The past year has been a watershed year for learning online. At one end of the market, highly-ranked business schools have realised the value of teaching online, launching high-cost programmes for high-calibre students.
But the past year has also seen an exponential growth in the number of free courses, or Moocs. Can these different types of programme co-exist?
On Wednesday, March 13, 2013, between 14.00 and 15.00 GMT, a panel of experts will answer these questions and others here on FT.com.
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On the panel are:
Idalene (Idie) Kesner, interim dean of Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Prof Kesner joined the faculty of Kelley School of Business in 1995 and was chair of the full-time MBA programme from 2003-2006 and chair of the department of management and entrepreneurship for a further three years. She has taught numerous executive programmes and served as a consultant for companies working on board related issues.
Michael Luger, director of Manchester Business School. Prof Luger became director of MBS in 2007, before which he was professor of public policy, business and planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a professional officer at the Greater London Council in the 1970s and the director of a planning agency in his native Pennsylvania. He has served on the boards of several public sector and not-for-profit organisations and taught at Duke University and the University of Maryland.
Chip Paucek, co-founder and chief executive of 2U (formerly 2tor) a company that delivers for-credit university programmes online. Before setting up 2U, Mr Paucek worked in the education sector as well as co-managing the re-election campaign of US Senator for Maryland, Barbara Mikulski. He is currently studying for an MBA at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. 2U works with the school to support its online MBA programme MBA@UNC
Linda Groarke, MBA student at the Open University Business School. Linda set up her own consultancy and subsequently moved to New York where she now works for an investment bank. She chose the OUBS as it allows her to study anywhere in the world while continuing to work full time.
Della Bradshaw, FT Business Education Editor.
How do you see the role of online learning evolving over the next two years?
Chip: Obviously, online learning in higher education is exploding. After decades of talk, the disruption is actually occurring. While Mooc’s are all the rage, it’s clear from where I sit that all online learning is not equal.
Our brand of online education, in MBA@UNC, is both live and in person: rigorous instruction in weekly live classes with the same faculty you would see on campus.
As more institutions discover the power of unleashing the university from its geographic boundaries, quality will become more important. The medium isn’t the key, it’s what you do with it that counts. Most online programmes are simply not very good. 2U believes that there will a distinct reshuffling of the deck in the next 10 years and those that don’t dip their toe in the water, but rather go all in, will benefit greatly.
Linda: With the online world having changed the way we read content, access music and shop - be it for groceries or second-hand clothing it’s fair to say that we are also turning to the internet for higher education.
I chose to study for my MBA online due to the flexibility it offered, not to mention the affordability in comparison to other universities. I can study for my degree anywhere in the world – its classes, tutorials, etc are not an anchor to a specific location.
I’m often in between London and New York for work and yet will never miss a lecture or fall behind. The hours I ‘choose’ to study are based around what else I have going on for that particular day.
For the past year I’ve been watching as the fantastic online company, Coursera, has expanded both in terms of the number of institutions offering free online courses and the number of people taking them up. Online learning opens up doors and opportunities to people and places that otherwise would not have time, money or ease of access.
Idie: One key difference which will occur over the next two years is that online learning will be much more “hands on.” What I mean by this is that experiential and simulation courses are likely to play a bigger role in the way faculty teach online.
While it will always be important to educate students using theoretical concepts and models, students and their future employers are clamouring for more applied educational methods and many schools, including the Kelley School at Indiana University, are adopting this approach.
While most schools view live cases as a tool that can only be used in residential programmes, we have project-based courses for our online MBA students in which “live cases” are used to teach key business concepts. Students work on actual business projects for clients and present their recommendations to both academic instructors and actual business leaders for evaluation and feedback.
A second difference will be the increased globalisation of the content. International business is making its way into every functional area. Indeed, in the Kelley Direct Online MBA, we combine this international focus with the notion of experiential learning already. Our students have the option of enrolling in one or more courses that focus on the application of basic business concepts to various international contexts (including everything from emerging economies to transitioning mature economies) along with an embedded trip to one or more representative countries. These trips are often project-based, where students work on a project for actual clients solving real world problems. Many of these projects have been social entrepreneurship projects.
