One Teacher’s Case for the Good in All MOOCs

170886424Karl Ulrich announced at the outset of his webinar about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that he was speaking as a teacher, not a vice dean or representative of the Wharton School.

“Hopefully, that’s a little tantalizing,” he said.

Right from the start, Ulrich was setting up a cliff-hanger: What exactly do MOOCs mean for Wharton?

For students, MOOCs no doubt mean great opportunity. As Ulrich explained, the key differences between MOOCs and other forms of online education are essentially quality and authenticity. MOOCs tend to be offered by elite institutions of higher education, and taught by one of their globally recognized experts. The “classroom” experience is engaging; students work their way through content chunks of four- to 20-minute videos, while also connecting with the instructor and other students through the MOOC platform.

For teachers, MOOCs excite as well. They allow teachers to reach unprecedented numbers of students. Ulrich estimated that in over 25 years he’s taught his Wharton design course to 4,000 students. In one class on Coursera, colleague Kevin Werbach reached twice as many students. These students do not fit the stereotype of the teenager in the developing world seeking knowledge. According to Ulrich, a majority of Coursera students are adults with college degrees.

It also comes down to costs, in large part. Ulrich held up as evidence the instructional costs of one class for a University of Michigan MBA student: $623 to $2,832 per student, depending on how you figure it. That’s equivalent to most any other MBA program. MOOCs, on the other hand, have a $100 per student instructional cost.

Prof. Karl Ulrich

Prof. Karl Ulrich

But it’s also about quality. Students get an engaging presentation from one of the best instructors on any given topic. And the technology itself will only get better. Even Bill Gates said as much in a recent Journal of Higher Education interview, and, if he said it, it must be true.

Cost and quality could make the MOOC technology “highly disruptive,” Ulrich said.

Not necessarily. With all disruptive technologies, the question is whether they will disrupt old technologies or incumbent manufacturers as well.

Will the new technology be a “component innovation” or an “architectural innovation”? Will it enhance what the incumbent already offers? Or threaten it?

In Ulrich’s view—and remember, he was talking as a teacher, not as a Wharton representative—MOOC technology can be “plugged into Wharton” and will only enhance it. Students on campus to earn Wharton’s degree programs will still experience the same key benefits that students and alumni have enjoyed since 1881: community, prestige, intellectual challenge, expert knowledge and improved access to employers.

But Wharton will and has already enjoyed several benefits, continued Ulrich. They are:

• MOOCs fit well within Wharton’s strategic pillar of social impact.

• In experimenting with the MOOC technology, administrators and faculty leaders can develop capabilities and know-how that will improve the degree programs. For individual teachers, the experience can help them improve their brick-and-mortar classroom experience. It did for Ulrich.

• Wharton is better positioned as an authoritative source of business education the world over.

• MOOCs serve as a “loss leader,” providing students far and wide a glimpse of the Wharton experience and perhaps leading to them applying to degree programs or Executive Education.

Wharton is also meeting incredible demand. Wharton faculty has so far offered nine unique courses, four of which are the “Foundation Series” of accounting, finance, marketing and operations. Since inception, more than 1 million people have enrolled—130,000 in the current accounting course alone, said Ulrich.

“This has been fantastically successfully at least as measured by demand,” Ulrich concluded.

One other reason that Wharton should continue to offer MOOCs?

In a poll of webinar attendees—all members of the Wharton community—Ulrich found nearly nine in 10 strongly agreed or agreed that Wharton should offer MOOCs.

Editor’s note: Watch Ulrich’s The Rise of MOOCs and the Threat and Opportunity in Business Education” by following this link to the Wharton Webinar series sign-in page. The webinar, part of Lifelong Learning, is exclusive to Wharton alumni, students and staff.

For others—and those Wharton community members who want as much of Ulrich as they can get—please watch the video below of Ulrich’s past lecture about innovation tournaments. And sign up for his next Coursera class on design.

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