There’s trouble in business-education paradise.
Recent news stories have described significant dissension at Harvard Business School about MOOCs (massive open online courses). For the uninitiated, MOOCs are courses that are taught over the internet, and which are usually open to all comers. In the spirit of full disclosure, I recently taught a MOOC for IESE Business School on the Coursera platform. I’m also a graduate of Harvard Business School and a former faculty member there. So I am hardly a neutral party.
But much of what has been written thus far about MOOCs – are they good or bad? Will they put universities out of business? – misses the point. The future education will be the recombination of new and old, not a battle between them.
This misguided debate over MOOCs can be seen in the contrasting approaches of HBS and Wharton. HBS has decided not to embrace one of the existing MOOC platforms, but rather, to invest heavily in a proprietary platform. Michael Porter, the strategy expert, believes that the HBS approach is the right one. Clay Christensen, the innovation expert, advocates instead the approach taken by Wharton, which has made MOOCs out of all its core courses.
It would be awkward to pick sides between two old friends about the strategy of a school where I taught for more than twenty years. But I don’t have to. Both the HBS and Wharton approaches seem not so much wrong as seriously incomplete.
HBS is using its online platform to target a set of students—pre-MBAs—whom it doesn’t currently serve. And Wharton-style models, according to the school’s research, “seem to attract students for whom traditional business school offerings are out of reach.” In other words, both schools treat MOOCs as complements to their existing offerings, rather than as substitutes—complements that are disconnected from what goes on in their traditional classrooms.
This brings to mind the dilemma faced by bookseller Barnes & Noble (B&N) back in the 1990s, when Amazon started selling books online. To its credit, B&N quickly set up an online interface to complement its store-based services. But—a key point!—it kept the online venture separate, organizationally and operationally. The company simply straddled the two channels, without creating any operating linkages across them.
B&N would have been far better off pursuing a different kind of strategy—recombining, rather than straddling. This would have involved combining its unmatched store network with elements of online book retailing. The company finally began to move in this direction in 2000, but too late to thwart Amazon.
The B&N precedent raises the question of whether business schools—even elite ones—can afford to maintain a business-as-usual approach to their traditional core operations. They say “yes”; I say “no.”
What are their arguments?
Point: In terms of learning outcomes, MOOCs are inferior to traditional in-class instruction.
Counterpoint: Probably. But a focus on learning outcomes is too narrow for at least three reasons. First, it undervalues other benefits to students, such as flexibility in terms of timing. Second, factoring in cost makes online technology much more competitive. And finally, focusing on current relative positions discounts the importance of technological change—which, over time, will make online models more competitive.
Point: Cost pressures don’t matter at leading business schools.
Counterpoint: The argument here is that the leading business schools can raise prices as much as they want. But the average discount on full-time MBA tuition at high-ranking private U.S. business schools is 52%—and it’s 56% at Harvard Business School.
Point: Irrespective of the economic pressures, institutions with massive endowments don’t have to change.
Counterpoint: Maybe. But are these institutions that stick to traditionalism doing the best they can for their students? If not, that’s an abdication of their roles as stewards (of those endowments) and as professional educators. The question should be, Can we do better? At IESE, for example, we are experimenting with splicing material developed for my MOOC into the traditional course on globalization that I also offer.
Point: The traditional learning model—at HBS, in particular—is about social learning, and therefore invulnerable to substitution threats.
Counterpoint: This might have been true of the HBS approach in years past, when you could leave the classroom after 80 minutes of discussion without a clear idea of what the discussion leader actually thought about the topic at hand—an approach intended to foster independent thinking. Today, it’s more or less routine for faculty—especially the younger ones—to present a list of “takeaways” at the end of class. This is exactly the kind of material that can, and should, be delivered online.
The advantages of MOOCs and, more broadly, online technology as a delivery channel, are real. Rather than simply tacking on complementary online offerings, business schools need to experiment with their core. They must create strong linkages between new digital initiatives and the rest of the institution through mechanisms such as cross-staffing, multiple points of contact, and unification of reporting and decision structures. And these mechanisms need to be invented now, before the way forward is clear.
Our mindset needs to shift from seeing in-class interactions as intrinsically superior to focusing the two approaches on their respective comparative advantages. This won’t be easy. Yeats wrote that education is not about filling a bucket, but lighting a fire. But the way we run the educational sectoris about filling buckets—or, more precisely, a specific number of classroom sessions of a particular duration. Treating classroom time as a scarce resource, to be valued highly, and used carefully, is very different from treating it as a bucket to be filled.
Will this mindset shift actually happen? Clay Christensen once used to think so: “If anyone can beat the odds against being disrupted, it is our remarkably capable and committed colleagues in higher education.”
Another celebrated academic named Clay— my NYU colleague, Clay Shirky—takes a very different view: “We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.”
I hope Christensen is right, but I fear that Shirky may be.
This post originally appeared on my Harvard Business Review blog at http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/08/what-business-schools-dont-get-about-moocs/.