The Learner is the Winner

Sizing up MOOCs four years later: a tectonic transfer from institution to learner. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Anne Trumbore

credit-edx-wharton-online-digital-marketingWhen MOOCs dominated the news cycle in 2012, they promised a sea change in the way learners obtained education, whether by transforming the traditional classroom lecture for on-campus students, or providing access to world-class educational materials for a global population of learners. Four years later, we see that MOOCS have not only provided brand new ways of distributing education, but have also sowed the seeds for a new economy of credentials that is revolutionizing the traditional top-down, university-driven degree approach to business education. For the first time in history, learners can get the education they want for professional advancement when they want it, rather than waiting for a university to decide if and when a learner can enroll. Power is shifting from institutions that provide bundled degrees to consumers who assemble their own portfolio of credentials and skills to get the jobs they want.

Learners are taking advantage of these new offerings by piecing together non-degree credentials, Coursera specializations, edX MicroMasters, and stackable degree components to create their own customized educational packages.

This tectonic transfer of agency from institution to learner prompted Wharton to bring together academic leaders in business and senior leaders in industry from around the world to begin a true inter-institutional discourse around the transformation of business education. We welcomed guests from four continents, 25 institutions, and 26 corporations to the University of Pennsylvania’s campus for the inaugural Business Education Online Learning Summit on September 19-20. “Our ambition was to bring together the people who are transforming online business education — business schools as content producers, online companies that are both technology platforms and distribution systems, and companies that want to invest in continuous professional development for their people,” said Geoff Garrett, Dean of the Wharton School.

Several key themes emerged during the Summit. The first is that the value proposition of the MBA is changing to focus more tightly on the network of peers and connections with faculty and top-shelf employers that business schools with highly selective admissions can provide. After all, education for specific job skills can now be more easily obtained through alternative methods such as code academies, MOOC providers, and other online educational providers. A look at current job market data shows that the market price for specific job skills which are business related, such as business analytics, digital marketing, or business strategy is higher than the price for the average MBA. The value of the MBA degree is increasingly located in the social, networked, face-to-face components of on-campus education.

Most agree that the MBA is still the gold standard in business education for now. At the same time, we know that the appetite for high-quality business education around the globe is increasing at a rapid pace. For instance, across Wharton’s 20 Specialization courses, 58 percent of learners are employed and 72 percent live outside the US. According to CEO Rick Levin, Coursera certifications are now the second most cited on LinkedIn (Microsoft credentialing, which has been around for 35 years, is the first). edX CEO, Anant Agarwal recently announced the launch of 19 new MicroMasters, short programs with targeted content towards a specific set of skills that allow a learner to advance in their professional and/or academic careers to address this demand.

Another key theme is that the learner is taking professional education into his or her own hands. MOOCs have created a new market in professional education and have now become a powerful tool for providing lifelong learning for a population that has, in most part, never had access to it before. Learners are taking advantage of these new offerings by piecing together non-degree credentials, Coursera specializations, edX MicroMasters, and stackable degree components to create their own customized educational packages. These credentials offer job seekers a way to signal skill and knowledge acquisition with far more granularity than the degree, which can make them more attractive to employers, and potentially command a higher salary.

It’s clear that business schools can reach a wider audience and make a positive difference in the world by offering these new forms of credentials. Providing access to quality content and certifying a learner’s performance with a credential can be a critical component of remaining relevant in a changing educational landscape. Those business schools which enable people to get ahead at work by offering accessible credentials secure their own futures by allowing learners to improve theirs. In fact, many partnerships and collaborations between academic institutions, technology providers, corporations, and government agencies have a similar goal: to help the learner help herself in the world of work.

The key takeaway from Wharton’s conference is that future of post-graduate business education is global, micro-credentialed, accessible, individualized, and empowering. And the learner is going end up the winner.

Anne Trumbore is Senior Director, Wharton Online at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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