Behold: A Virtual Course Without Online Ed's Huge Dropout Rate

Consider the dilemma facing those who want to continue their business education. You can either drop out of the workforce for a couple of years and get an MBA, or you can travel to a business school for a week or so at a time and pay a premium for an executive education program. For companies, this saps expertise and skills. On a personal level, few families can afford to give up the income, and getting an MBA may require moving closer to school, leaving family behind.

For some, the solution has been to go the online ed route. While conventional programs such as Udacity and Coursera have made education more accessible, their approach is isolating, devoid of the valuable collaboration and networking with fellow students that are the hallmark of the MBA experience. No wonder the dropout rate is so high for massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

There’s hope, though: I teach Technology Entrepreneurship online from Stanford University (offered through NovoEd), and 45 percent to 65 percent of my students finish the course. That’s a resounding success. compared to an anemic 5 percent, according to a study conducted by MIT and Harvard of their 2012-13 online offerings. In my experience teaching 150,000 students online, the subject matter—combined with a collaborative experience—keeps them engaged and more likely to complete the program. 

An online business education should not mean a vow of solitude. A new generation of online programs such as NovoEd—and soon, HarvardX, that university’s online learning venture, set to makes its debut on March 31—offer an alternative to the monk-like experience of the virtual classroom. Students form teams, find mentors and get feedback on team projects while establishing global relationships that will last years. This approach mixes work, life. and education and helps companies, from small startups like 3Pillar to such corporations as Unilever, affordably educate employees around the globe.

Other educators often ask me how much time (read: work) is required to teach entrepreneurship to tens of thousands of students worldwide. What is hard to explain to them until they’ve experienced it is how the teams, mentors, and peer learning make such a “massive” class feel smaller and like a more intimate learning environment. This  requires relatively little from the instructor because the students help one another tackle each assignment. Now, in the fifth time the course has run, it takes only a couple of hours of my weekly time to prepare.

Let’s not get hung up on completion rates or grades. Sure, those metrics are important, but this approach to virtual ed has something else going for it: It helps students develop the same soft skills gained in a conventional classroom, interpersonal and electronic-communication tact, cross-cultural relations, leadership, teamwork, and the ability to give and receive peer feedback. You won’t find those skills as parts of conventional online education programs.

As the contemporary workplace shifts toward remote work, distributed teams, and co-workers who are not co-located, this ability to interact with peers across cultures, time zones, and geographies is becoming crucial in today’s workforce—arguably more valuable than knowing how financial markets work. Yet no one trains for it. This a skill gained by doing—often through learning from mistakes. Executives educated in this new collaborative online environment will most certainly have an advantage, not only in subject matter expertise but also in the team skills that are becoming critically important in the global business landscape.

The upshot: Learning to thrive in an online ed class isn’t just a way to survive the course. It’s a valuable business skill all its own.

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