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A New Model for Professional Business Education?

HBS alumnus on executive education, MOOCs and SPOCs

MOOCs, flipped classrooms, virtual teams, course loads of textbooks loaded onto an iPad the size of a slim volume of poetry…that technology is increasingly shaping the world of business education hardly needs to be said at this stage. This does not mean, however, that we can downplay the significance and impact of what technology is making possible. The effect in the traditional classroom alone is phenomenal, but it is possible that the greatest legacy of this age of scintillating technological progress will be in terms of access to education.


Though, as perhaps was to be expected, completion rates are not as high as they might be, the uptake to MOOCs has been staggering. Plus, QS research has found that employers are increasingly ascribing credence to them. As part of the annual global survey of employers that forms the basis for much of our research output, we asked employers if they felt MOOCs were a valid form of professional development, if they encouraged their staff to pursue them, and – most importantly – if they viewed them as a positive when screening résumés – all of which the respondent pool agreed with. The most positive response (they answer on a scale), however, came in response to whether they believed that MOOCs would be important to their organizations in three years’ time.

It appears clear, then, that employers value forms of education that sit outside the traditional degree program system. However, the self-directed, solitary and bite-size format of the MOOC is not for everyone. Although, the same can be said for the MBA, which due to its elite nature, high cost and duration, simply cannot be an option for the vast majority of the world’s managers.

Neither MBA nor MOOCs: A third way

The challenge of access to high-quality business education was the one that Harvard Business School (HBS) alumnus, Ashwin Damera, set out to address. After graduating from HBS, Damera and an INSEAD alumnus started an executive education company which sought to bring Western-style professional education to India and the wider Asia-Pacific region as well as the Middle East.

“A lot of the programming we did was face-to-face; it was difficult to scale that. Every time we spoke to professionals in these markets, they wanted accessibility. It’s not always possible to fly to London or New York. Companies would also say, ‘We like what you’re doing, but instead of training four or five people in my company, how do I train 500?’ They wanted content and curriculum geared towards that.”

For Damera, it was clear that the answer to the problem of scalability lay online. And thus, the seeds for the Emeritus Institute of Management were sown. To be able to offer world-class, “Ivy League-standard”, in Damera’s words, business education at a brand new, low-cost institution, however, is something of a tall order. What Damera needed was some established expertise from some big names in the world of business education.

His vision, it seems though, is one in which some very big names are more than happy to share. Emeritus was duly founded in collaboration with MIT Sloan, Columbia Business School and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. But, how exactly did he convince these institutions to get involved in a project that could potentially serve to dilute their brands, and in time, even act as a competitor?

This, counters Damera, is not the way these founding institutions of Emeritus, as he terms them, look at things. “MIT Sloan has a class of about 500; Columbia is a little bigger, Tuck smaller. If you take the top 15-20 (MBA-level) programs in combination, they have 15-20,000 students in total. All these courses want to develop leaders who have impact. They realize, in the age we live in, that we might need to take the school to the leaders. These schools are not really interested in MOOCs; if you want to create leaders with impact, reading and watching videos will not be enough. You don’t become a better negotiator from watching videos, you need action learning. This is core to our approach. We use technology, but that’s only one third. Two thirds of it is learning by doing and peer-to-peer learning. The fact that we have feet on the ground in India, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East – around 75% of our uptake will be from outside of the US – is very appealing to them too. It’s a combination of these factors,” he concludes, “that attracts these institutions.”

What will MIT Sloan, Columbia and Tuck bring to the table?

Emeritus Institute of Management will offer short certificate courses in single disciplines and year-long diploma programs. The former are priced below the US$1,000 mark, fully online diplomas at US$4,000, and blended programs at US$12,500. So, they’re certainly priced economically, but what, then, do students get for their money?

