Behind Wharton’s Big Bold Bet In Online Learning

Marketing professor Peter Fader was among the first to do a Wharton MOOC

Marketing professor Peter Fader was among the first to do a Wharton MOOC

THE STRATEGY RAISES THORNY ACADEMIC & BUSINESS ISSUES 

The boldness with which the school has moved in the area has raised all kinds of thorny issues at the school. How should a professor’s teaching loads be impacted if they do MOOCs? Should a highly popular MOOC count in promotion and tenure decisions? How much additional compensation should a faculty member get for teaching a MOOC? What should Wharton ultimately charge for the courses? And what impact will this big change have on the research-based scholars at the school?

“The magnitude of these questions is growing faster than we can address them,” concedes Fader. “We are trying to stay one step ahead of the technology and the demand for them, but it’s hard for the dean to say here are the new rules. There are a small cadre of people who are passionate about teaching and there are others who have disdain for anything that detracts from research. But the balance is shifting to the idea of having that pure researcher be a dying breed.”

Instead of allowing “rules” to hold back progress, Garrett, in one of his first big moves as dean, has decided to plow full steam ahead. He has laid down one core rule. “”We have drawn a bright line that our MOOC stuff is not available for a degree or for credit,” he says. The other issues that crop up, he thinks, will get resolved in time. “The internal HR issues of how we count faculty time is a big one,” acknowledges Garrett, who has agreed to pay faculty 10% of a MOOC’s gross revenues in exchange for their participation.

‘PUSH OUT 25 YEARS AND IT MAY BE A VERY DIFFERENT WORLD’

The bigger challenge, he says, may well be how to price Wharton content by universities that begin using the MOOCs in classes for degree granting programs, “Everyone is trying to figure out what appropriate pricing is,” he says. “We priced low because the commitment part shows that learners are more likely to show up and complete a course if they sign up for a certificate (completion rates are 90% or higher for student who opt into a verified certificate). After all, doing high quality online isn’t cheap. The development costs are quite an expensive thing.”

Garrett says that ultimately a faculty member’s participation in online learning could some day be a factor in promotion and tenure decisions. “Wharton is a research-led business school,” he says. “It’s no surprise that research productivity and quality is the first question we ask in a tenure case. I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future, But if you push out 25 years, it may be a very different world.”

One thing’s for sure: Wharton’s pioneering efforts have paid off in some important lessons. When Fader was pulled in front of a camera, says Huesman, “it was a call for a coalition of the willing. It was more about an individual faculty member doing an individual class. Our efforts were product centric and our original MOOCs were six to 12 weeks long. We didn’t even think that a lot of people have busy lives with demanding schedules. Today, we’re being more customer centric and asking what people need. They want the learning squished down into four weeks.”

A NEW TREND: BINGE LEARNING

Besides the shorter cycles, another insight was what learners hoped to get out of a particular course. “We honed in on the concept of literacy in a business topic,” adds Huesman. “If you are a general manager and don’t know a lot about customer analytics, you might want to binge learn this so you can go to a meeting and knowledgeably participate in the discussion.”

Wharton believes its experience thus far proves that students prefer so-called asynchronous online learning that they can tap into at any time, no matter they are in the world. “The market doesn’t require synchronous learning,” says Huesman. If you’re in Beijing and I’m in Philadelphia, there is no good time to get together.”

Yet another crucial learning, despite the nearly instant celebrity status a MOOC might provide a faculty member. “This stuff is not about teaching,” insists Huesman. “It’s about learning. You don’t invest money to make faculty think they are Oprah Winfrey in the 21st Century.”

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