MOOCs and the future of the MBA in Australia

By Jim Frederickson

The emergence and proliferation of massive open online courses over the past 12 months presents an interesting array of threats and opportunities for Australia’s postgraduate business and management educators.

There is no simple answer to the question of how MOOCs will affect Master of Business Administration and executive MBA programs.

That’s because of the depth and diversity of programs that have evolved in Australia over the past 20 years.

MBA letters (600x250)There is considerable variation in MBA programs and each will be affected in a different way by MOOCs.

But MBA programs that require just a few subjects for a degree and rely primarily on the lecture format are likely to face significantly more challenges than MBA programs that rely more heavily on experiential learning.

The other major factor is that there is considerable variation in the quality and value of MOOCs themselves.

Some reflect extremely high production values; others do not.

Some have discovered engaging ways to translate class to an online format; others have not.

Student attitudes also appear to play a major role in assessing the value of MOOCs. Some students have the drive and motivation to capture the full benefits available from MOOCs – or a suite of MOOCs. However, many students do not.

Many students appear to need the structure (and the corresponding incentives) of a classroom and a program to gain significant benefits.

Quality assurance of student performance is also a major issue for MOOCs. How much value will the market place on a certificate of completion from a MOOC?

In assessing their value as a replacement for an MBA, it is important to consider that they replicate only one aspect of a good MBA program. At this point, MOOCs are primarily about the transfer of knowledge.

Good MBA programs also help their students develop and refine their personal effectiveness: the skills of influencing, motivating, team building and working through challenging issues. What good is having knowledge if you are unable to put that knowledge into practice because you lack the skills to effectively influence and motivate people?

The intense and diverse nature of MBA programs also helps students discover themselves. A common comment from MBA students is that the degree is a life-changing experience and that it allowed them to learn so much about themselves.

It is hard to imagine how MOOCs will fill that void.

Virtual networking

MBA programs also offer networking opportunities. While MOOCs – which potentially have tens of thousands of students enrolled – significantly increase the number of people with whom to network, I suspect that actual networking is much more limited.

Not only are you comparing one MOOC to an entire MBA program, but you are also comparing online interactions (which are probably limited largely to class-related discussions) to repeated face-to-face interactions in a variety of settings.

I think the issue is not MOOCs per se, but rather, e-learning tools.

E-learning tools (including MOOCs) have the potential to influence education in several ways.

Firstly, they could replace textbooks. Rather than read a chapter, students can listen and rewind until the material makes sense.

Secondly, e-learning tools create the opportunities and incentives for faculty to innovate both individual subjects and entire curriculums. If students can learn mundane technical items online, the market will demand that precious (and potentially expensive) face-to-face class time is devoted to more value-adding experiences, rather than a rehashing of those mundane technical items. ­

E-learning tools essentially create greater opportunities for what is known as “flipping the classroom”.

In my opinion, this is a “win-win” situation. Students should obtain a better and deeper understanding of the material and professors get to devote class time to more engaging and fun-to-teach material.

Thirdly, MOOCs have the potential to incentivise professors to become better teachers. My teaching effectiveness will no longer be compared to the professor sitting in the office next door; it can now be assessed relative to the best MOOC instructor.

For better or worse, the internet (and MOOCs in particular) mean that professors will live or die by their personal brand.

I also wonder what will happen to existing MOOCs. People talk with disdain about the professor who is using his or her yellowed lecture notes from 15 years ago. How often will a particular MOOC be updated? How willing will professors and schools be to update a MOOC that took hundreds of hours (and a large amount of money) to create?

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

Ben Ready
Ben Ready founded MBA News in 2014 and is the Managing Editor. He is a former business and finance journalist with Australian Associated Press (AAP) and Dow Jones Newswires in London. Ben completed his MBA in 2012 and was awarded the QUT GMAA Entrepreneurship Prize. He is also the founder and Managing Director of RGC Media & Mktng (