Damera reiterates the difference between what they offer and MOOCs: “We offer SPOCs – small private online courses. There will be 150 students in each cohort, all starting at the same time so they can learn from each other. Students are put into small learning groups of six people. Business is about working in teams, and learning by doing, so we use Skype, Google Hangouts, and we’re also developing proprietary technology to measure how students collaborate virtually, work as a virtual team and give feedback. Students won’t be taking 101 courses in business fundamentals; they will be working on real-life project work together. This is what defines the approach at Emeritus.”

Crucially, students will also enjoy the benefits of working with world-class faculty from the founding institutions. Damera lists Steven Eppinger of MIT Sloan on design thinking, the senior vice dean of Columbia Business School, Katherine Phillips, on leadership and Tuck’s Vijay Govindarajan, shortlisted for 2015’s Thinkers50 Innovation Award, as examples of the intellectual capital provided by the three schools.

Having world-class faculty is one thing though; but how involved will they be? Will Emeritus students actually have any sort of substantial access to them? “When you have faculty of this caliber, their time is precious, but obviously contact is important. We facilitate multiple kinds of interaction with faculty. The main way is through an app we’ve built, a kind of WhatsApp for education. People can ask questions and faculty can respond although, obviously, it’s not in real time. It also gives the students something to reflect on themselves. We do plan to have faculty hours as well. And there will be teaching fellows – who will reach out one-on-one to help students catch up and do the grading.”

So, that’s the faculty, but with the focus on peer-to-peer learning, there also has to be an element of selectivity – though naturally, while retaining the emphasis on access. It will not quite be as intense as you’d find at the partner institutions, it is more, says Damera, about finding articulate leaders who can contribute to discussion, rather than high-GMAT scores or IQ.

Emeritus vs. the MBA

Damera has few qualms about identifying Emeritus as being at the forefront of a new wave of digital education; a model for the future, in which big name institutions are keen to invest. If high-quality education can be offered at a low cost, utilizing technology to maximize access in the process, is he therefore taking a tilt at the MBA?

No, is the short answer. “The MBA is always worth it for those who can do it and can afford it. Our aim is not to disrupt that, but to increase access to education for professional managers across the world. The disruption is to make quality education available to working professionals, so they can learn and earn. In the tech and e-commerce space, companies change completely every six months to a year. If you’re a manager, what then is the opportunity cost of going away for two years, when you can share in the growth of the company and become a better manager? So it’s disruption in a larger space. The MBA will retain its status; for those who can do it, it’s a phenomenal experience.”  

Emeritus will cater both for individuals looking to upskill and for companies who are looking to train large cohorts of their managers. He cites GE as the leader of in-house training, with 30,000 managers being trained every year at its Crotonville institute – but what if you wanted to train even more than that? That’s where Emeritus would step in, he says, particularly for short programs, while the diploma programs might be better suited to individuals. While it’s still early days, he says the likes of Microsoft and Infosys have already expressed an interest.

Training leaders for the future

The online school then, if all goes to plan, will offer a distinctly modern solution to the challenges of large-scale management education, with a curriculum that is also geared towards the 21st century. “We’re trying to train leaders to be successful over next few years, developing courses like digital marketing, digital business, data analytics, virtual collaboration and by building on the tried and tested areas.”

Potentially then, this midway point between large-scale, low-cost education and elite MBA programs could make an impact on the market, and – why not – even set a new trend. To conclude, though, Damera tries to draw our attention back to his higher mission.

“The larger purpose is to have an impact on wider society through business. Instead of training 15,000 people, we can train 150,000. Think about what these students can do through leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship. That really is what excites us and our partner institutions.”


While excitement around this nobler mission will undoubtedly join up with the excitement of annexing a large, untapped and lucrative market, the prospect of increasing access to education is always one to be welcomed. It will certainly be of interest to see if and how Emeritus, if it is a success, might change the business education landscape over the next few years.

Written by Mansoor Iqbal

Mansoor is TopMBA.com's former editor and lead research report writer. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.

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