“SHOULD I GET AN MBA?”
For years, this question hung around on the sidelines of my life, taking center stage whenever I faced a transition. It whispered to me as I finished my master’s degree in geography, lingered through my two years of service as a Peace Corps volunteer, and practically shook me by the shoulders as I prepared to move across the world and look for work in the field of international development. Given my industry’s increasing focus on partnership with the private sector, I knew an MBA could provide me with valuable skills, and many job listings specified that candidates should have the degree. But at 32 years old, with a short but growing work history and one master’s degree already under my belt, I wasn’t prepared to drop everything to pursue graduate business studies, nor was I keen to go into debt to do it.
Fortunately, my deliberations over business education coincided with the growing availability of massive open online courses (MOOCs). When I learned that some of the business schools on my short list were making their courses available online for no cost, I saw another way to get the education I desired, without dropping out of the workforce or burdening my fledgling career with student debt. Thus began my quest to fashion my own “MBA” out of MOOCs, books, digital internships, TED Talks, and anything else I could get my hands, eyes, and ears on. I didn’t plan to earn a degree, but I believed I would be able to achieve career advancement on the basis of my new knowledge and skills, even without those three extra letters on my résumé.
Since MOOCs already had achieved considerable popularity by the time I heard about them, I was surprised to find that no one had yet chronicled an attempt to cobble these free courses together into an MBA-style business education. Jonathan Haber’s cleverly named blog, DegreeofFreedom.org, covered his pursuit of an undergraduate degree through MOOCs; other blog sites followed along with MBA graduates as they pinched pennies to pay off their business school loans. But no one was writing about staying out of debt in the first place by using MOOCs to get a free top-tier business education. I decided to become that blogger. I purchased the domain name NoPayMBA.com and resolved to record my experience, both to provide evidence of my own learning and to help others with a similar aim. I launched the site in November 2013.
My MOOC MBA has surpassed all my expectations. I’ve studied accounting and operations with Wharton, finance with NYU Stern, design thinking and strategy with Darden, supply chain management with MIT Sloan, and the list goes on. Nor have I limited myself to academic courses; one of my best learning experiences was a branding course taught by an independent graphic design artist. I’ve balanced T-accounts, conducted net present value analyses, and assessed product-market fit. In July 2015, I used the website to launch a business, which seemed like a great capstone project for my education. I now use the site to provide digital materials offering guidance to people who are crafting their own No- Pay MBAs and to offer them a portfolio space to document and showcase their accomplishments.
Through my MOOC studies, I also have become a stronger representative of my employer, the United States Agency for International Development, and I have earned a sizeable promotion. Meanwhile, my blog site, No-Pay MBA, has become a starting point for many people seeking an affordable business education.
BUSINESS SCHOOL, MEET CODING BOOT CAMP
I can see no reason for anyone to spend US$100,000 on an MBA if a MOOC specialization will result in the desired outcome. But I freely acknowledge that the method I chose for getting my business education doesn’t work for everyone. It is a lonely effort, requiring a tremendous amount of self-discipline. Independent study also comes without the ready-made network that some people consider one of the greatest benefits of attending business schools.
Perhaps most important, self-study does not result in a recognized credential. I did not allow this problem to deter me. I created a portfolio and a website to document my studies, profile my education, and market my skills. I was also fortunate that I had an employer who was willing to recognize the value of my new knowledge. But for many learners, the credential is key, and they have found that only university degrees seem to “count” in the job market.
From my small perch as the MOOC MBA blogger, I have had the chance to speak with dozens of would-be business students from around the world and have received comments, questions, and survey responses numbering in the thousands. By far, the most commonly voiced question among my readers is, “If I study on my own, will employers recognize the value of my education?” Learners around the world are desperate for affordable, accessible business education that will result in recognized credentials that can help them land jobs. While many MOOCs allow students the option of paying a modest fee so they can earn a verified certificate upon completion of a course, MOOCs are still widely unknown, and there’s a good chance employers won’t accept a MOOC certificate.
Not only that, learners often aren’t sure what kinds of credentials they need in order to advance their careers. For instance, if a person has a BA in communications and two years of marketing experience, does she need a full MBA? Could she prove her proficiency by earning a Google Adwords certificate, a MOOC certificate in digital marketing, or one of many other available marketing certifications? And would any of those certificates help her secure a job?
Business schools should find ways to emulate the just-in-time, outcome-oriented education model
This is a very real pain point in many fields. In the world of computer programming education, nonuniversity education providers are responding directly by running coding boot camps. These are short programs—often around 12 weeks—that focus on particular, in-demand skills. The most successful among them, like Dev Bootcamp and General Assembly, make job placement integral to their offerings.
Ryan Craig of University Ventures, an investment fund that specializes in higher education, has described this phenomenon as the “full stack” model of education. Taken from technology, the term describes developers who are capable of performing tasks at any level of the technical stack that makes up the product, from back-end development to front-end user experience. Craig credits marketing expert Mike Fishbein with the idea that in higher education, the final stage of the user experience, aka the very top of the stack, is getting a job. (Read the article Craig co-authored with Allison Williams for Educause Review, "Data, Technology, and the Great Unbundling of Higher Education.")
