Can Moocs Compete With Traditional MBA Programs?

Massive open online courses have disrupted business education. But will they yield the professional rewards that an MBA degree can?

Companies want employees with the best credentials, which is why professionals in all fields use continuing education to improve their expertise – and their salaries. For senior managers, an MBA has traditionally been a credential that gives them an edge in the jobs market.

However, getting an MBA can take time and money, and fewer companies are willing to help fund employees’ education; too often managers get an advanced degree only to leave for a better job elsewhere. 

Enter the Mooc. Massive open online courses are a relatively new phenomenon, providing distance learning to people interested in specific subjects.

Some institutions believe that Moocs are going to change the way we think about business education. This is because they are generally free and open to anyone who is interested in a subject, without pre-qualification. There are currently more than 1,200 Moocs available with an estimated 10 million registered participants.

While Moocs are available in diverse subjects, from advanced calculus to opera, they don’t help students earn college credits, at least not yet.

Courses are starting to be recognized by educational institutions. The American Council on Education has already approved five Moocs for university credit, although it’s still up to each institution to decide whether or not to accept them.

Moocs are being offered by major universities and business schools, and do give students an opportunity to learn from some of the finest educational institutions in the world. Harvard Business School, the Wharton School, and HEC Paris are among the latest institutions to offer Moocs in business, law, and corporate finance.

The advocates for free online learning say that Moocs provide an opportunity to those who can’t afford college to get a better education. However, a 2013 study indicates that 83% of Mooc users already have a college degree, and the vast majority of the courses are being used by middle class families to supplement their children’s education.

Moocs began with an overwhelming concentration in computer science and engineering, to teach the latest programing and computer design techniques. Today the subject of humanities dominates the sector, taking 20% of market share, followed by computer science with 16%, and business and management with 15%. They are run by online learning providers such as Coursera, Canvas Networks and Udacity.

The Value of an MBA

Where Moocs are open education courses available to anyone on virtually any subject, working toward an MBA is a different matter. To pursue an MBA you first have to be accepted by an accredited institution. Pre-qualifications include an undergraduate degree and additional credentials that show you have the educational foundation needed to prosper at a higher level of study.

And unlike individual Moocs, MBAs are a part of a structured program. The objective of the program is to pursue a course of study that ultimately gives you mastery over a specific subject area, although for MBAs this is general business and management. But by narrowing your field of study to marketing, accounting, technology or management via MBA tracks, you are demonstrating a commitment to the subject matter and a willingness to gain practical knowledge that can be applied in business.

Where Moocs are largely free – although many providers are starting to monetize their courses – the cost of tuition for an MBA can be upwards of $100,000. And where a Mooc can be completed in a few weeks, most MBA programs take two years to complete, although the European concept of one-year programs is starting to gain traction in the US.

However, the MBA delivers tangible returns that don’t come from taking ad hoc Moocs. An MBA demonstrates mastery of a field of business, and companies generally reward specialized expertise. Some studies show that a specialized MBA degree generates a higher salary than a general MBA.

In fact, an MBA even holds its value in an economic recession. According to a survey by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, 95% of students who received an MBA during the recession said the value of the degree was outstanding, compared to 94% graduating with an MBA in better economic times.

So where MOOCs are gaining acceptance for casual learning, or to acquire specific skills such accounting procedure, the MBA remains the best means to acquire a specialized degree that will yield professional rewards.

Moocs have their place for supplemental learning, but the MBA remains a mainstay for those seeking professional credentials for career advancement. 



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