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Why the Internet Won’t Kill B-School Classrooms

“The end is near. Repent!”

“What, me worry?”

Those are the distinct reactions among business schools to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). For some, MOOCs are another tool that can enrich the learning experience. For others, they are academia’s reckoning, a disruptive force destined to level the conceit and complacency of privileged academics.

This month, each side made its case in the pages of Fortune and The Financial Times. On one side, Glenn Hubbard, Dean of Columbia Business School, compared the advent of MOOCs to music videos moving into the radio space. Thirty years later, MTV has been replaced by YouTube and Apple, with 90 percent of American still listening to the radio. In other words, music became more popular, though its delivery grew more segmented – and Hubbard expects a similar dynamic in business education.

On the other side, you’ll find Wharton professor Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich. They compare the relationship between MOOCs and business schools to Amazon and book stores – with the former disrupting the market and putting many established players out of business. And that’s one scenario that they envision for the coming years with MOOCs.

Hubbard can appreciate why doomsayers are pointing to MOOCs as one of the four horsemen of the educational apocalypse (Coupled with increasing costs, expectations, and disconnect with employers). MOOCs are easy to access, requiring just an internet connection. In their efforts to entice a wider swath of students with MOOCs, educational institutions are potentially cannibalizing their existing offerings.

However, Hubbard points to a disruptive force from nearly a hundred years ago – textbooks – to bolster his point. While prospective students could absorb a majority of course content by reading the book, they still spend tens-of-thousands of dollars to attend class. Sure, the ultimate reward – a degree – doesn’t hurt schools’ pitch. But why didn’t yesteryear’s students just read the book?

Hubbard has an answer: the classroom environment itself. “Clearly, being physically in a classroom, interacting with a professor and other students, is an irreplaceable component of effective learning,” Hubbard writes. “Professors can better assess a student’s learning in person, and adapt their in-class strategies based on immediate, non-verbal feedback. They can also create a comfortable but challenging environment where students will make the leaps that lead to intellectual breakthroughs.”

MOOCs are also a healthy disruption, in Hubbard’s view, by providing the technology (and a kick in the pants) for professors to freshen up their approach to teaching. Hubbard lists the flipped classroom as an example. “Until recently, classroom time could be used to provide a lecture meant to elucidate the readings students would have done beforehand. With the ability to upload that same lecture to the Internet for pre-class viewing, the question of how to use classroom time is forcing faculty members to engage in a deep examination of pedagogy. The trend is toward allowing the classroom to be a space for collaboration.”

In short, MOOCs will ultimately serve as a differentiator, with schools relying more heavily on teaching quality (bye, bye TAs), student body quality, and one-on-one interaction with instructors to draw students.

Terwiesch and Ulrich aren’t so optimistic. Their argument is grounded in the high cost of an elite b-school education. “A top full-time two-year MBA programme costs about $120,000…With overheads, a professor costs his or her business school about $300,000 per year. If we allocate half of their time to teaching and assume a typical teaching load of three courses per year, instruction alone costs about $50,000 per course, or $1,250 for each of, say, 40 students enrolled.” The duo also cited the high cost of research, including a Wharton study showing a published scholarly article can cost a school up to $400,000.

Now, compare that to MOOCs. “In our role as Wharton school professors,” they write, “we have each created among the first business school Moocs, which have enrolled hundreds of thousands of students. At this scale, Wharton spends just pennies to register a new student in a Mooc and a few dollars for every student who successfully completes all the required work for the course.”

To quote the immortal Joey Lawrence: “Whoa!”

Alas, this duo fails to recognize the obvious: MOOCs are riding the coattails of a successful enterprise. Diminish their source’s funding and they’ll quickly dissipate, no different than a parasite deteriorates after its host passes. That’s particularly true of school-sponsored MOOCs, which often rely on the brand to attract students.

Like Hubbard, Terwiesch and Ulrich view MOOC technology as a potential boon “by boosting student learning and leveraging faculty and other expensive assets.” However, they also believe the video content – which they call “SuperText” – could replace many classroom instructors someday.

As a result, they anticipate MOOCs driving business education into three potential scenarios. First, the future plays out as Hubbard projects, with MOOCs simply delivering content and freeing up class time for dialogue and remediation. Second, MOOCs will drive local and lesser performers out of the business education market. Finally, the business school model could collapse, as “SuperText eliminates the need for students to be in the same location at the same time, it enables students to learn on demand where and when they wish.”

Who’s right? Personally, I’d side with Hubbard. Chances are, some incubator is already formulating a new model or technology that’ll make MOOCs look like Atari in five years. And the same debate will rage on. 


Sources: Fortune, Financial Times

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