A third difference we will see in online programmes is a greater use of hybrid approaches. In addition to offering courses that are taught completely online in a synchronous format (but can be asynchronous for students if needed), our Kelley Direct Online MBA has the option of a couple of residential weeks for earning course credit. These are extremely popular. Each week is an intensive week of face-to-face teaching. This is a very exciting way for students to learn because it combines the best of different pedagogies. In the future I think we will see more and more programmes move in this direction of using hybrid approaches to teaching.
A final key difference I would like to highlight is that online programmes over the next two years will do a better job of focusing on skill building in addition to traditional business content. Regardless of whether a student is interested in progressing up his/her organisation or changing companies, skill-building - especially the type linked to career development - is important.
The Kelley Direct Online MBA is an example of an online MBA programme that has already moved in this direction. We offer students the option of taking courses that focus on leadership training and skill building.
Mike: Online learning has been advancing at a pace in higher education for many years and will continue to expand in the future. One segment of the market (Open U, U of Phoenix, et al) specialise in delivering online courses for large audiences.
Recently, some well-regarded research universities have contracted with third parties to run online degree courses (UNC-Kenan Flagler, Liverpool, others). And of course Moocs are now proliferating, so far not leading to degree certification.
Other universities, like MBS, have extensive blended learning programmes that combine face-to-face with online. We continue to invest in our e-learning team who work with all of our programmes - from undergraduate through to MBA and our executive education team.
For example, our Managing Projects programme for BP uses e-learning technology to facilitate learning when delegates return to work and apply what they have learned in between workshops.
Do you believe an online MBA can be just as good as a top MBA programme?
Chip: I believe most are not. MBA@UNC is by design equal to the on-campus programme. Jim Dean and Doug Shackelford of UNC had a vision and delivered. Same degree, same outcomes, same quality student body. Our retention in the online programme is currently at 98 per cent. Unheard of for anything online. In the case of MBA@UNC, the outcomes speak volumes.
In addition to live classes, what does the asynchronous content look like? Ask yourself, if you were going to make a movie out of a play would you ever consider putting a camera at the back of the theater? No, because you would have a crappy movie.
Mike: Online learning can be successful if done well. We focus on blended learning and find this approach, combining face-to-face and online, achieves learning objectives and prepares students very well for international business careers.
The nature of learning is different and what will work best for one student may not work as well for another. Specifically, some students will particularly thrive with the intense face-to-face, full-time experience that a standard MBA provides.
Others who want to combine a demanding career with learning may find the part-time or blended programme better. We find that our full-time programme and global part-time blended programmes serve different markets — students with different circumstances and needs.
Idie: I think the answer is that online MBA programmes can be as good, but this is a case where it pays for students to be careful shoppers/buyers because not every programme will be equivalent.
Della: Well those business schools that teach these programmes obviously believe they can, and in many cases - UNC in the US or IE in Spain, for example - these are schools that run online programmes alongside the more traditional classroom-based degrees.
But a lot of the top schools are sceptical about online porgrammes. In this week’s article for the Financial Times, for example, Stanford dean Garth Saloner writes: “The issue is an incremental experience versus a transformational one”. To support his point, none of the top 10 schools in the FT’s full-time MBA rankings teach fully online programmes.
Do you think an online MBA creates a different kind of alumni network or is it the same as a normal MBA?
Linda: When I was making my decision between attending NYU-stern (part-time) or signing up for the Open University’s online offering, my one concern and question I had was “how will I network?” I am often told how studying for an MBA is largely about the people you meet along the way.
I was pleasantly surprised when I started to network at the Open University by how diverse the group was – there are students from all pockets of the world and one quite literally on my doorstep in New York. I have met, albeit virtually, peers and like-minded individuals from all over the world.
However, in addition to networking online with my peers, I also ensure that I am involving myself in as many networking groups after work as possible. I attend conferences and seminars, get involved in charity, etc all to ensure that I am making connections and opening up new opportunities above and beyond my MBA alumni. This is just something I feel is important and personal to me. It’s obviously hard to find the time to do it all!
