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August 2013

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The Alsop Perspective: A Business School's Experience with MOOCs

Ron AlsopBy Ronald Alsop

Edward Freeman, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, is feeling more unsure than usual as he prepares to teach a brand new class in September—his first MOOC, or massive open online course.

But as a longtime student of martial arts, which emphasize humility and commitment to continuous improvement, he says he’s comfortable with the uncertainties and challenges of this new online forum.

“We’re trying to do something different here by using the technology to get people to exercise their judgment rather than learn technical information or analytical techniques, which are relatively easier to teach online,” says Freeman, who is offering his New Models of Business in Society class through Coursera, a new online education company.

“I’ll challenge people in the course to think of a business concept that has to make money to pay the bills, but also includes some notion of making the world a better place,” adds Freeman, who plans to rely heavily on discussion boards to engage the students and spark start-up ideas.

The thousands of students around the globe who take his five-week course won’t pay any tuition and won’t collect credits toward a Darden degree, but they will be gaining knowledge from a leading expert on stakeholder management and business ethics.

Recently, I talked with Freeman and others at the Darden School about their enthusiasm for exploring the new world of MOOCs through their partnership with Coursera. A growing number of business schools are giving free online education a try, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and IE Business School in Madrid. But Darden is clearly among the most prolific participants, with six Coursera classes this year.

“We have a number or people at Darden who want to be on the cutting edge of teaching, even if they don’t know what that’s going to turn out to be,” says Freeman, who is already thinking about his next online course, which will probably focus on ethics.

MOOCs promise to bring world-class professors to people who could otherwise never afford or even have access to such educational opportunities. But there is still plenty of skepticism about MOOCs, including questions about how they will generate revenues and profits and whether students will actively participate and learn. Even so, more schools feel they can’t just sit on the sidelines as MOOCs grow and evolve.

Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera and a computer science professor at Stanford University, expects to attract more business schools as they figure out how to adapt classes to the online platform. “Business school courses are a little bit trickier than those in other disciplines,” she says. “A lot of them are experiential and case study-based, which requires more work to translate to an online format than courses that are more presentation-based.”

Some academics fear that online education will cannibalize traditional face-to-face instruction, but Darden officials believe both will simply co-exist and the technology will end up improving classroom teaching. In fact, they view Coursera as an experimental platform and expect to apply lessons learned from Darden’s MOOC experience to its MBA program.

“I believe technology can help deliver the knowledge component, which is mostly didactic learning,” Darden Dean Robert Bruner says. “That can free up time and resources in class for building skills, such as selling, negotiating and organizing teams, and developing character attributes like empathy, integrity and work ethic.”

Darden is learning not only about the technology side of MOOCs, but also how much time and financial investment, digital production quality, curricular design and instructor engagement they will require. “You’re on stage and must be involved every minute, trying to engage people in a conversation when you can’t even see or hear them,” says Edward Hess, the first Darden professor to offer a Coursera class. “It’s equivalent emotionally to teaching three MBA courses in a row.”

MOOCs are generating their own powerful learning communities that I simply did not expect. They’re an extraordinary testament to the power of social media and the self-organizing motivation of students.

Robert Bruner, Dean, Darden School of Business, UVA

In preparing his two-part course “Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses,” he learned which colors and visuals have the most impact and researched the science of computer learning and video games. From previous media training, Hess already knew how to move and dress for the camera. In addition to his live, on-camera teaching, he included filmed interviews with entrepreneurs and PowerPoints.

By the time he offered the second part of the course, he had learned to ask more questions and tell the students to write down their responses. “Some students told me it was like I was in the room watching them write something down and that it made them sit up and pay more attention,” he says.

Hess was especially pleased with the quality of conversations and answers to case study questions on the discussion forums, which students could join based on location or type of business. “In some cases, the quality of work was as good as that of some MBA students,” he says.

Professors, of course, love being able to reach such a vast audience with their research and teaching. Although there’s always attrition along the way, the number of MOOC students still far exceeds traditional classroom enrollments. For the first part of Hess’s course, more than 74,000 people registered, of which 31,765 showed up for the first session of the first class. By the last session of the last class, 9,640 were still attending—a 30 percent retention rate. For the second part of the course, fewer students attended, but the retention rate exceeded 50 percent.

Hess figures he would have to teach 100 years to reach 30,000 students in his classes for Darden’s MBA and executive education programs, but already, 44,000 people have attended his two-part Coursera class. The students hailed from more than 50 countries and ranged from teenagers to septuagenarians. “The reach is just mind boggling,” he says, “for both my research and Darden’s mission to positively impact the world.”

Bruner expects Darden to continue developing MOOCs, learning from each experience and tinkering with course design. He acknowledges that the school must figure out the proper allocation of faculty time and financial investment and notes that, “We have no intentional plan to generate revenue from this.”

Bruner has been most surprised by the enthusiasm of the MOOC students and how they connect with each other both online and off. He and Hess have received many thank-you emails, including one monetary donation to Darden. Entrepreneurs in South America and Spain who took Hess’s class even ended up doing business together.

“MOOCs are generating their own powerful learning communities that I simply did not expect,” Bruner says. “They’re an extraordinary testament to the power of social media and the self-organizing motivation of students.”

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