Payoff For MOOCs? Visibility & Inspiration

In the context of the Deans Conference, the Future of Leadership relates to the roles business school deans should prepare for, as management education continues to face change.

The role that massive open online courses (MOOCs) have in higher education has been a hot topic since they first captured the attention of the higher education market in 2012. The debate over whether MOOCs are an effective way for students to learn—and, even more important to business schools, whether they present a viable business model for higher education—has often been a contentious one.

But the attitude among deans attending "Online Education: Lessons Learned to Date," a session held on Tuesday morning at AACSB’s Deans Conference in San Diego, was defined more by curiosity than skepticism. Presenters Fiona Devine, head of Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, and Mark Zupan, professor at the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate Business School in New York, both shared their experiences in their schools' first experiments with developing MOOCs for the Coursera platform. Their conclusion? While MOOCs require substantial investments of faculty time and university money—up to US$50,000 for certain courses—their rewards outweigh their costs.

While some in the audience were interested in the immediate financial payoffs of MOOCs, Zupan was quick to emphasize that real benefits come from increased visibility and outreach to potential students and recruiters. "Ninety percent of the people who enrolled in our MOOC had never heard of Rochester before," he said. His MOOC created significant visibility for the school: "The Power of Markets" reached more than 22,800 people from nearly 150 countries. And while its 4 percent completion rate might seem low, that still equates to 931 students completing the course.

To further engage students, the Simon School also offered the top 100 performers a small stipend to travel to the campus to take an exam. The school further let participants know that the person with the best performance on the exam would be offered a full scholarship to its MBA program. The Simon School already has seen two students enroll as a direct result of their taking the MOOC, and two more are expected. In addition, an investment banker who took the course has asked how he can help the school. For the Simon School, says Zupan, that "passes the cost-benefit test."

Both Devine and Zupan noted that in the process of developing and delivering their MOOCs, they were able to explore aspects of pedagogy that inevitably inspire new methods of teaching among their faculty and improve their on-campus programs. MOOCs "really helped us see the magic that actually happens on campus," Zupan said. That's a significant benefit. Devine agrees: Manchester Business School now is planning a second MOOC on "Principles of Responsible Management," which will focus on sustainability and ethics.

Devine also noted the great potential that MOOCs represent for research into the nature of student learning. "Perhaps we should be telling our institutions that there are PhD dissertations to be done on the nature and quality of interactions" in MOOC environments, she said. Such research, she added, could help educators better "understand the dimensions of learning" at work in all learning environments.

On the question of whether MOOCs will become complements to or substitutes for traditional education, both Zupan and Devine were clear that they viewed this method of delivery as a supplement to existing models—whether used as a tool for recruiting and outreach or to support a flipped classroom model. Both presenters emphasized, however, that MOOCs really are in their experimental stages.

It's still a 'Wild West' market out there," Zupan said. "We still have a lot of learning to do from each other."