online courses in a range of subjects including business. As such, I will let the other guys comment directly on your question.

However, I would just say that the development of the social web is enabling levels of interaction, engagement and collaborative working online that we couldn’t have imagined even five years ago – and we are only at the start of that revolution. FutureLearn has built social learning firmly into all of our courses and the reaction of our learners and educators has been stunning so far.


With a profile of older, work-experience students participating in online MBAs, do you also see this group taking more active ownership of their ongoing education post-MBA? Do they acknowledge that this is a (first) step on a future path that will involve additional learning, degrees, credentialing to stay relevant and (personally) marketable? Do they feel current career planning/management services prepare them for that future? ~ Pat Leonard


Simon: I think that part of the reason for the rapid growth of Moocs has been the opening up of more learning opportunities for older learners. We are seeing people from all ages joining our courses and participating enthusiastically in them. Our course on branding, for example, had people from a huge range of demographic and geographic backgrounds.

The days of doing all your studying in your twenties are long gone, in my view, and people will increasingly want and need to develop and enhance their skills throughout their careers. The development of free and paid-for online courses can only make this personal development more accessible, convenient and effective as well as enjoyable.


Doug: We have found that MBA@UNC is attracting both older, more experienced students, and younger, less experienced students. Both groups are investing heavily in their current education similarly to our other MBA students. I don’t see a difference going forward.

That said, many of the experienced students already have advanced degrees so they fully recognise the importance of life-time learning. Also, the online nature of our programme enables us to offer a unique benefit to all of our MBA alumni. At any point in the future, they can return to our platform and take future courses at cost.


Della: Despite the promise that online learning would democratise education, the evidence from enrolments to date on Massive Open Online Programmes is that it is well-qualified professionals who are looking to upgrade their skills that are turning to these platforms. Among students who have enrolled on courses from edX – the Mooc platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – 72 per cent are university graduates, according to a recent feature by my colleague Adam Palin. So, yes, I think you are right.


Mark: Recently, pressures on the FT MBA market and the inability for individuals to take time away from their jobs has meant that the age profile of online MBAs is actually quite diverse. By the nature of actually undertaking an MBA, students are undertaking a professional development journey. However, whether they undertake additional learning in the future very much depends on their individual circumstances.

At WBS, we have bespoke career advisers that service our online MBA cohorts and refer our online MBA students to external sources of support when they become alumni. Often, that may involve ongoing mentoring and we have a distinct programme to support alumni and students in this endeavour.

Our career sessions focus on self-awareness to give insights into influencing and negotiation styles, and students undertake leadership development activities to enable them to put these skills into action.


Do you foresee the emergence of a meta-MBA by combining the best courses from the top schools online? Is accreditation the constraining factor? Would such a meta-MBA lack the coherence or brand of an established school? Is there any progress towards this? ~ Ram


Doug: No, I don’t foresee this. A great MBA programme is more than a collection of great courses. It’s the interaction with the faculty and building a wider community, including the alumni network. Every school has a different culture, mission, and values, which are important factors that students should evaluate when they select a school.


Mark: With the emergence of Mooc platforms like FutureLearn (in which Warwick participates, by the way – check out our Behavioural Science Mooc), this is a possibility.

However, your point about being branded by an established school is a good one. The standing of the institution which awards your MBA says a lot about you. There’s also an issue about a good MBA programme being more than a collection of modules – it involves a coherent and carefully thought-out programme which is designed with a set of important learning goals in mind.


Della: Accreditation would certainly be the key to this and it is difficult to see how this could happen with the big brand universities. Even though Harvard and MIT are partners in EdX, it is hard to imagine that they would collaborate in offering an online degree. Or, indeed, that they would offer a degree at all on the basis of these online programmes. Those who might be able to make this happen are Mooc platforms such as FutureLearn, which are attached to the Open University in the UK. However, I think it will be some time before we see this happen, and there will be a greater need for assurance of learning and the validation of examinations.


Simon: I think we are a long way from the development of the “meta MBA” you speak of but I would be surprised if online didn’t foster much greater collaboration between many of the world’s top institutions. Already we are starting to see the first signs of this within the 26 universities that make up FutureLearn.


How do you see the role of online learning evolving over the next five years?


Doug: The world is changing rapidly. So, predicting five years is risky at best. However, one thing that I anticipate is that online will not be anything special. I recall when an “international” focus made a business school special. Now, every leading business school has a global focus.

In the future, I expect technology-enhanced education will be a central component of every delivery system. At UNC, we are already incorporating parts of our asynchronous materials, which are remarkably well-done, into our residential classes. Meanwhile, MBA@UNC, which is our “online” programme, has three-day face-to-face immersions somewhere in the world every quarter, e.g., they will meet in Johannesburg next week. So, I expect online education to become an integral part of every business programme in the not-too-distant future, regardless of whether it is called an “online” programme or a traditional programme.


Mark: I think the distinction between campus-based and online learning will become increasingly blurred, and ‘blended learning’ – involving both face-to-face and online teaching and learning will become the norm. It will just be a matter of the balance between the two.

At WBS, we’re already developing online modules or sections of modules for our resident students, and we have opportunities for our online students to meet faculty and other students face-to-face either at Warwick or at centres around the world as an important part of the Warwick DLMBA programme.

