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Online Education: Quality Control

Online education - a question of quality and the MOOC debate

As the popularity of online education has increased so too has the need to differentiate between high and low quality. Gone are the days when a person would be well advised to be suspicious of most programs or degrees delivered remotely; but navigating through today’s vast array of formats and study options could easily appear insurmountable at first glance to many a prospective student.


It’s for this very reason that QS launched an online MBA ranking back in 2012 (here’s the latest edition) – and the format’s growth has now led The Princeton Review to follow suit. Although The Princeton Review has already attracted criticism for the vagueness of its methodology (you can read about QS’s online methodology here) it was based, in part, on a survey of almost 2,000 online MBA students across 80 different programs.

Among these students, 85% had based their choice of business school – or rather, online education provider – on reputation. Furthermore, when the survey range was narrowed to include students attending the highest-ranking online MBA programs, The Princeton Review found that 44% of students reported receiving a promotion during the course of their online MBA. Graduates surveyed also reported an average salary increase of 25%. These statistics are suggestive of the rewards on offer to those attending credible and well-regarded online MBA programs.

Rewards from reputable online MBA programs come at a price

online education on mobileEven so, costs can still be prohibitive – a third of those surveyed by The Princeton Review named price as a factor in their choice of school and provider. Although an online MBA will invariably (but not always) be cheaper than its on-campus counterpart, it’s certainly not a cheap option in the grand scheme of things – the average total cost of programs considered for the QS Distance Online MBA Rankings 2015 was a fairly sizeable US$40,415.

In this light, it’s easy to see why the MOOC format– with its capacity for flexible and free enrollment – attracts so much interest among prospective students of business education. Enrolling in an online MBA is, after all, a full commitment to a degree and the investment that this entails. 

However, can these free courses live up to the experience provided by paid programs – be they online MBA programs or even the shorter-form options available in executive education?

IMD business school doubts MOOCs’ value for executives

IMD business school, for one, just isn’t buying the hype over MOOCs, and their potential disruption to the market for advanced business education.

The Swiss school’s president, Dominique Turpin, recently lamented MOOCs for their ‘limited results’ and, as reported by The Australian, blamed high dropout rates on the lack of interaction seen in programs that tend to enroll large numbers.

And now, the director of IMD business school’s Corporate Learning Network, Paul Hunter reiterates this point in outlining exactly why he believes that the fast-paced and time-starved lifestyles of many an executive won’t sit well with the education proposition put forward by MOOCs. Hunter believes that feedback, on a personal level, is crucial in an online education environment:

“If education providers want to get serious about online learning, they need to get serious about feedback. Whether that feedback comes in writing, through a Skype call or online video chat is immaterial. What counts is that the feedback is personalized, that it comes from someone who genuinely cares about the participant successfully completing her learning objectives, and that the coach is recognized as being able to provide insightful and provocative input,” he says adding: “In many online programs, for reasons of cost or poor design, the feedback participants receive is at best worthless and at worst erroneous.”

IMD business school and executive education expertise The words might seem strong, but they come from a position of strength; IMD business school is well established in the market for shorter-form executive education – a format that often has more in common, in terms of scope and length, with MOOC offerings than a degree program. It has just retained its number one ranking in the world for the fourth year running in a Financial Times assessment of open enrollment programs.

The school’s president, Turpin, has also suggested that many schools started exploring MOOCs more out of fear of being left behind than a genuine understanding of the format’s potential and what it could offer students.

The result, in Hunter’s eyes, is that what these courses can currently offer executives is underwhelming. “In most cases MOOCs will not provide the meaningful learning executives are looking for, and indeed have often already gained in face-to-face programs,” he says.

This takes us back to the central issue of quality and the amount of resources a provider puts into a particular program. It seems clear that IMD business school believes strength in an online program requires a significant investment of time and money. It simply isn’t a quick and economical way to reach a new audience – that is, if you don’t want to trade in on quality - a point that is also made by Copenhagen Business School’s vice dean, Christian Tangkjær, in a recent interview for TopMBA.com.

Experimental times call for experimental measures in online education

Perhaps the challenge here is that the online education landscape is still described by many providers as being in an ‘experimental’ phase. Even among online MBA programs, there is certainly a great deal of variance over delivery modes, program length and course costs – making a prospective student’s decision-making process all the more difficult.

Although research into the performance of MOOCs has flagged up completion rates that rarely stretch to double digits, many question whether completion rates are an accurate measure of a course’s ability to offer something useful to its participants.   

Even so, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that payment of a course fee leads to swift improvement in completion rates. Almost a year on from the launch of the first CORe program on Harvard Business School’s HBX platform, faculty members found that the completion rate was just over 85% for a course that costs US$1,500. 

Similarly, MIT and Harvard research into their collaborative edX platform last month found that payment of just US$50 to US$250 for an ‘ID-verified’ certificate upon completion led to an upsurge from 5% to 59% in participants’ completion rates. 

Notwithstanding the debate about what completion rates can realistically say about a MOOC program’s success, perhaps the most interesting finding in the recent edX research was that a disproportionate number of its MOOC participants were already holders of college or graduate degrees, which may be disappointing news for those who believe that the MOOC’s main role ought to be as a champion of increasing access to education among those with fewer resources and opportunities at their disposal.


However, it was found that 39% of surveyed edX participants self-identified as teachers (past or present) themselves, a finding that challenges the assumptions of who it is that might stand to gain the most from MOOCs. It also underlines the point that experimenting and exploring the possibilities in online education – free or otherwise – continues to be an ongoing process.

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Written by Tim Dhoul

Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).

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