Business school is not coding boot camp, nor would I suggest that it should be. Part of what is so appealing about the MBA is its breadth and versatility. MBA programs do much more than teach a collection of skills; they strive to create leaders who can understand complex situations, make difficult decisions, and manage teams of people. Developing these leaders is a larger and more difficult task than teaching the basics of programming in Python. As a learner, I sought such a broad understanding. I wanted to grasp the big picture and to stand on equal ground with people who hold MBA degrees. Those goals can’t be accomplished in a 12-week boot camp.
However, business schools soon may face pressure from boot-camp-style competitors who focus on in-demand skills and provide clear pathways to employment. (Readers who don’t believe me should just Google Smart.ly.) These competitors will be helped along by companies like Google, which no longer uses grades or transcripts to assess job candidates and is unimpressed by name-brand degrees. We can expect that, following in Google’s footsteps, more employers will rely on data to determine exactly which skills, attitudes, and other attributes correlate directly with job success and will hire accordingly.
A MODULAR MBA?
Despite the many differences between a business school and a coding boot camp, I believe business schools can and should find ways to emulate the boot camp’s just-in-time, competency-based, outcome-oriented education model. In doing so, they can continue to create value for learners, serve their missions, and stay relevant to the needs of the workforce. In fact, some business schools are already taking steps down this path.
Were I beginning my search for MBA alternatives today, I would find not only one-off courses but also multicourse “specializations” offered by universities through Coursera and edX. I surely would be intrigued by MIT’s MicroMaster’s in supply chain management, an online program that provides a pathway to on-campus study and a master’s degree. I also would be interested in the University of Illinois’ iMBA, a complete MBA delivered via MOOC. These options, especially the latter two, are exciting because they combine modular, flexible, open, online delivery with recognized credentials. In the process, they show us what business education could look like in the not-so-distant future.
Imagine a system in which a student could gradually amass the requirements for an MBA degree by mixing and matching pieces of a business education. Students might transfer modules from one institution to another or test in with skills developed through work experience. Universities even could partner with bootcamp-style programs, MOOC platforms, and other alternative providers to deliver certain modules. Some of these providers also might offer a job-matching service to learners seeking their first jobs in the industries of their choosing.
Would-be MBA students wouldn’t have to choose between investing two to three years of their time and multiple tens of thousands of dollars into obtaining their degrees, or forgoing the pursuit of an advanced degree altogether and simultaneously losing all the benefits it could confer. Instead, they could gradually accumulate the pieces of an MBA while investing a lesser amount of time and money into each component.
Such a system wouldn’t just benefit learners; business schools would reap results as well. Individual schools, particularly smaller and regional institutions, could concentrate on providing certain pieces of the MBA through partnerships and MOOCs, but they wouldn’t have the burden of creating an entire MBA program online.
The key to realizing this dream may lie in developing a taxonomy of skills and knowledge—a map of the needs of the modern workplace. Such an inventory could form the basis of a modular, competency-based curriculum. It also could aid in the establishment of a system of connected credentials, such as the one suggested by Jamie Merisotis, the president of the Lumina Foundation, in an article that appeared in Educause Review. (Read his piece.)
More than most other providers of higher education, business schools are well placed to initiate such a revolutionary process, given their close relationships with industry and the high relevance of their subject matter to the needs of businesses.
In the meantime, there are still plenty of innovative ways that schools can deliver value to students, particularly through collaborations with nonuniversity providers. One of my favorite examples comes from Rwanda, where I live and work. Kepler, a nonprofit university program, has joined with Southern New Hampshire University to provide an American-style education, complete with internships, online coursework, job placement, and an accredited associate’s degree in business. This is precisely the kind of partnership that can help a university further its mission while providing bottom-line value to students.
THE MBA I WOULD LIKE TO GET
Now that I’ve completed the course of study I set out for myself, I often have been asked whether I will seek an actual MBA degree. Perhaps, some have suggested, I will find a university willing to convert my MOOC coursework into university credit.
Indeed, I would like to exchange my No-Pay MBA for an actual recognized business degree one day. Here’s how I’d like to do it: Ideally, I’d have my pick of schools offering a flexible, modular approach to business education. I would work one-on-one with an advisor who would help me figure out which MBA requirements I could test out of, and which pieces I would need to study more intensively. I would hope that I would receive some credit for my MOOC coursework and some for my work experience. I’d expect to take at least a few additional online modules to round out my prior studies. Perhaps I’d attend mini-seminars to brush up on finance or come to campus for a leadership workshop with executives from around the world.
Finally, I would like the degree-granting university I selected to embrace the concept and the imperative of lifelong learning, leaving the doors perpetually open to me so that I easily could add new skills to my repertoire as the need arises. If such an adaptable, nonlinear business degree program ever becomes available, then perhaps one day I will finally get my MBA.
Laurie Pickard is an international development worker living in Kigali, Rwanda, where she is employed by the United States Agency for International Development. Her new book, tentatively titled Just In Time MBA, will be published in 2017 by AMACOM.