Elite UK school eyes edtech innovation and attracting learners to full-time courses

Ashikavinod | Monday, October 24, 2016 12:32 PM IST

Business schools have built a lucrative economic model selling their knowledge to MBA students for hefty fees. Yet inside Imperial College Business School’s Edtech Lab in London, David Lefevre, the director, has recruited a 12-strong team with the task of inventing ways to give that knowledge away for free.

This month, Imperial launched its first series of free Moocs (massive open online courses), designed to provide essential skills to those who are considering taking an MBA. Imperial has partnered with EDX, the non-profit online learning platform founded by Harvard and MIT that offers free courses from more than 100 universities to more than 8m learners around the globe.

It is a move some might see as counterintuitive: Moocs have enjoyed variable success and are plagued with low completion rates. Some top schools, such asHarvard’s HBX, are providing paid-for online courses, very different from the open access ideal.

But according to Mr Lefevre, who believes he has now assembled the largest education technology department at any European business school, the impetus behind launching Moocs at Imperial is partly to stimulate further innovation, a catalyst to accelerate the adoption of online and blended learning across the campus.

“Some business schools seem quite disdainful of Moocs and very protective of their intellectual property, but we see them as a big part of our future,” says Mr Lefevre, who has plans for further Moocs in finance, big data and entrepreneurship. “In education technology, Moocs is where all the activity, energy and smart people are — and we want to be on that train, rather than left at the station.”

But the free Essentials for MBA Success courses have also been created to encourage online learners to consider as a next step paying the £47,000 fees to enrol on Imperial’s full-time, on-campus MBA, or £34,000 for its distance learning Global MBA.

Like other business schools who view online courses as a way of luring in students, Imperial’s Mr Lefevre hopes they “will act as a window on to our school, and that some of the people on the Moocs will subsequently take our MBA programme”.

Covering maths, finance, data analysis and accounting, each course features academics from the business school, interactive exercises and video. Online tutors support students, and they can connect with peers studying the same subjects.

Moocs are targeted at those who are ready to start an MBA and want to identify gaps in their knowledge beforehand. But this differs from the experience of other business schools that have been in the Mooc business for longer. They say these online courses rarely translate into applications for paid, on-campus degrees.

Tony Sheehan, associate dean for digital at London Business School, says their online programmes should not be evaluated on dropout rates: “We have delivered Moocs to the masses and experienced the classic funnel effect with less than 10 per cent course completion.”

Instead, they are a useful test: “The thousands of people who take part in online collaboration and peer-to-peer discussion have helped us glean fascinating insights on personal preferences and behaviours, which we’ve used when designing the online modules for our premier programmes.”

Some business schools, such as MIP Politecnico di Milano, have chosen not to offer any Moocs.

“We don’t believe that management education can be effectively delivered through tools such as Moocs,” says Professor Andrea Sianesi, its dean. “On the contrary, we believe that small, interactive classes are required in order to provide a quality learning experience.”

In 2013, Wharton was the first business school to bundle Moocs together, offering financial accounting, marketing, corporate finance and operations management courses through Coursera, EDX’s rival platform. Like Imperial, Wharton hoped the Moocs, which offered much of what those in the full-time MBA were learning and from the same professors, might attract more students to do the full-time MBA.

Three years and 3.2m enrolments later, Anne Trumbore, Wharton’s Online director, says the Moocs inadvertently introduced Wharton to a new market, which is not what was envisaged when they launched.

“The popularity of our Moocs is part of the wider, growing trend for DIY professional development, and we’re happy to provide that to them,” explains Ms Trumbore, who says 70 per cent of Wharton’s online learners live outside the US, with India the largest market.

“For most, coming to Philadelphia to study at Wharton is probably an impossibility. We just don’t see the same demographic taking the Moocs as take our full-time MBA,” she adds.

According to Ms Trumbore, Wharton saw their first Moocs, like Imperial, as a springboard for innovation. But more importantly, Wharton is learning how to monetise its Moocs — a move endorsed by Geoffrey Garrett, its dean, who views the initiative as a way to extend the school’s brand around the world.

Last year, Wharton launched a series through Coursera that rounds off the school’s four-course Moocs with a project where participants tackle real business problems. The cost of the courses plus the project and verified certificate is $595.

This month, its first three small private online courses, or Spocs, were launched. Offered on EDX for $585 each, the Spocs cover digital marketing, gamification and advanced product design. “Our Coursera courses reach people who may be exploring their career options,” explains Ms Trumbore, “but these new Spocs on EDX have been designed … for people at work.”

While Moocs may not have delivered on their initial promise, they provide schools with a stepping stone into new, more lucrative markets — and may put pressure on Mooc-doubters in other top schools to reconsider their scepticism.