Mike: MBS has one alumni network of almost 50,000 graduates, spanning over 160 countries - all of whom benefit from the rich experience of recent graduates and those who are further on in their careers. We don’t distinguish between the programmes from which our alumni graduate and, like all networks, individuals gravitate to like-minded people. They benefit from the same services such as life membership to our market databases, research and careers service.
One reason we do blended learning rather than strictly online is that our part-time students still meet others in their cohort and then stay in touch online. And for us, our full-time students get to take modules through our global centres (which host the part-time blended learning programmes) and vice-versa.
What criteria would you recommend following when choosing an online MBA?
Chip: Do you meet in live classes? Do you see your fellow classmates, both live on the web and live in person? Is it the same faculty? Who is doing the teaching? Is it the same degree? How is it different than the on-campus programme? What does the student body look like? How much video is there and what does it look like? What career services are available to students? Are you a member of the university community and how?
Idie: First, I would look for top-ranked online programmes. Unranked or poorly ranked programmes may raise red flags for students to investigate.
Second, students should investigate whether the same faculty are used for both a school’s residential programme and its online programme. At the Kelley School, we use the same high quality faculty members (ranked #1 in Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s most recent ranking of MBA programmes) for both the online and residential MBA programmes. Therefore, we know students are getting the same high quality courses.
Third, students should look for a high level of student engagement and responsiveness. Yet, at the same time, the programme should be flexible enough to meet students’ constraints. Programmes that require students to be synchronous at all times may not be convenient for students who work full-time or online students who are located in different parts of the world.
The Kelley Direct Online MBA offers students the option of synchronous engagement (which is ideal) and asynchronous connections (for when conflicts arise). This type of flexibility ensures that the online programme can provide value regardless of a students’ constraints.
Fourth, students should look for a programme that offers cutting edge curriculum.
Mike: It’s vital to think about your objectives and learning style. Again, it’s why MBS uses a blended approach - giving MBAs the opportunity to combine individual learning with a more practical application through group work.
Group work is essential for a good MBA and that is more difficult online. Other areas to consider are what kind of contact will you have with the real professors? Will everything be canned and taught by technicians or do you get a chance to debate, argue and learn from the real experts? Third, what kind of student support do you get— for example, in career services?
Linda: Do your homework! Research, research, research. It took me years to finally decide. Part of that was procrastination I admit but the other part was spent gathering as much information as possible on all potential universities. I weighed up the pros and cons – was it part-time, full-time, what speciality subjects were offered, where was it located, how much would it cost and so on. With a full-rounded view as to what was on offer out there I was able to make a more informed decision.
Look at the institutions’ accreditations, review what past students have said, and attend open days if possible, allowing you to meet with students and teachers face-to-face. The choice of university (online or not) will be personal to you and your situation. Consider some ‘what if’ scenarios – what if you changed jobs, what if you started a family, what if you lost your job, etc. Don’t rush into making a decision. Do what you’re doing now – taking advice from those around you.
How many years of work experience should you have before studying for an online MBA?
Idie: I would recommend at least the same level of work experience as would be needed for any top-ranked MBA residential MBA programme. At the Kelley School, we feel an MBA programme typically adds the most value when a student has had about four years of work experience (although there will be a range depending on the nature of one’s job). Our Kelley Direct Online MBA students average an even greater number of years (~seven years), which means that online students are interacting with colleagues (and team members) who have a great deal of strong work experience.
Mike: It is important for online students to have the experience and maturity to maximise the experience of an online or blended programme. Because the intensity of face-to-face interaction is less than in a full-time programme, which is an important source of input, part-time MBAs should ask for a little more work experience.
I don’t have a full time job, would it still make sense to do an online MBA instead of attending b-school considering I have the spare time?
Chip: The point is not that online is better for one category of people, but rather how that online degree is structured. Dig in and examine the content, the process and the faculty.
MBA@UNC’s version of online learning rivals any on-campus programme in the world. “What Apple’s Mac did for the personal computer, the MBA@UNC is about to do for higher education.” Pretty solid praise from Forbes. I don’t typically quote press, but we are excited about that one.
Idie: While it is true that most students join online MBA programmes because they want to continue working while studying for their MBA or because they need to continue working for financial reasons, we are finding that students today are considering online programmes even if they could otherwise attend a residential MBA programme.
