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Online courses:The Changing Face of Business School Education

When you think about a typical MBA class, you probably picture 50-80 students gathered in a cozy sections or cohort classrooms, looking out on a beautiful grassy campus.

For years, that picture roughly encapsulated the business school experience, and it is still the norm for most top MBA schools.

However, another vision is rapidly demanding a share of the MBA stage- classes of 50,000 students, physically positioned all around the globe, virtually attuned to a single lecturer that most will never meet in person. That’s right, we’re talking about online learning.

Online learning is one of the fastest growing and most hotly debated sectors of higher education.

At the collegiate level, the controversy surrounding online learning most recently reared its head at the University of Virginia, where President Teresa A.

Sullivan was fired and re-hired in a whirlwind conflict sparked in part by different plans for embracing online learning.

On the B-School level, UVa again made headlines for online learning, when the Darden Business School’s Professor Edward Hess announced that his Smart Growth for Private Businesses course would be offered as a MOOC- a massively open online course.

Instead of his usual 300 students, Professor Hess found himself addressing an invisible audience of over 50,000. It was, he told Poets and Quants, a completely different experience.

Though daunting, Hess told both Poets and Quants and The Financial Times that the online course model provided an unprecedented opportunity for reaching more students than he could ever hope to reach out to in person.

Hess is not alone in finding this idea compelling. The same FT article reminds us that, in August, Wharton launched a gamefication course through the same Coursera program that Hess is using.

The course attracted over 80,000 students, and, like Hess’s course, was entirely free.

The article also cites Yale School of Management Senior Associate Dean’s endorsement of online learning as an important part of a good business model for B-schools.

Online learning is here to stay, and it will make up some part of the B-school landscape both now and in the future.

Moving past the impressive enrollment numbers, what does the online learning model really mean for top MBA programs and the students aspiring to attend them?

First, the obvious positives of online learning can be summed up in one sentence: Free online classes cross physical and economic barriers to make large quantities of knowledge easily accessible to large quantities of people.

Wider dispersal of knowledge is certainly a good thing, and conscientious students should consider taking advantage of the additional options made available through online learning.

For MBA applicants, this could mean supplementing your skill set with a few classes taken before you even set foot on a B-school campus, or rounding out your education with classes not offered at your school.

Opportunities like this should not be taken lightly, and diligent students will pay attention to them.

However, it should be remembered that online classes are not always a direct substitute for physical classroom learning. Despite all of the positives of online learning, the physical classroom retains some definite advantages. Physical classroom environments foster a sense of relationship that is much more difficult to achieve online.

For example, you can easily talk to fellow classmates, make direct eye contact with the instructor, and chat with that instructor after class.

Though new video chat and instant messaging techniques are constantly evolving, the collaborative environment of the classroom cannot yet fully translate to virtual learning.

Additionally, physical classrooms tend to enforce higher levels of accountability than free online courses.

In the Wharton Coursera course mentioned by the Financial Times above, over 80,000 students enrolled, but only around 9,000 actually completed the course.

That is still an amazingly high number, but only a fraction of the students who enrolled actually completed the course.

With so few barriers to entry, some virtual students are more likely to enroll without a realistic commitment to finishing every assignment.

In the physical classroom, with high tuition payments and tough grading rubrics hanging over their heads, students are much more likely to fully commit to the course.

Online learning will certainly revolutionize higher education; indeed, it has already done so.

But, claims that online learning will inevitably eradicate the need for physical classrooms seem a bit exaggerated.

What seems more inevitable is that, driven by demand and cost factors, more and more business schools will incorporate online learning into their current business models.

Students who aspire to attend those schools should do the same. In proving themselves capable of the same adaptability, the same willingness to embrace new methods, they will prove themselves worthy of the institutions that they admire.

What do you think? Is online learning an option you are considering for your education?

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