I recently completed teaching the second session of my Foundations of Business Strategy massively open online course (MOOC) through the Coursera platform and I continue to be amazed by the reach and impact of MOOCs. In the past 9 months, over 150,000 students have enrolled from over 150 countries across the world. The stories from students are heartening. Hundreds of in-person study groups formed in over 50 countries. Students included young entrepreneurs and mature small business owners; non-profit organizers; a study group of Mongolia students led by a Peace Corps volunteer; a group of unemployed women in Ohio looking to improve their job prospects; a group of students in Bolivia led under a program from the U.S. State Department; and a group of Arab and Israeli students participating through the YaLa Young Leaders program building détente through education.
Yet, despite these heartwarming stories, the chorus of MOOC naysayers grows louder each day. Of particular scorn have been the low completion rates. Many criticize MOOCs as much for what they are not as for what they are. The primary complaint is that an online platform fails to provide the same rich learning environment as an engaging professor on a residential campus. But are these the correct standards by which to judge MOOCs? Clearly, my residential classroom is a fundamentally different experience than my MOOC. At U.Va.’s Darden School of Business where I am a professor, we use a Socratic case-method style of teaching. The live exchange and give-and-take between faculty and student and, equally importantly, student to student is not replicable at the scale of a MOOC. Yet, the question is not whether the MOOC experience is better than the classroom, it is whether it is better than the next best alternative which for many online learners may be nothing, or at most, a book or other written materials.
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