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Everybody is talking about Moocs and how global education is about to be irremediably transformed by the emergence and easy availability of these massive open online courses. At the click of a mouse, some of the world´s top professors can enlighten billions on all topics imaginable. No need to go to Stanford or Harvard any more, as Stanford and Harvard are coming to you, via the internet. For many, the verdict is already beyond dispute: Moocs are the future, bricks and mortar so passé.
Do I hear “irrational exuberance”? Thanks to the internet, bubbles (always present throughout human history, be it in stocks, art, or tulips) can be created much faster and much more often. Opinions and dictums travel the world in a matter of seconds and a new conventional wisdom can be engineered in a matter of hours, globally. Currently a Mooc bubble is taking shape. Want to look savvy and sharp at your next dinner party? By all means embrace “Moocism” and reject “bricks-and-mortarism”. But as with so many other bubbles, this one may burst spectacularly.
Whenever I hear discussion about Moocs, I wonder: what’s the point? I mean, what is the final goal? It seems to me that this is not clear, even to those who are busy putting together Mooc platforms and Mooc companies. Are Moocs mere entertainment? A one-off experience? Or will they attempt to replace traditional courses and programmes? Will students stop going to physical schools now that Moocs abound? And if that is the ultimate objective, is it feasible and will it happen?
I do not think that this will happen. I admit that I watch a lot of online lectures and have always been a big fan of online education but I still consider the physical offering to have irrefutable advantages over the online one. We have all heard the typical platitudes in defence of bricks and mortar: personal access to professors and fellow students, campus experience, living in another city/region/country, access to physical labs/fitness centres/food courts, building up friendships and networks, career-placement opportunities, a “real” qualification. (It is worth remembering that some top schools already offer high-quality, fully-fledged online degrees, but these are different from Moocs).
Yet despite these clearly important factors, there is something else that explains why physical programmes will continue to prevail. In a word: elitism. What Moocs – by their very definition and raison d'être – are not and cannot be, traditional campus programmes can be and are: namely, selective; highly selective in many cases. Whereas Moocs, even if delivered by Cambridge and MIT professors, are for the masses, bricks and mortar are for the chosen few. Anyone can take a Mooc. Only an individual can join a top university or business school. When you are accepted into a top MBA programme, let alone graduate from it, you are sending a very clear signal to the job market. When you take a ragtag of online courses alongside millions of people, well, the message may be less forceful.
One reason why students join a business school – a reason that may often be ignored – is because they want to feel important, at least for that 21-month long or whatever period of their lives. They are looking for a luxury product and to be pampered, catered for and adored, by teaching staff, by administrators and by the world’s top recruiters. For some, this may be the first time they receive such treatment, for others the last. MBA students want to be treated like stars, want to feel that anything is within reach for them, that they deserve to aspire and to achieve. Admission into the programme is viewed as a ticket into winners-land, a bridge towards the exclusivity of the selected few.
A Mooc-based education is the opposite of these aspirations. Rather than be part of a carefully selected elite crop, you are just one more face in the (infinitely crowded) crowd. From highly personalised attention to abject anonymity. And for this reason Moocs will not drastically alter the status quo.
As long, that is, as bricks and mortar programmes continue to deliver the premium service that endows them with an unparalleled and impossible-to-clone comparative advantage. The true value of Moocs should be to make business schools realise that their most important asset, by far, is customer care.
The writer works at Esade Business School