Yet as they evolve and capture the attention of millions of learners, Udacity, Coursera, edX and Lydna.com are betting that companies will hold them in the same esteem as campus courses. Some say we’re already there.
“Employers were wary of ‘diploma mills’,” says Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX, Harvard Business School’s online learning initiative. But with the trailblazing of early adopters such as Stanford and Wharton, employers are recognizing that online courses can compete with traditional degrees.
“The stigma that used to be attached to the quality of such a degree is fading,” Patrick says.
Elite business schools are assessing the tech start-ups pioneering digital and asking, what is the future of online education?
“Every business school is trying to figure that out,” says Fernando Contreras, associate director for extended learning at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, which is exploring innovations such as green screen TV studios and virtual reality. “[But] there is no magic bullet,” Fernando says.
Schools are pouring resources into Mooc platforms and many are giving away their content. Wharton was an early adopter. Three years ago it stuck first-year MBA courses in accounting, finance and marketing online, much of it for free.
Julia Stiglitz, head of business development at Coursera, estimates that about half of the site’s nearly 18 million learners are using Moocs to advance their careers. “Industries are moving quickly and people are looking for effective ways to say current, get promoted, or switch careers. Online courses can play a big role,” she says.
A Career Advisory Board survey of 500 US hiring managers found 87% were likely to consider non-traditional micro-credentials as valuable. And 57% of organizations polled by Duke University plan to use Moocs for recruitment in future.
Now, Mooc developers are partnering companies to plug specific skills gaps, such as in computer science and data analytics. Snapdeal, Shazam and Instagram work with Coursera. Edx works with Microsoft.
The advent of so-called “nano-degrees” has fuelled the fire. Udacity, which partnered Google, Facebook, Amazon, GitHub and AT&T, offers students employer projects and certificate credentials. “Helping people learn so they can advance their careers is the cornerstone of online education,” says Vish Makhijani, COO of Udacity.
Most Mooc takers already have a degree. Online courses can help them stand out in a crowd, according to an Open University survey of 1,000 UK employers. “It is no longer sufficient to have a business degree on your CV and then leave your learning at that,” says Mike Feerick, CEO of ALISON, which has six million online learners.
Mike believes companies value graduates committed to life-long learning: “Employees need to be constantly updating their skills and keeping ahead of the curve,” he says.
Not many business schools think online courses can match the rigour or networking opportunities of their established campus programs like MBAs.
Michael Koenig, senior assistant dean for degree programs at the Darden School of Business, is like many of his counterparts caught between enthusiasm and scepticism. “Cost is a barrier,” he says. “[But] increasingly, students want to access content anywhere, anytime, from any device,” he says.
The trend for business schools to explore Moocs began as a recruitment tool — a report from Universities UK says Moocs help raise institutions’ profiles. MIT and IESE business schools, for example, are among the top educators teaming up with digital course providers.
But now they are discovering more advanced tools to boost their students’ employability, such as virtual networking software and online careers fairs.
“We’re looking for other ways to stay ahead,” says Roger Delves, dean of qualifications at Ashridge Business School. “[But] every time there is a new piece of tech we have to say, how will it help the learning experience? Not just is it clever or attractive.”