Behind Wharton’s Big Bold Bet In Online Learning

The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School - Ethan Baron photo

The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School – Ethan Baron photo


The big bet is being placed by Wharton’s new Dean Geoffrey Garrett, who views the initiative as a way to further extend the school’s brand around the world, reach users who would never be able to get to the school’s Philadelphia campus, get faculty more comfortable using technology to teach, and ultimately transform how faculty and students will engage in the classroom.

“Coming into the job, I had two conjectures about it that have been borne out,” says Garrett, an Australian-born poltiical scientist who became dean in July of 2014. “One, there is a real market for a taste of Wharton education for lots of people who can’t be on campus,” he says. “And second, we now know how to smartly integrate technology in the on-campus courses. More than 10% of our faculty have now had experience building and running online classes.”

That translates into more than 30 professors who have been involved in Wharton’s MOOC efforts. Specializations involve multiple faculty working together to create a set of courses, with each professor contributing anywhere between one and three weeks worth of material. Wharton’s business analytics specialization, for example, represents the combined effort of 12 different faculty members.

What Garrett says he has since discovered is that MOOCs can be used to identify talent that may ultimately come to campus for the school’s MBA program and that the content Wharton has been developing can be a viable alternative to non-degree education, long the province of the school’s on-campus executive education programming. “If it helps a person advance his or her career, it’s a bottom-up credential,” he says. “Non-degree education will increase pretty dramatically for those who find that the tuition and opportunity costs of either a degree or traditional executive education don’t make sense. Face-to-face executive education is a finite possibility.”


While the early MOOCs were entirely free, including a statement of completion, Wharton is fast moving into a place where its portfolio of online offerings can become a substantial source of additional revenue for the school. Wharton led all schools on Coursera last April when it rasied the $49 cost for a verified certificate to $95. “There was six weeks of anxiety over that decision,” says Anne Trumbore, director of Wharton’s online learning initiative. “But since then we’ve had 32,000 people pay for verified certificates since April. That is more than $3 million in gross revenue alone. “Learners want to prove to others that they did it,”  adds Trumbore. The school’s specializations in business fundamentals and business analytics, composed of four courses plus a capstone project, cost $595 each.

Wharton also took its Global Strategy course, originally distributed on Coursera, and moved it to the edX platform last month in a test at a cost of $149. “We got enrollment numbers that were just as good as Coursera,” says Don Huesman, managing director of Wharton’s innovation group, who believes the school has lots of upside on pricing in the future. “After all,” he says, “a used corporate finance textbook on Amazon goes for $200! We’re already making money hand over fist. This is Wharton!”

The strategic focus on MOOC makes Wharton not only the business school leader in producing MOOCs and reaching a massive audience with them. Wharton also has become one of the major players of any schools in mastering the use of the technology to spread its knowledge and its brand across the world. Two-thirds of the learners who have taken Wharton’s courses are outside North America, with heavy representation from India, China, Russia, and Latin America.


“The stats on how many people already have degrees and are outside the U.S. just hits us in the eyes,” says Garrett. “We are reaching learners we never would have reached. Everyone was assuming that the growth of online degrees and non-degreed stuff would go hand in hand, but an online degree makes no sense for Wharton. The pure marketing value of having millions of people sampling your education cannot be undervalued. Free content has its own value. We experimented by moving individuals into a fee-paying environment and it looks like it has worked.”

Wharton has won over a critical mass of faculty as well. “There was some real skepticism about the value of online from the faculty,” concedes Garrett. “What we have seen in that the people who do it, really enjoy it, and the professors who have experience have become visionaries for online learning.”

While Garrett says that Coursera has been “an excellent partner,” Wharton will likely explore other online opportunities even beyond its new agreements with edX. “We’re quite happy with that relationship because Coursera has the technology and the sheer scale of their network of learners. But it’s not going to be a one size fits all strategy,” he says. “We’re talking with LinkedIn where we could market our Coursera courses or go directly online with LinkedIn.

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