One key factor that may influence your decision about whether to enroll in an online programme or residential programme will be the style of learning you prefer. If you enjoy learning through a virtual environment, then an online programme can be a great experience.
As noted earlier, because many of the highly ranked online programmes today, like the Kelley Direct Online MBA, use a variety of pedagogies including the option of intensive face-to-face residential courses, travel embedded courses and experiential, project-based courses, you don’t have to give up the best of a residential programme. Some programmes like ours allow you to build a community of fellow online learners, therefore you don’t feel disconnected.
Also, by learning online you’ll be well-equipped to interact in organisations that operate worldwide often in a virtual environment. Finally, our KD online students have access to all services provided by our graduate career services office so an online student looking for a job has the same access to this office as a residential student.
Mike: It is not just about whether you have a full-time job or not. It’s about individual objectives and where you are in your life - family situation, the cost of travel and lodging and fees factor in differently for different people. It has to be an individual decision considering many factors.
What measures would you recommend schools use to test their online programmes to ensure they are up to standard? What methods does your school use?
Chip: Retention is critical. Job outcomes are critical. All of 2U’s programmes also deploy a net promoter score - the best overall measure of satisfaction. I’m proud to say that MBA@UNC’s net promoter score is as high as some of the best companies and products in the world. Our student body knows we are delivering.
Linda: It’s obvious that online learning is very different to learning in a classroom. It is imperative that the materials and content provided by the institution are structured and designed specifically for use in the online environment and not simply replicate books converted to PDFs– the content must support teaching and learning methodology for an online journey.
At the Open University, the materials can be read and digested in a number of ways – be it using the physical book or downloaded to a mobile device. The flexibility with the way the content can be re-purposed is important.
The online programme should offer a good balance between interactivity and collaboration with your peers. A sense of community is key within online learning but particularly so with business and management education as peer learning is so important, so the online environment must create, support, encourage and nurture these interactions, ensuring a rich mix of media, audio visual, online events, discussion forums, text, etc to stimulate different learning styles and preferences.
Mike: We have a very good system of continual student feedback to start with. Online and blended programmes can do this more easily because the online platform and virtual learning environment can accommodate instant feedback. We also have our blended courses externally assessed and our marks validated, as for the full-time programme.
What feedback have you had from recruiters regarding graduates of online MBA programmes? Do they tend to prefer graduates from other programmes?
Chip: Our degree is identical and there is no e or i on it. It’s the MBA from UNC. That’s all that matters to a recruiter. Read stories like Julia Elliot’s and you can get pretty excited about this form of online learning.
Linda: I currently reside in New York so when I’m asked where it is that I’m studying for my MBA, I usually have to back it up with a brief background and overview of the Open University - only because the institution is unfortunately less well known in the US.
However, what follows as a comment/statement regardless of whether or not the university is known is the recognition for the balancing act that goes into undertaking a part-time masters while working full-time, not to mention while trying to make time for family and friends.
The fact that my MBA is online and not through another programme has never come into it. I would like to hope recruiters and employers look past the place of institution and recognise the effort, hard work, time-keeping skills, etc that go into studying online part-time, while working full-time, and in my experience they have.
Mike: We don’t see recruiters making a distinction. A large majority of our blended students study through our centres around the world, in Miami, Dubai, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo, where we have dedicated career resources to place students in their home region. We also have talent management partnerships with key global companies/employers, such as Astra Zeneca, who work with us to match our graduate to meet their recruitment needs.
What do you think is the best way to accredit online degrees and Moocs?
Della: I think it will be very interesting to see whether the accreditation bodies - the AACSB or the EFMD - actually move into accrediting these programmes. After all, the AACSB is expected to agree in April to included executive education under its accreditation umbrella and EFMD has been accrediting both corporate learning programmes and online programmes for years under its Clip and Cel programmes.
However, as Moocs are free to view, and the content and delivery is completely transparent, I see no reason why the market cannot decide the winners and losers.
The US has the JDMBA degree. Should the UK not launch a fully online one year LLMBA for working professionals?
Mike: I agree with the general thrust of your question. Today’s world is very complex and the solutions to these vexing problems require us to cross disciplinary and professional boundaries.
