EDITORIAL: To MOOC or not to MOOC, is that the Question?

How Online Courses are Revolutionizing Management Education

The role of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in management education is growing rapidly. These developments are part of the educational communities’ response to exorbitant tuitions, tightening budgets, limited class availability, and globalization. What are MOOCs and how can they help? Basically a MOOC, a recent development in distance learning, is a web-based course designed to provide “free” intellectual content on a global basis. A SOOC (Small Open Online Course) represents an important variation of a MOOC. Typically, SOOCs include direct instructor participation, but are still distributed on a wide-scale basis, albeit with smaller class sizes.

The involvement of an instructor is one of many ways to differentiate between these two learning platforms. As with all new initiatives, the MOOC and SOOC business models are still evolving. In the traditional MOOC students engage in the course or training program without direct instructor participation. A variation on this theme is for students to pay to have access to an instructor. Up to now, MOOC completion rates are very low. This, of course, should not be unexpected since students tend to lose interest very quickly when they do not have “skin in the game” in the form of paying for the course or receiving credit.

Certificate programs are another offshoot of the MOOC paradigm. Here a student can receive a certificate for completing a training project. This certification can be used to embellish the student’s resume and to encourage them to consider a degree program. MOOCs can also be used as a refresher course or as part of a bootcamp for incoming students. For example, many students entering a program of graduate management education lack the prerequisite quantitative skills. MOOCs provide the ideal platform for providing self-placed instruction in a variety for quantitative disciplines (e.g., statistics). MOOCs are now available to provide self-placed instruction in a variety of quantitative disciplines (e.g., statistics).

MOOCs are also being used by the management education community for student recruiting. The idea is to expose candidate students to the nature of management education, which hopefully should improve yields. Two major challenges associated with the MOOC revolution are assessment and accreditation. These two issues are inexorably linked. Presently, two of the most common assessment formats are randomly generated multiple-choice exams and peer-reviewed written assignments. The technology for machine grading of written assignments, like the grading for multiple-choice tests, is near at hand. Detailed feedback from these two types of assessments is essential to enhance the learning process. Blogging provides another assessment form especially with respect to qualitative and communication types of courses. Along these lines, MOOCs can be designed to provide interactive user forums that help build a community of practice for the students.

The issue of quality lies at the heart of the current debate regarding the efficacy of the MOOC paradigm. To that end, how should business schools evaluate a MOOC course, especially if taken at a non-academic institution (e.g., Content Publisher)?

This is the “golden era” of learning, thanks to massive open online courses and easy access to information. This will be a global phenomenon we’re on the beginning of something very profound. Bill Gates

Receiving credit for completing a MOOC lies at the heart of the current debate. Should schools of business grant credit for a MOOC course, especially if taken at a non-academic institution (e.g., Content Publisher)? What are the applicable standards? This is an area that needs considerable attention. One possibility is to have AACSB serve as a gatekeeper.

Student “buy-in” represents another key factor to the long-term success of both MOOCs and SOOCs. Students must be convinced that the convenience and richness of Internet learning offsets the perceived notion that they can only learn in a classroom. Several ways to accomplish this is to have students serve as course co-producers and organizing students into self-sustaining Internet-based support teams. Among other things, this approach helps reduce the chances that no student is left behind. This andragogical learning model, which is not limited to adult education, is predicted on increasingly self-directed learning that is task or problem-centered and is motivated by internal incentives including curiosity. The andragogical paradigm directly supports the learning process through the dynamic engagement between cohort groups. This characteristic of self-learning and peer learning is becoming increasingly popular among many graduate management programs.

Some salient features associated with the evolving MOOC model for business programs include: synchronous and asynchronous chat functionality, robust cloud-based computing apps, interactive simulations, customized content based on student background and characteristics, and intelligent tutors. Another important challenge is enhancing the dynamic characteristics of the MOOC platform. Experience shows that students tend to participate more in learning systems that are content rich and that feature extensive variety, which is a hallmark of the new generation of MOOCs.

The MOOC universe is expanding at an exponential rate. For example, Georgia Tech teamed up with Udacity and AT&T to offer one of the first accredited masters degree in computer science utilizing MOOCs. The estimated tuition is less than $10,000. Similar actions are occurring on the SOOC front. Babson College has signed a licensing agreement with Stanford University-NovoEd to use its platform to pilot four short-version business courses (e.g., Financial Management for Entrepreneurial Ideas). Full versions of the courses may be offered, in the future, as part of a fee-based certificate program. The key point is that the cost of a business education can be significantly ameliorated through the judicious use of MOOCs and SOOCs at a time of ongoing economic uncertainty.

When students are learning online, there are multiple opportunities to exploit the power of technology for formative assessment. The same technology that supports learning activities gathers data in the course of learning that can be used for assessment. As students work, the system can capture their inputs and collect evidence of their problem-solving sequences. Marie Bienkowski

Those registered in a SOOC have the benefits of interacting with instructors and being in smaller more manageable groups. SOOCs, by their very nature, provide for more collaborative learning opportunities. Collaboration is receiving increased attention throughout academia, industry, and government. Cloud-based collaboration networks offer a vehicle to bring stakeholders together for helping improve program/curriculum design and delivery. The successful deployment and usage of collaboration networks will usher in a new era in educational opportunities for students and educators via both MOOCs and SOOCs. However, much remains to be done, especially in the areas of business models and accreditation.

Industry is also getting into the MOOC act on a big-time basis. For example, McAfee’s new-hire orientation program used to consist of 40-hours of pre-work, 40-hours of on-site training, and post-training exercises. The program was expensive to administer, was delivered at a fixed pace, and was often impacted by the instructors being called away on other assignments. In response to these challenges, McAfee turned to the MOOC model and new employees are now given direct access to the training materials, which provides self-paced learning along with enhancing communications between fellow trainees. This new training format has saved time and resources as well as enhancing sales.

MOOC and SOOCs also open up tremendous learning opportunities for underdeveloped regions and countries where business education is a scarce community. Even an introduction to management fundamentals can greatly enhance business knowhow in these areas. Looking ahead the next big breakthrough in both MOOCs and SOOCs will involve adaptive learning platforms. Adaptive MOOCs and SOOCs driven by intelligent agents (e.g., IBM’s Watson) can design customized lesson plans and learning experiences based on student performance and background, which will provide future generations, on a worldwide basis, with the business tools needed to remain competitive in this ever increasingly digital-based global economy. The relevant question is “When to MOOC.”

Author of the article
Owen P. Hall, Jr., PE, PhD
Owen P. Hall, Jr., PE, PhD,

, holds the Julian Virtue Professorship and is a Rothschild Applied Research Fellow. He is a Professor of Decision Sciences at Pepperdine University’s Graziado School of Business and Management. He has more than 35 years of academic and industry experience in mobile learning technologies and business analytics.

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