As they scramble to understand emerging digital threats, big-brand schools Wharton, INSEAD, MIT Sloan and Harvard Business School are all investing in online education. International companies, including Accenture and Google, have also joined the fray.
To advocates of learning technology, the future of education is in digital delivery. “Given the increasing importance of online for management education, being a leader is important,” says Peter Zemsky, dean of innovation and strategic initiatives at INSEAD, “especially as business schools are teaching how to adapt to changing technologies and business models.”
Business schools like Stanford GSB are pouring money into developing in-house solutions, but many are willing to join the digital disruptors and develop content alongside tech groups like Coursera, 2U and NovoEd.
Wharton has been one of the most aggressive. It launched what many regard as the first Mooc – massive open online course – and over the past month has teamed up with Coursera and tech start-ups Snapdeal and Shazam to launch $595 online courses with certificates.
The trio are pioneering new learning solutions called Specializations that let users complete projects with companies in a way that is similar to traditional university internships.
“We have the opportunity with Moocs to offer a sample of our world class education at scale around the world,” says Geoffrey Garrett, dean of Wharton.
Tech providers like edX, Udacity and FutureLearn have been biting at the fringes of the business education market. While many professors see them as competition, they also recognize the need to evolve.
“[Faculty] have a chance to learn and innovate in terms of best pedagogical practices on the fly, in real time [and] at a scale, which has never been possible before,” says Geoffrey.
Martin Bean, founder of FutureLearn and former vice chancellor of the Open University, said recently that the traditional education sector risks becoming irrelevant if it does not keep up with innovation. “Many are worried that what makes their institution unique will be diminished or eroded by the pace of change,” he says.
Moocs have been the noisiest challengers. Coursera, for instance, has amassed more than 11 million users – three times as many as its closest rival edX.
“The Specialization model works well for adults who have limited resources – whether that's time or money – allowing them to quickly gain the skills they need,” says Rick Levin, chief executive of Coursera.
The company has sought to play down its growing influence on education. “Full-time degree programs offer much more in the way of personal attention, networking and in-depth study, which are difficult to replicate online,” says Rick.
But business schools increasingly see their futures in a digital world. Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD, is like many of his counterparts warming to innovation in learning technology.
“I am often asked where INSEAD’s next campus will be located,” he says. “I am increasingly convinced that our next campus is digital.”
However, strategic initiatives lead Peter thinks that a hybrid model will be the future of business education.
He points to the music and entertainment sector, which has been experiencing profound digital disruption over the past decade, he says. “Even there, concerts and live shows remain a very important economic activity.”