A comprehensive university like the University of Manchester has the ability to bring together law and management, medicine and management, engineering and management and more. In fact, the dean of our law school and I have been discussing ways to work more closely together. So watch this space.
Comparing online-(only)-courses and blended-learning courses: What kind of trend would you see in these two forms of teaching?
Volker Stoessel, MBA
Mike: Manchester Business School has gone down the route of a blended learning MBA, rather than fully online. Our belief is that there is value in face-to-face interaction that helps create lasting networks and makes online interaction easier.
Moreover, our model provides for our own faculty to deliver the material to a classroom of students in a concentrated period of time — and then those students go back home and continue to interact with each other and the instructor. Our model is admittedly more labour intensive but it also delivers higher value. I would expect both types of part-time programmes to increase. They are different models that have different objectives.
Idie: I am seeing more highly ranked schools move to the blended learning format. This allows students to experience a combination of learning environments – online and residential. However, for many students the “best fit” is a programme that is flexible. In other words, if students wish they can take advantage of residential components, but this is not a requirement in case the residential components cannot fit into their work situation.
The Kelley Direct Online MBA recognises that students may face a challenge of not being available for residential, intensive sessions or synchronous sessions, therefore we make other options available. The key with online education is that it needs to be flexible for students given their often busy work and travel schedules. So a blended form of teaching is great as long as it still provides options to students.
Chip: Rigour in either. You can have the same outcome if you clearly identify the learning objective and drive towards that objective. 2U’s programmes all have some blended component.
In our Masters of Advanced Practice Nursing in Midwifery with Georgetown, there are no virtual babies. You need to go to your clinic and work with a preceptor trained by Georgetown, but you can clearly do that in your local area. Online only has limitations if you allow those to exist. Our partners are driven by creating the highest quality outcome and taking creative approaches to getting there.
We observe an increased interest of institutions of higher education in introducing blended learning programmes and courses. In their approach they often are technology driven. Do you find this approach reasonable? Or, would you rather build a blended learning strategy of a university around the faculty and the corresponding didactic aspects?
Lukasz Swiatczak, HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management
Della: What I have seen recently is many traditional business schools partnering with technology and distribution companies, which strikes me as a really pragmatic approach to online learning, with each partner playing to their strengths. I think this approach is very different from a decade ago when the rationale behind online learning was related to scale and profit.
Chip: We build everything around faculty. This isn’t about technology. It’s about UNC’s Mark Lang and Tanja Snively teaching students how to discount cash flows. Its about the rigour associated with direct faculty instruction.
Idie: Like you, I am seeing more highly ranked schools move to the blended learning format. This allows students to experience a combination of learning environments – online and residential. However, for many students the “best fit” is a programme that is flexible.
The Kelley School faculty has received its #1 teaching quality ranking because the professors have developed their abilities to use a variety of pedagogies depending on the environments in which they teach. Even so, we find that traditional teaching techniques (e.g. case teaching) can be effective in both environments with some tweaking. The key is having highly motivated faculty members willing to put energy and effort into connecting to their students. This is why it is so important to select programmes with top-ranked faculty.
What course materials do you believe schools should be using to make their programmes more dynamic? I’ve heard complaints of static PDF and PowerPoint presentations...
Mike: In our teaching academy, we give professors and programme leaders examples of how different types of technology can be used effectively in the classroom and online. There still is a place for traditional presentations but also for streaming video, live online discussions and interactive voting, for example. The key is to start with clear learning objectives and act creatively to meet them.
Chip: If you are going to teach someone to build a car, don’t show me talking about building the car, just show them building a car. If you are teaching someone how to model behavior in a social work programme, don’t give them a written vignette, show them how to do it. If you are going to teach someone to teach, find a local school for them to perform student teaching, have them film themselves and make the assignment cover the fellow students critiquing themselves. Online can be powerful if done correctly.
Idie: If an online programme is only using static PDF and PowerPoint presentations, your concern is well-founded. While most courses will have some PDF and PowerPoint content, the best online courses will use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous engagement. The static content will be valuable for learning some concepts, but you will also want to engage in real-time with your fellow students and the instructor in some fashion (e.g. with Breeze-type sessions).
