Stanford Bets Big on Virtual Education

The Knight Management Center building on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif. Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business took its relationship with online education to the next level on Wednesday, when it announced that a new program for company executives will be delivered entirely by way of the Internet.

“I don’t know of anything else like this,” says Audrey Witters, managing director of online executive education at Stanford GSB. “We’ve put together something for a very targeted audience, people who are trying to be corporate innovators, with courses where they all work together. That’s a lot different from taking a MOOC [massive open online course].”

Stanford said it will admit up to 100 people to the LEAD Certificate program, which will begin in May 2015 and deliver the “intimate and academically rigorous on-campus Stanford experience” to students from the comfort of their computer screens. In an effort to make students “really feel connected to each other, to Stanford, and to the faculty,” the eight-course program will encourage students to interact through message boards, online chats, Google Hangouts, and phone calls over the course of its yearlong duration, Witters says.

“We really want to create the high-engagement, community aspect that everyone who comes to Stanford’s campus feels,” she says.

The classes will be offered on a platform supplied by Novoed, a virtual education company started by former Stanford professor Amin Saberi and Stanford Ph.D. student Farnaz Ronaghi. The B-school has invested a significant chunk of its resources in launching the program: About 10 to 15 faculty members are slated to teach the courses. In addition to building a studio where it will film course videos, the school has hired a growing pool of educational technology experts and motion graphic designers to work on the courses, according to Witters.

“This is by far the most serious and most significant initiative by GSB in the online realm,” Saberi says.

People go to business school for more than just lectures, Saberi says, and online programs should be as good at teaching the numbers of business as the art of it. “What we are planning to do is to create a very similar environment online where they can acquire softer skills and build a network of peers.”

The program’s $16,000 price tag dwarfs the online offerings of Stanford’s competitors, including Harvard Business School’s $1,500 nine-week online program and the Wharton School’s entirely free first-year MBA classes, which it put on the virtual platform Coursera last fall.

The program may seem less pricey, though, to the company executives it’s intended for. Business schools have traditionally sold certificates to working professionals for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Stanford’s own six-week, on-campus program costs executives $62,500.

To Novoed, which also provides technology to Wharton, the Haas School of Business, and the Darden School of Business, the Internet is an obvious place for business schools to expand their lucrative executive education programs.

Saberi says companies are interested in elite training programs that don’t require employees to leave their desks. “We expect that programs like this are going to grow.”