Academics Are Down on MOOCs. Business Schools Aren't

Academic leaders are increasingly skeptical of MOOCs, so why are top business schools increasingly warming to the online learning model? An annual report on online education published this week may hold a clue.

Babson Survey Research Group polled more than 2,800 colleges and universities for an annual study (pdf) on online education and found that 39 percent disagreed with the statement that massively open online courses “are a sustainable method for offering courses.” That’s up from 26 percent who answered the same way in last year’s survey.

Meanwhile, Harvard Business School is experimenting with MOOCs, and Wharton made its entire first-year MBA course load available for free on Coursera. Five other schools in Bloomberg Businessweek’s top 10 full-time programs have taken the plunge, including the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Enough MBA programs have made classes available through MOOCs that the website Poets & Quants published a course guide for the MOOC MBA. It’s an appealing concept: The website followed up with a prospective MBA who plans to piece together a business school education from Harvard, Wharton, Yale, and other top schools for less than $1,000. Contrast that with elite business schools, where tuition can run well more than $100,000.

Here’s what I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, the authors of the Babson report, write about MOOC doubters: “The chief academic officers at institutions with the greatest experience and exposure to traditional online instruction are the least likely to believe in the long-term future of MOOCs.”

That might explain why business schools are rolling out MOOCs even as confidence in the model wanes. Most top MBA programs shunned online learning in the 1990s, when schools didn’t want to risk their reputations on a model associated with such schools as DeVry University, and a list of top online MBAs published this month by U.S. News & World Report shows little overlap with highly ranked traditional programs. Interviews with leaders at two business schools that were early adopters of online degree programs revealed doubts that MOOCs will gain much traction as replacements for MBAs.

“MOOCs are basically the 21st century equivalent of reading a bunch books and saying you got a degree,” says Phil Powell, faculty chairman at Kelley Direct, the online MBA program at Indiana University. They can convey knowledge, but are unlikely to teach communication skills, teamwork, and other qualities beneficial to executives, he says: “A MOOC is a transaction, not a relationship.”

MOOCs can push MBA programs to improve their offerings. Powell says Kelley Direct is retooling its career services department the better to help online MBAs, who have different needs than full-time students. Amy Hillman, dean at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, says that the rise of MOOCs has caused her school’s online MBA program, ranked No. 2 by U.S. News, to think about how it can use technology better to deliver online content.

“Unless there becomes some widespread acceptance from employers that the collection of expertise from MOOCs is equivalent to a business degree, I don’t see them as competitive,” she says.