The types of optional course programming used by the Kelley Direct Online MBA, which include experiential “live case” studies, travel embedded courses, simulations, and one-week intensive residential course, goes well beyond the typical static online programme that some schools offer. So, I advise students concerned about static types of programming to look for blended options that have optional dynamic components for students.
Della: Yes, I think the fascinating thing about online courses, particularly those that are free to view, is that the quality of the content and delivery is much more visible than in the traditional classroom model. Given the growing competition, I think it unlikely that these programmes will survive.
Would you recommend doing a Mooc now, while they are still free?
Chip: Yes, I’ve taken a Mooc and enjoyed it. I would encourage people to sign up. Daphne and Andrew from Coursera are friends. I wish them well and expect them to continue to grow.
Della: I like the assumption in your question that soon there will be a charging mechanism for Moocs. At the moment the burden of cost in developing Moocs is with the university. (A decade ago when Quisic and UNext first entered this market, it was the hosting company that bore the cost.) Therefore it will be up to the schools to decide whether to charge and when. Even short online courses can cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce, given the demand on expensive faculty time. Will business schools introduce charging mechanisms? I believe they will have to. So, to answer your question: yes.
Idie: Moocs can be an interesting option for learning some content, but my experience is that the vast majority of people who begin Moocs don’t finish them. Our experience with students enrolling in a top ranked online programme is that the completion rate is significantly higher.
The Kelley Direct MBA’s completion rate is just 29 months. This is an excellent completion rate considering our online students are also working full-time.
Can such education paths possibly emerge as any real threat to the traditional institutions, especially universities? Or will they remain complementary to the mainstream?
Will it be possible to maintain any real quality, on either the teaching or learning side? How will that be assured?
Chip: I think we are proving that this is a story about quality. It’s a story about making students equal in every way to the campus students and delivering an experience to ensure that. Technology might enable it, but this is about the will of a great institution like UNC, USC, Wash U, Georgetown, GWU or American. These schools have partnered with us to build something transformative and I think they’re doing a great job of it. As more people approach it this way, I firmly believe market share will shift. Why? Quality and outcomes matter.
Idie: While I believe online education is complementary to traditional residential education, I see more movement toward “blended” approaches where students move back and forth between residential courses and online courses. I think this is a unique way for students to take advantage of the best of both types of educational approaches.
Della: I think the great appeal of online programmes is that they give access to those who would otherwise be unable to study, either through cost, location or lifestyle. As such they will remain complementary to traditional universities. I think as with all business schools - campus-based or online - the quality will determine the longevity of the programmes. If programmes are rubbish, people will stop buying them.
I am eager to do an online MBA but have been told that the most vital part of an MBA is the networking. Obviously in an online degree there is not the same contact. What can I do to improve the networking aspect of my degree?
Chip: I challenge this notion. You can have the same level of networking when it’s done well. Our Social Work programme with USC, fully delivered online, has just had it’s first marriage.
The networking is real and powerful. Just don’t enroll in one that won’t offer that level of interactivity. MBA@UNC’s global immersions are a fantastic part of the programme. This years events are in Sinagpore, Chicago, Istanbul and Chapel Hill, NC.
Idie: The key is to look for an online programme that offers you networking opportunities. At the Kelley School we are working hard to create a network and “spirit of community” with our online students. We do this through our intensive residential courses, our courses that include international trips and by including students in our alumni activities (such as alumni social events we hold in different cities).
We also build a network by including team-based experiential exercises for the students – courses in which students work on projects together but in a virtual environment. We find that when students come to campus for events with their cohort or travel with their fellow online students, they have an immediate sense of belonging and collegiality because they have worked together already.
Do you believe professors should be integrating social media into their online teaching?
Linda: I believe the teaching of how and when best to use social media as a marketing tool should most definitely be taught. It would be difficult to avoid such a powerful tool when it comes to marketing a product in today’s online world.
Chip: Social media is powerful. We use it in everything we do. Our 2U platform looks more like Facebook than Blackboard for a reason: it is a social network.
Do you concur with A.N. Whitehead in his 1916 address to the Mathematical Association:
Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.
Mike: I agree but it applies to women too!
Della: Possibly, though I think an ill-informed man is an even more useless bore.....