The rise of online alternatives to campus-based learning presents a threat to established providers of higher education. Incumbents face the challenge of engaging in online delivery – which continues to be seen as an inferior product – without undermining their reputations for rigour and quality.

Top business schools have held back from competing with large-scale, low-cost online MBA providers such as the University of Phoenix. Instead, many have launched select online programmes that adopt the same content and standards as their campus-based counterparts.

The Kenan-Flagler business school at the University of North Carolina and Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper school are among those that have pioneered distance MBAs that use advanced technology to connect small student groups in an online classroom environment.

But many leading schools – particularly in the US – have been less cautious about embracing massive open online courses (Moocs). As non-degree courses, they are by no means a substitute for degrees. However, by making high-level content available on demand and free, Moocs do represent a disruption to higher education.

While the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business has yet to deliver an online degree, it has been an early mover in creating Moocs. Six of the school’s courses are offered on Coursera, the largest Mooc platform by number of students.

Peter Rodriguez, senior associate dean for degree programmes at Darden, says: “Fear of brand dilution was deeply ingrained in our thinking on online strategy.”

He says Darden’s brand has been safeguarded by not offering degree credits or equivalent on its online courses, and by emphasising differences with campus programmes. “Joining Coursera took the risk out of Moocs, from a brand perspective …[as] we are comfortable with association with the top schools present.” Coursera’s partners include the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

For IE Business School, one of the small but growing number of leading European business schools to launch Moocs, the consideration of brand was important to platform choice, says Martin Boehm, dean of programmes.

It was crucial that Coursera had partner universities with which IE was happy to be associated, says Prof Boehm. He compares platform membership with airline alliances, which are very cautious and selective in extending membership.

For Robert Jones, a brand consultant and professor at the University of East Anglia in the UK, universities’ brands are increasing in importance as international competition for students rises. Being seen to be among the first to venture into Moocs has been viewed positively, he says.

Not only do Moocs enhance schools’ international presence, says Prof Jones, but being seen to be generous with content is good for their reputation.

Prof Boehm says that employing these courses as a means of allowing universal access to top research, content and faculty for no fee “probably helps the brand”.

He contrasts the selective approach of leading business schools with those for whom online delivery offers a way of lowering costs. “It’s different for institutions that are trying to launch entire degree programmes through Moocs,” he says, believing it will undermine reputations and brands, as Moocs are poor substitutes for face-to-face programmes – as shown by low student engagement levels to date.

Mike Boxall, a higher education expert at PA Consulting, highlights top schools’ decision to launch Moocs through platforms rather than on their own.

Prof Rodriguez at Darden says that partnering with a platform was based on what Coursera could offer the university. “They did lots of the heavy lifting at the start,” he says.

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