Can This Startup Bring Ivy League MBA Education To The Masses?




A bigger difference, however, is EMERITUS’ peer-to-peer action learning model. Each cohort will consist of 100-to-200 students, which is then divided into a six-member small group known as a learning circle. To form the group, students complete a pre-course survey on the time slots when they’re available. At the same time, EMERITUS looks to foster diversity in groups, factoring in such variables as work expertise and language skills.

From there, learning circles will meet weekly online, using the technology of their choice (i.e. Skype, Google Hangout, etc.). In EMERITUS’ framework, just one hour of students’ weekly activity is spent in reading and watching faculty lectures. The majority, however, takes place in their circles, where students are sharing ideas, gaining feedback, being challenged, and learning from each other. This is where learning comes alive, Damera emphasizes, noting that the peer-to-peer model will be supplemented by EMERITUS’ online mobile lab (built onto a Canvas LMS), where students can communicate with the instructor or the entire cohort.

This cohort-driven model also mirrors the requirements of the courses. In the Design Thinking course, for example, teams are required to build a product or service no different than any other MBA program. And the same principle applies to the negotiation course, where EMERITUS has created a software application that permits students to record and evaluate their own (and each other’s) performance. “You won’t become a better negotiator by watching a few videos or reading a book,” Damera asserts. “You become a better negotiator when you actually negotiate with someone, get some feedback, reflect on and assess how you would do that negotiation differently, and try it again before you [move on] to a different technique.”


However, EMERITUS’ true difference maker is its heavy investment in student support. Think of it as a high touch methodology that complements the quality of the curriculum. To help struggling students, Damera explains, the institute employs teaching fellows who function as teaching assistants. These fellows will follow learner analytics for students in each of the circles, to see who might be falling behind. Likewise, they’ll regularly check in on the circles to see how their projects and interactions are working and even hold office hours. “This is very important in our design,” Damera points out.

Faculty will also get involved, dropping in to share comments on the Mobile Lab. “That’s very attractive because it is very difficult to get access to these faculty,” Damera observes. “Using the mobile lab, you can. These things help the learners feel they are supported and increases engagement.”


Ashwin Damera

Ashwin Damera

This level of support comes in handy with EMERITUS’ global audience. Expected to stretch from China to North America, most cohorts will speak several different languages. “That is the reality of the world we live in. Take the example of General Electric, which has 170,000 managers – and two thirds of them are from outside the United States. A GE manager in the U.S. might partner with a software person from India with the manufacturing done in China, all the while [reporting] to someone in Germany… So it is good that [language] comes into the academic setting because then we are teaching people skills that mirror real world problems.”

Aside from testing for English proficiency in admissions, EMERITUS will also lean heavily on the peer learning groups to help their peers with language. In fact, Damera likens language to a finance class, where a learning circle will match students who’ve worked with finance with those who have little exposure to it. “Language plays out the same way,” Damera notes. “People who speak English well are expected to nurture and help each other when they meet every week.”

The online learning tools themselves are another safeguard when it comes to language. “The video lectures can be parsed and rewinded,” Damera adds. “You can watch it any number of times until you get it. You can pose questions on mobile lab. The learning community, at the cohort level, and our learning resources are accessible at any time.”


In fact, the online nature of EMERITUS actually gives it some advantages over the brick-and-mortar MBA model.

Take the Leadership course, which includes 75 interactive lectures along with Columbia’s 360-degree assessment and feedback tool. As part of this course, EMERITUS created its own social capital tool, where students can map their connections and examine the value offered by each member of their network (i.e. information, power, access to larger networks, etc.). It requires students to evaluate whether their current networks have the cache to help them become leaders.

“What we are doing is working very closely with our schools to take their tried-and-true teaching pedagogy and couple it with a phenomenal faculty who know what works and building a technology and application around that to make it relevant to our audience,” Damera says. “We are also training leaders who will be future ready and make an impact in the world of tomorrow. So we have to make this contextual to that mission.”