Geoffrey Garrett, Wharton, pascal perich

Wharton, the business school known as a specialist in finance, is working with two internet start-up companies to bring real business experience to the world of online learning.

Participants who complete Wharton’s four basic business online Moocs - massive open online courses - will now be able to complete a capstone project with either Snapdeal, the New Delhi-based online marketplace, or Shazam, the music app. Those who complete the challenge, which involves dealing with a real problem faced by one of the companies, will receive verified certification from Coursera, the platform that hosts the Wharton Moocs.

Wharton launched its four online courses in accounting, finance, marketing and operations management in 2013 - the four are an integral part of the Wharton MBA as well as being made available for free on Coursera. Bringing the four courses and the capstone project together in one certified specialisation will enable the school to charge individual students for the first time. The cost of the specialisation is $595.

“To make the Mooc model sustainable, you have to cover your costs,” says Wharton dean Geoff Garrett. Paying a fee also motivates students to complete the programme, he adds. “When learners have skin in the game, they are more committed to it.”

The specialisation will have a two-fold purpose for Wharton. First it will help give a Wharton education to those who would not otherwise be able to experience it, says Prof Garrett. “We want to provide them with a real taste of a Wharton experience.”

Second, it will enable Wharton to identify those students who might go on to enrol as MBA students on its Philadelphia campus. “We would like to increase the pool of people who are looking at us and who we are looking at.”

The incentive is that the application fee will be waived for the top 50 performers each year and up to five $20,000 scholarships will be made available to MBA students who have excelled in the specialisation over the previous year.

However, a high score on the specialisation does not guarantee a place at Wharton, warns the dean, and applicants to the MBA will have to complete the rigorous application process like everyone else.

The specialisation, in which participants will be graded by peer-to-peer assessment, is just one way in which Wharton is experimenting with online learning. The school has “significant plans” in executive education says the Wharton dean, which already teaches executive short courses on its Philadelphia and San Francisco campuses.

Next month, Wharton professors will also teach executive courses to Chinese executives in Beijing, when the Penn Wharton China Centre opens.

“Everyone sees there really is a pyramid here,” says Prof Garret. C-suite executives gravitate towards face-to-face campus learning, while managers at lower levels of the organisation participate in work-based online programmes.

Earlier this week, Insead announced that it was teaching online programmes for two big corporate clients, Microsoft and Accenture. Wharton will not be left behind, says Prof Garrett. “For big players like Insead and Wharton, we want to be in all these markets.”

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