Behind Wharton’s Big Bold Bet In Online Learning

Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett is betting big on an online learning strategy

Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett is betting big on an online learning strategy

When marketing professor Peter Fader was asked to be one of three professors to build one of the first online classes at Wharton three years ago, he was marched to the corner of Second and South Streets in Philadelphia and asked to face the lens of a video camera instead of students for the first time in his life.

“They turned the camera on and said ‘Let’s do a MOOC,” he laughs. “I had no idea what I was doing. There were no precedents. No one else was doing this.” Rather than fill the course with 101 marketing concepts, he actually cherry picked material from Wharton’s elective courses in marketing.

At the time, Fader could not even imagine who would want to take the online course, an Introduction to Marketing, one of the first MOOCs Wharton would offer. “My first impression was that the only people who would want this were senior citizens, housewives, or somebody in prison,” he quips.


Contrary to Fader’s initial expectations, MOOC learners turned out to be an impressive bunch. More than 90% have some college and most have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The age of learners tends to range from 25 to 44, and the vast majority are employed full time.

When Fader’s first course went live in 2013, he was amazed to get emails from engineers and managers all over the world. “These people are every bit the caliber of our MBA students,” he says. “I’d get an email from an engineer in Pakistan and lots of other people who would never have had the chance to come to Wharton.”

Nearly three years into it, more than 300,000 people have taken Wharton’s Intro to Marketing course, one of the top ten business MOOCs on the Coursera platform this year. Almost 100,000 more have completed his second MOOC on Consumer Analtyics. And Fader also has piloted an eight-week-long executive education SPOC (small, private online course) offering called the Strategic Value of Customer Relationships which includes weekly “PeteCasts,” essentially hour-long office hours for the 45 to 50 students who have enrolled in the $3,700 course that will be offerred for a fourth time this spring.


Three years in, some 2.7 million people have enrolled in Wharton’s 18 MOOC courses. More importantly, the school has awarded 54,000 vertified certificates since 2012 and 32,000 verified certificates in specialization courses since April of this year. What started as something of an online experiment will this year bring an additional $5 million in revenue to Wharton.

Through it all, Wharton has firmly established itself as the leading business purveyor of MOOCs. It was the first business school to offer a MOOC, the first to offer a specialization, or series of related courses, on Coursera, and can almost boast the highest MOOC enrollments of any business school in the world.

No less crucial, the school is now doubling down on its bet on MOOCs. Over the next 12 months, Wharton plans to launch at least two dozen new online offerings, including its first three SPOCs (small private online courses) on digital marketing, gamification, and advanced product design, all offerred on the EdX platform, the non-profit education startup founded by Harvard and MIT, at significantly higher price points than the $95 certificates for its single MOOC courses on Coursera. Wharton also will bump up the number of specializations from two to five through July of next year. The school is hoping that its MOOC revenues will double next year to at least $10 million.

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