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EdTech: Mooc Platforms Force B-Schools To Embrace Blended Online/Campus Learning

Decades’ old institutions try to stay relevant in hyper-connected world

Wed Jan 20 2016

In biz ed, the New Year brings fresh obstacles for the decades’ old institutions trying to stay relevant in a hyper-connected educational landscape.

Further disruption beckons for even the world’s top business schools, who face a cocktail of threats from online challengers like, whose whizzy tech platforms are snatching students away from traditional degree programs.

The rise of online learning has b-school bosses vexed and excited in equal measure.

Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the Michigan Ross School of Business, says the leading US institution has to “be responsive to where the market is going”. “We will continue to see every single player using technology,” she says.

Yuan Ding, dean of China Europe International Business School, says: “There will be gradual changes and challenges over the next five-10 years.” These include “increasing online modules” and even consulting firms offering their own business management training.

A growing number of business school students are, because of the cost and time commitment, shunning the traditional two-year MBA — the flagship b-school degree — and other campus-based courses. Instead, they are flocking to online and blended digital/campus equivalents.

“Without question, blended learning is an essential adaptation for business schools,” Susan Cates, executive director of the online MBA at Kenan–Flagler Business School, says.

The growth of applications to online MBAs has outstripped some traditional formats of the degree, according a recent survey by the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

Ratul Banerjee, who took HBX CORe, Harvard Business School’s much-hyped online learning initiative, says: “It's one of the best platforms I’ve ever seen. It lets you connect with peers in your cohort through the online system, making the learning collaborative.”

Capitalizing on the disruption are the purveyors of Moocs, or massive open online courses, which have evolved into full-fat degree providers. “We’ve made significant progress in just the past year,” says Julia Stiglitz, director of business development at Coursera.

The online learning company’s Specializations — certificated courses — have helped the site expand to 17 million users. Among the most popular are in data science, digital marketing and entrepreneurship.

These disruptive start-ups have contributed to a mass shift in the education scene.

Tech is uprooting the traditional lecture-based model. “Business education is transitioning to a hybrid business model where ‘all-you-can-learn’ digital offerings will coexist with highly-customized, sophisticated, residential course deliveries,” says Ivan Bofarull, director of the Global Intelligence Office at ESADE Business School.

Tuition based universities are now giving away their content online — and for free. Stanford’s free courses on machine learning have enrolled more than 100,000 students. The trend mirrors the “freemium model” used successfully by businesses such as LinkedIn and Dropbox. Schools, particularly ones with brand recognition like Yale, believe it will allow them to capture larger, global audiences.

But this model has opened the floodgates to dozens of online learning companies that offer free content, but also paid-for programs that are careers-focused.

Udacity has been among the most successful in this realm. It’s “Nanodegree” programs are backed by Google, Facebook, and Amazon. “For us, helping people learn so they can advance their careers is the cornerstone of online education,” says Vish Makhijani, Udacity’s chief operating officer.

But can moneyed Silicon Valley start-ups really compete with Harvard, Stanford, or MIT?

Competition is rife for business schools but many insiders say their superior brands cannot be matched by digital upstarts. “People who have thought more about this than I have had said, yes, there is some threat to the traditional university model,” admits Anne Trumbore, director of Wharton’s online learning platform.

But she adds: “I don’t think anything is ever going to replace sitting in the classroom with an instructor physically present.”

Some believe that there is no substitute for classroom based learning. Yet most agree that a hybrid model, blending bricks and clicks, is now key to attracting busy young managers.

“Blended learning enhances the student experience,” says Phil Powell, chair of the online MBA at Indiana’s Kelley School of Business.

“An online program provides that flexibility for employees,” he adds, allowing them to balance work, family and other commitments.

For biz ed, 2016 — and beyond — could be a year of continued disruptive innovation. “We will see a lot of innovation in delivery models and program features over the next five to 10 years,” says William Lamb, dean of Babson College. But will schools move fast enough to avoid irrelevance?

Watch this space.