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Regina Herzlinger is a bit of a superstar. She was the first woman to be a tenured professor at Harvard Business School, and is now leading its march into Moocs – massive open online courses – which promise to revolutionise the world of higher education.

Professor Herzlinger, whose 11-week course on Innovating in Healthcare will start this month, is an advocate of this model of free online education. “I believe Moocs can democratise education,” she says. “It’s fantastic to reach so many people.”

Harvard, MIT Sloan, the University of Virginia’s Darden school and several other big-brand US business schools are experimenting with Moocs. The Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania has gone so far as to put 10 per cent of its MBA core courses online for free access. Like Prof Herzlinger, Wharton’s vice-dean of innovation Karl Ulrich believes the social impact of these programmes is a central reason for promoting Moocs. He cites the example of one Wharton Mooc that enrolled more than 130,000 students. “There’s just a huge, huge take-up.”

But he also argues that Moocs are a brand-building exercise for the school and can help professors run better courses back on campus. “It has changed the way I teach,” he confesses. “I think I am a better teacher as a result, and that is to the benefit of everyone.”

Moocs are just one example of an explosion of both formal and informal online learning enabled over the past two to three years by advances in technology. Professors teaching campus-based degree courses are increasingly “flipping” courses, giving students video recordings of their traditional lectures in advance and then using classroom time for discussion.

The product design videos Prof Ulrich prepared for his Mooc are now used in his campus-based courses and he says it has increased efficiency. “I’d like to see a third to a half of the learning part [of an MBA course] delivered online.”

In Europe, business schools such as IE in Spain and Warwick in the UK have taught online MBA programmes alongside their highly ranked full-time programmes.

Now, top schools in the US, such as Kenan-Flagler at the University of North Carolina with its MBA@UNC, are validating the online mode of delivery.

Not a month goes by without a business school announcing an online degree. Baylor University in Texas will be teaching its MBA programme online from May, and the business school at Imperial College in London, will launch its online MBA in January 2015.

Moocs rely on technology platforms that are developed by outside companies such as Coursera, but many business schools are looking at developing in-house platforms. At Imperial College, for example, Anand Anandalingam, dean of the business school, says its programme will be supported by the school’s own technology group.

Prof Anandalingam, formerly dean at the Smith school at the University of Maryland, says the technology is “state of the art compared with anything I have seen in the US. Students get a rich learning environment”.

He believes the programme will prove popular globally with those who value the Imperial brand, but are deterred from studying on-campus because of high living costs in London. However, at £30,000, the fees are comparable to Imperial’s London-based EMBA, making this a premium online degree.

“It’s not a discount programme,” says the dean, insisting it will have the same level of teaching and service as campus-based degrees. With intakes in January and August, Prof Anandalingam says the programme will support 200 students a year.

Idalene Kesner, dean of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, which launched its distance learning MBA in 1999, believes the market for online degrees will continue to grow in spite of the increased competition from Moocs. Her school has launched targeted Moocs available free to business school graduates and the plan is to extend this service to the 580,000 alumni from Indiana University.

“We have a ready-made audience,” she says.

Prof Kesner believes that the certification delivered by degree programmes will be the differentiating factor, and envisages a growing market for certified online learning for executives on shorter programmes that could build into a degree or other formal qualification.

Such systems are in place at some UK universities, but there are obstacles. At Ashridge, Tony Sheehan, director of learning services, believes the biggest stumbling block to the certification of online programmes will be the regulatory framework.

“We take the latest technology and look at it through a 19th century lens. We have to iterate rather than innovate to comply,” he says.

“It’s a continual challenge and I think it is a global one,” he continues, adding that, as a result, “it is in the [non-degree] executive education space that we do more radical experiments”.

There are other obstacles to overcome, in particular ensuring that those who enrol on programmes complete them.

At Harvard, Prof Herzlinger is experimenting with what she calls a “dating service” to match teams of between four and seven participants so they can work together on business plans for healthcare.

The 100 teams with the best plans will then form an exclusive group that will be eligible for a small private online course – or Spoc to use the latest jargon.

Engagement is just one of many problems to be resolved in this new online world. Who owns the copyright for these programmes? Who bears the costs of production? And how are professors paid?

Prof Ulrich says that developing Moocs is labour-intensive, although at the University of Pennsylvania the fee for developing a Mooc is just $15,000.

“We relied on the fact that most faculty were not motivated by money but were motivated by fame,” he says.

The move appears to have been successful, and as he concedes, “I’ve used that video in eight courses, so maybe it was a good investment of my time.”

The big-brand schools are confident that Moocs will not replace or threaten their flagship programmes such as the MBA.

The consumers of Moocs are very different from traditional business students, says Prof Ulrich. “It’s an adult learner who just needs to know something,” he says.

At Harvard, more than 40 per cent of those registered for the healthcare Mooc hold a masters, professional, or doctoral degree.

But Prof Ulrich also says that the selling-point of top schools is the total experience, not just content delivery.

“Learning about net present value is not going to be a differentiating factor for the Wharton school.”

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