As I mentioned earlier, we have embraced Moocs, making two for FutureLearn so far, with more planned. We don’t see them as a threat but more as an opportunity to show many more people what we have on offer. Our Moocs have proved very successful and popular.


Della: I think we will see every quality business school adopting online learning tactics as part of their campus degrees – “flipping” the classroom, as it has become known. The big question is, when the skills, cases and data are taught through video broadcasts before the scheduled classroom sessions, what will be the value of the classroom interaction? What I think is great is that this will mean the great teachers and facilitators – rather than the great researchers – will be the ones who do best.


Simon: Five years feels a long way in the future considering everything that has happened in the last five years. I am always reluctant to predict.

However, my guesses are that some of the short-term hype and over-inflated claims around Moocs at the moment will die down and their true impact and value will start to be seen – rather than the rather polarised debate that has taken place to date. The web is hitting all parts of higher education in a big way and we will see more innovation in delivery of social, interactive and adaptive learning, more effective learning outcomes from online courses and a growing number of academics and institutions integrating online delivery with campus and face to face services.

I’m backing FutureLearn to be providing a fantastic, free, learning experience to millions of people worldwide who are then inspired to embed learning as part of their life in a way that helps them develop personally and professionally.


The US has the JDMBA degree. Should the UK not launch a fully online two-year LLMBA for working professionals? ~ Ravindra Wickremasinghe


Della: I am sure now that you have suggested it……


Mark: This is not a possibility that we’re exploring at this time. For obvious reasons (i.e. different legal systems), the legal profession differs in its structure and approach internationally and so, as a global business school, it would seem difficult – at least at first sight – to design a truly global joint programme in law and business.

On the other hand, a joint programme linking aspects of medical and business practice might be more of a possibility, especially one involving health care leadership and business management.


Will the emergence of high quality online programmes from top business schools such as Harvard mean that applications to second and third tier business schools will decline? Will this threaten the stability of these institutions?


Mark: I think that there will certainly be a tendency towards a concentration of the number of top business schools operating globally. I don’t think that will reduce to single figures, but I don’t expect it to be in the hundreds either.

But even among a small number of top schools, there will be a distinct culture, values, approach and course offering that will be more or less attractive to some students.

At WBS, apart from offering a world-class, all-round business education, our MBA has distinct characteristics that will attract certain students. For example, the WBS MBA programmes have behavioural science at their core. We have the strongest behavioural science group in Europe, headed by Professor Nick Chater, who is an advisor to the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team or Nudge Unit.

We are also injecting more creativity into our MBA, both in how we teach it and in learning how to be creative. For example, our Leadership and Art of Judgement module gets students to think about management and leadership problems through the lens of Shakespeare’s plays – and we get the Royal Shakespeare Company, just down the road in Stratford on Avon, to help us. That’s a course that’s unique to us.


Della: Many second-tier business schools are already facing a huge decrease in applications at MBA level because of the high costs of these degrees. Free online porgrammes can only accelerate this, I fear.

Many schools are attempting to counter this by launching specialised masters degrees and also undergraduate programmes, where the income is more sustainable over a number of years. Will there be a shake-out? It feels like this might happen.


Doug: Presently a tiny fraction of the worldwide MBA market is being served by online programmes from the best schools in the world. Until these schools choose to dramatically increase their enrollments, I do not see any threat.


Simon: I believe that those institutions that fully embrace the potential of online delivery have more to gain than to lose in the future – even if the market does become more competitive. There is the potential to significantly grow the market, to reach new people, in new ways with new products and business models. The main danger is remaining too locked into one’s traditional business and unable or unwilling to re-imagine it for an online world.


The cash cow of many business schools is executive short courses. Given the growing provision of free online programmes, and the recognition of these programmes by companies, will this business disappear?


Della: I think that as soon as HR departments and learning and development offices in corporations realise what is available online for free, providers of bread-and-butter open enrolment courses – introduction to marketing or finance for non-financial managers, for example – will face serious competition. Open ernolment programmes are already in decline: Moocs will accelerate this trend.


Mark: First of all, I should say that we don’t see executive education as a cash cow at WBS. It’s an important part of our offer which helps us provide a service to businesses and also allows business executives to interact with our faculty and feedback their experience to us. It also provides a means of our alumni keeping their human capital well maintained – we aim to provide a return on investment to our alumni over their entire careers.

More generally, I believe that good companies will always want distinctive face-to-face executive development for their best people, whether it be bespoke courses or open enrolment. Some of these executive courses may be blended learning, involving some online provision, but the face-to-face element will always be important.


Simon: There will be big shift in this segment of the market, as in others, and if those courses can easily be delivered for free then they may be at risk. However, free online courses are the best marketing opportunity there has ever been for these type of paid-for courses, in my view – a powerful funnel to attract and convert highly motivated learners to take their next steps in paid education. So this market cannot stand still but must adapt to the new opportunities there are to attract more people and transform the types of free and paid-for courses that are available today.


Doug: Low quality programmes should be threatened by free programmes whether they are offered online or in person. In contrast, high quality programmes are costly to produce, and they should not feel threatened by free programmes.

Our experience is that companies most value custom programmes, i.e., programmes designed specifically to fit their needs. Those programmes are costly to produce and cannot be mass produced. They are not threatened by free programmes.


Charlotte: Thanks everyone for participating. For more information about online learning, read our 2014 special report.

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