MOOCs and the MBA Degree: Advantageous Rather Than Threatening?

Free courses, or MOOCs, needn’t bring about the eventual demise of traditional business education offerings

When MOOCs — massive open online courses — first hit our headlines, they were billed as the beginning of the demise of traditional university degrees. Gone are the days when you would need to physically attend a classroom and pay tens of thousands of dollars for an MBA degree, some had claimed.

However, today’s MOOCs are an addition to, rather than a disruptor of, business education. A growing number of business schools are accepting MOOCs as credit for an MBA degree — and some are letting MBA students who have completed MOOCs skip foundational classes.

The UK’s Open University (OU), which specializes in distance learning, lets participants of certain MOOCs earn academic course credits towards its MBA degree. Learners first take part in courses for free, before being given the option to pay for a certificate of achievement and final assessment. Those who then decide to progress further to a full course may have the opportunity to bypass some of their first year.

Widening access to education at the Open University

“At first, everyone thought that MOOCs would change higher education — they thought that it was the end of face-to-face teaching. But, at the OU, we are using them to widen access to education. You can put your credits towards a formal degree program, such as the MBA,” says Rebecca Taylor, executive dean of the Open University Business School, which places 11th in this year’s QS Distance Online MBA Rankings for the strength of its online MBA.

Many MOOC enthusiasts still believe the short and free online courses will revolutionize business education but their impact, thus far, has been limited due to low completion rates.

Using MOOCs to trial an MBA degree or related master’s program

However, one way in which business schools are using MOOCs is to enable students to trial their MBA programs before forking out the cash to enroll in them. For example, the Wharton School has placed many of its first-year MBA degree courses online and students can access them for free.

“Business schools will begin to use MOOCs much more strategically — to raise their voices and spread awareness of their courses,” predicts Taylor at the Open University.

Anant Agarwal, CEO of MOOC platform edX, says that business education is being, “unbundled,” by the smorgasbord of shorter courses now available online. “Universities will not go away, but digital learning offers a flexible path that lets people learn new skills online before deciding whether to enroll in a master’s program,” he says.

edX recently launched MicroMasters — an idea pioneered by MIT for online master’s-level education in fields like entrepreneurship and artificial intelligence which can count towards credit and lead to an on-campus master’s programs.

For existing MBA students, there is also value to be found in MOOCs. MBAs can use them to explore new topics, refresh their knowledge and prepare for job interviews, according to Anne Trumbore, senior director of Wharton Online. She says that approximately one in four students enrolled in higher education programs in the US take some of their coursework online to earn credit towards their degree.

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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