MOOC your way to a free MBA?

The ability to do an MBA online is attractive, but getting it for free is problematic. Ed Yourdon/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

It has been suggested that, with care and dedication, you can assemble a Masters of Business Administration for free. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those in the know, the idea hasn’t caught on.

When leading MBA providers, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, started offering free MOOCs mirroring their MBA content in finance and marketing, the more entrepreneurial among MBA aspirants thought of assembling a collage of such courses to create a DIY MBA.

As you might expect, blogs sprouted to update progress.

The MBA has been a remarkably resilient academic beast. Most program names and arrangements fall foul of the regular reviews and restructures that sweep through all academic institutions, but the MBA – first offered more than a century ago at Harvard – continues to draw in the crowds.

Why do an MBA – the credentialists

Having taught MBA students for two decades, I have insights into why students choose the degree, and what they achieve.

While the motivations for entering an MBA are varied – they generally coalesce around two core groups. First are the credentialists – drawn by the cache of a degree that is often cited as a gateway to promotion within organisations.

For credentialists, MBA programs are still value for money. Generally, a well ranked MBA raises earnings by more than 50%. Even a modest 10% increase in earnings would repay the investment in an MBA in a few short years for most graduates.

A key problem for credentialists is that the free MOOC MBA (at least currently) does not lead to any credentials. If the great and good MBA schools have been giving away their content, they have not been giving away their MBAs.

Why do an MBA – the transitioners

The second group of MBA students are the transitioners. Generally, these are the more rewarding to teach. Typically they have achieved great things in their career within a technically-defined role (often a very senior one) and seek to garner the skills required for more general managerial roles.

Better still among this group are those who are sick of the mundane aspects of their career and are seeking some “frame-breaking change” (in MBA speak). They want to radically change the direction of their lives and careers, moving across sectors or launching into a new entrepreneurial challenge, for example.

An MBA provides these people with valuable knowledge and skills, and as importantly provides a significant labour market signal for new employers or investors that the graduate is serious about embracing new challenges.

The MBA – more than its content?

The MBA, when taught well, engages students in a variety of learning tasks that extend them intellectually and socially and builds new skills. The core academic knowledge is important, but the process and social arrangements of a good MBA are arguably the essence of the program.

This is the crux of the problem of an MBA assembled through MOOCs. If an MBA was only about its theoretical content, a student could easily read the relevant text books and (perhaps better still) relevant academic articles and quickly master the essential elements of its content.

If an MBA is any good, it will confront its students with more than content. An MBA, as a generalist degree, should expose students to the bigger questions of life and organisational management through a series of processes that challenges assumptions and stretches goals and aspirations.

New models of MBA education

None of this, of course, assumes that the MBA in its current form will endure. Students are becoming more time-poor and more attuned to better and more efficient ways of working. Entrepreneurial organisations are continually thinking of new ways of managing the content and process delivery arrangements of their programs.

How much of this can (or should) be done online is a major question. Proximity between educators and students and students and their peers matters a lot when it comes to the fundamentally important social and relational aspects of executive education.

In the US, a number of large schools with deep resources are making a strong effort at offering their MBA programs online. While it is early days, there is potential here to deliver good programs to those for whom a campus-based program is not possible.

The challenge, however, will be for the smaller schools (like many in Australia) without the depth of knowledge in online delivery, or the resources to acquire it, to replicate the leaders’ success. When online teaching is seen as a lower cost version of on-campus delivery, the end is almost certainly bad for all concerned.

The resources necessary to design and deliver online MBAs will almost certainly mean that a DIY MOOC MBA will remain a peripheral curiosity to the main game of high-value, intensive and demanding MBA education, which can never be done on the cheap.