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Team effort: course providers argue that group projects help embed learning © Getty

In the summer of 2011, two professors made one of Stanford University’s most popular courses available online, for free. The course, ­ai-class.org, attracted more than 160,000 students.

Ten years later, most people contemplating an MBA will know about Massive Online Open Courses, or Moocs, as they and their providers are known. Stanford’s early classes have spawned businesses such as Udacity, which now boasts 14mn users, and Coursera, which was valued at $4.3bn at its IPO last year.

These purely digital providers enable students to choose a cheaper online MBA instead of a costly campus degree — or take any number of more specialised short courses online. Business education, in short, has broken free from traditional business schools, a development given added impetus by the coronavirus pandemic, which normalised remote learning and working.

According to Carrington Crisp, an education consultancy, 79 per cent of employers now think online learning will be standard for professional development, while more than a third of employees would consider an online MBA over the face-to-face version.

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And, in a tight labour market in which workers are rethinking what they demand from their careers and skills, online course providers are themselves being forced to offer more.

Andy Hancock, the new chief executive of platform FutureLearn, says there is an “opportunity” for online course providers as prospective students look beyond MBAs as a vehicle for acquiring business knowhow. But Moocs will only be able to grasp it if they ensure that what they offer aligns with sound pedagogical principles.

“Moocs need to step up,” Hancock says. “As a sector, to be sustainable, we need to do more . . . The evolution of Moocs is about engagement retention and lifetime learning, and being the platform of choice.”

As demand from learners grows, large-scale course providers are competing with new companies that claim they can offer more targeted and tailored solutions.

“I think Moocs are dead,” says Tom Adams, chief executive and co-founder of Quantic School of Business and Technology, which pitches its offerings as more interactive and group-based than the courses taken by thousands of people at a time. “They’re the zombies of the industry,” Adams claims.

He says that large-scale online business courses simply move lectures on to the internet, doing nothing to add interactivity or teamwork.

As a result, he argues, they fail to engage learners. “Imagine I design a curriculum that has hundreds of hours of passive video lectures,” he says. “Do you think people can watch those and not drop out?”

Quantic counts itself among the companies that are competing with larger-scale online providers in a lucrative market.

The company says its aim is to “democratise top tier business education” with an accelerated 13-month programme of study, and class sizes of 150-200 students who collaborate on case studies, group projects and events.

Some of these take place virtually, some in person. Rather than watching didactic filmed lectures, students take part in interactive activities and bite-sized modules with regular feedback, Adams explains.

“We learn by being challenged, getting feedback, discussing different beliefs — it’s a very learning-by-doing approach . . . Pedagogy is fundamentally what we do.”

Entrepreneur Elspeth Briscoe also believes that more boutique, active courses are the future of life-long career development in business and beyond.

Her company, Learning with Experts, pairs up students who are taking its online courses, so that they can give one another feedback and support.

“One of the things that is in the DNA of our company, which isn’t in the Moocs, is an absolute obsession with the user experience,” she says. “It’s important that people interact. It’s a discursive environment.”

After initially selling directly to consumers, Learning with Experts is now increasing its revenue through partnerships with companies and government bodies that want to boost worker skills. Courses range from gardening with the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society to finance for start-ups, which is funded by the EU Regional Development Fund and has reached 1,000 small businesses in Cornwall.

“It’s a really important area and a big gap in the market, with the [UK] government’s levelling up policy and upskilling SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises],” she says. “I think what we’re doing is genuinely different.”

Adams also believes these kinds of courses — targeted, bite-sized and interactive, with both online and offline elements — can complement more traditional business education rather than pushing it out. Undergraduate degrees, for example, remain a rite of passage.

“We’re not trying to destroy anything — we partner with universities,” he stresses. “Our sense is that students want to access quality learning in many ways.”

Mark Thomas, associate dean for graduate international programmes at Grenoble Ecole de Management, says large online courses are still perfectly good for learning specific skills — such as baking Madeleines, which he learned how to do through YouTube, though not to a level that would land him a job at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

“It does open up education,” Thomas says. “But it’s richer and it’s deeper and it’s more rewarding when you can have a deeper face-to-face interaction.”

During lockdown, Grenoble spent €1.5mn on a system called HyFlex, which enables face-to-face teaching in the classroom to take place while some students watch and participate at home. This allowed the school to adapt to Covid rules in France that required only half of students to be in the classroom at any one time.

But, while Thomas values the flexibility afforded by the system, it is prompting some dilemmas as students request remote working — even if, in his view, they would flourish better in the collegiate atmosphere of the classroom.

He believes university staff have, for a century, seen long-distance learning — whether in the form of correspondence courses in the 1920s or online courses today — as a “monster under the bed” that could replace face-to-face teaching altogether. Historically, these fears have proved to be largely unfounded, and Thomas believes they will continue to be.

“If anything, the pandemic has told us just how much we like being with people, and how important it is,” he says.

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