As Richard C. Levin left Yale University’s historic campus in New Haven in Connecticut for a final time as its president, he was optimistic. The veteran of 20 years at the helm of the Ivy-League business school had caused a stir. It was March this year and the university supremo had just put pen to paper on a deal with Coursera, the for-profit educational technology giant.
Richard, the company’s new chief executive, took up his post in April. It was a significant coup for Coursera, and another significant step toward bolstering its academic bona fides.
Coursera has risen to prominence as a provider of massive open online courses – Moocs. And the business of Moocs is booming.
The company has created more than 600 online courses with some of the world’s top business schools – 108 institutions in total.
It has also raised at least $65 million in investment capital, and has approximately seven million users.
“The main thing we will work on is to establish this model so our partner universities feel that offering large-scale Moocs is an important part of their mission that helps faculty expand their reach, and benefits the world,” said Richard at the time.
Its rise and rapid adoption by MBA educators provides a glimpse into a digital future that is gripping business schools across the globe.
The Mooc madness shows no sign of abating. Coursera recently announced a deal with NetEase, a Chinese Internet company, to build a Chinese-language portal for its courses, and it has been working with local universities and organizations in several countries to improve its offerings to non-English-speaking learners.
For MBA and other students they provide a free learning platform, developed by leading professors. They are being billed as a gateway to free high education for the masses.
For the world’s best business schools, Moocs provide a marketing scheme to entice potential degree program students, and a platform to test new learning areas.
Business school sources all said that they see Moocs as valuable marketing resources, although this is not the view that they will want to promote.
Moocs are evolving rapidly. Many schools think they can monetize them. Coursera recently introduced several specializations – a series of related courses costing up to $500 in which students can earn a certificate.
The company believes it will be valued by employers, although this is contentious.
What is certain is that Moocs are fast becoming an essential component of business schools’ offering. MBA providers are in the grip of a Mooc frenzy.
Big-name brands including Harvard, Stanford and Wharton have rolled out Mooc courses. It is thought that Wharton offers 10% of its two-year MBA course online – for free.
Yet problems are arising. Although thousands sign-up, completion rates are desperately low – about 10%.
Commentators still rue the level of connectivity. Some argue that Moocs are not as advanced as the elite technology platforms adopted by online MBA programs.
Because Moocs are mostly free, it is unlikely that they can match the platforms created by Microsoft and other software giants for some schools.
Régis Faubet, a digital manager at Grenoble Ecole de Management, the French business school, says: “They are still far from representing a real alternative to traditional postgraduate programs. Moocs are an additional type of learning, rather than one that supplants existing educational frameworks.”
On launch day Jean-François Fiorina, deputy director of the school, enthused about the innovation.
“This new Mooc reinforces the positioning of the school with respect to new educational methods and geopolitics,” said Jean-François. “This is the first course in geopolitics designed specifically for a Mooc in France.”
Students spend four hours per week learning. The course is still in progress but Grenoble expects a competition rate of about 10%.
Régis says they moved toward Moocs to reach a more senior, professional audience. He adds: “We believe that the future of education lies in projects that mix pedagogical expertise, service and technology.”
For the Darden School of Business professors who developed the school’s five Mooc courses, they are barraged by emails, comments and are even approached when travelling by those interested in signing-up.
“Clearly, it’s an excellent outcome for us from global branding piece,” says Michael Koenig, a senior assistant Darden dean.
Their first five-week Coursera course hit 71,000 registrants on its launch-date in January last year. Since then, the school has rolled out Moocs on business strategy and growing a business, among others.
In total, more than 600,000 users have signed up, says associate professor Peter Rodriguez, but only 28,000 have received their statement of accomplishments. “Dropouts are high,” he deadpans.
One marketing advantage is Darden’s executive education programs. “We can do pilots of our fully online paid courses,” says Michael.
Others are more bullish. Régis reckons that by offering Mooc subjects which are close to an audience’s interests, they can raise awareness of those topics - and reinforce Grenoble's expertise in those areas.
“On these aspects, Moocs are close to the perfect content marketing tools for higher education,” he says.
Dr Martin Bicknell, who is pioneering Moocs at Henley Business School, says: “We wanted to learn but primarily we saw it very much about promotion – getting the name out there to as many people as possible.”
Henley has had 19,000 people sign up for their first Mooc, developed with FutureLearn, a rival to Coursera.
Dr Marin says that they saw Moocs as a possible feeder to their paid degree programs. “That’s already happening – we’re already seeing students applying, saying they actually tried out the Mooc and are interested to take it further,” he adds.
Many believe Moocs can be monetized. Paid-for short courses may be a future addition for business schools.
Régis says: “Proctored, paying exams are one of the most obvious choices to monetize open, massive learning. Sponsorship from companies could also be an option. When online learning resources have become a commodity, business schools will have to invent premium services for distance learners.”
Peter says that online courses can be monetized. He adds: “I think that we'll find a way forward in doing that, and I think we're beginning to do that now.”
Dr Marin revealed that Henley is in early stage talks with a leading technology company about selling them paid-for Mooc courses. “To what extent [can] we leverage value-add, and get some payment? There’s a huge amount of money involved,” he adds.
There has been a debate raging in the technology education sector about the accreditation of Moocs. Many remain unconvinced that they will hold any value with employers.
But the appointment of Richard at Coursera is likely to reignite the dispute. “Should the accreditation roadblock be eliminated for Moocs, they may go from free to several hundred dollars per course,” says Régis.
Watch this space.