This week, Wharton announced that it would be the first business school to offer much of the substantive core of its MBA program online for free. If you have a whole lot of time on your hands, you can get a large hunk of the education that MBA students pick up, and instead of paying six figures, you’ll pay nothing.
In addition to the five electives already offered through the Coursera platform, Wharton is offering what it’s calling the “Foundation” series, made up of introductory courses in financial accounting, operations management, marketing, and corporate finance, taught by some of its best-known and most senior professors.
The courses are made up of a series of pre-recorded lectures and interactive exercises. They range in length from six to 10 weeks, and take an estimated five to eight hours a week each. Students can already enroll in the accounting course, and the other three start in staggered two-week intervals. The next to begin will be operations management on September 30th.
Don Huesman, the managing director of Wharton’s innovation group, told Bloomberg Businessweek that those four courses alone would replicate much of what a first-year student learns. Wharton students who actually make it through the school’s rigorous admissions process are required to take nine core courses, four of which are now available online, and six electives.
The online versions replicate the content of the courses so well that some professors are asking students to watch the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) versions of the lectures ahead of time so the in-class time can focus on discussion.
Students can simply watch the courses casually without additional work, but there are integrated quizzes, readings, homework assignments, and final exams for the more committed. Coursera also gives the option of paying $US49 to enroll in a “signature track,” which give students a verifiable online certificate for completing the course should they meet the course’s standards.
Enrolling in the free track takes just a name, an email, a password, and agreeing to Coursera’s honour code. Someone looking to take their first MOOC might want to consider the marketing course. It’s one of the less time intensive classes, and is team taught by the three of Wharton’s top marketing professors, from a department ranked as one of the world’s best.
After signing up for the accounting course, I immediately got access to the first week’s videos, lecture slides, homework, and a forum where students discuss the course and ask questions.
Required core courses for a Wharton MBA that are missing from Coursera include an introductory macroeconomics course and regression analysis, a statistics course for future managers. But an enterprising student could fill that skills gap with MIT’s highly regarded and popular introductory microeconomics course and Coursera’s data analysis course from Johns Hopkins.
You’d still be missing the networking opportunities, career services support, alumni network, and the prestige of the degree, but a dedicated student can pick up a lot of the practical skills a business requires.
Why is Wharton giving this away? While students get access to high-quality education, Wharton gets to present its best face to hundreds of thousands of people that only vaguely know it. They’ve already reached more people with the five existing courses than the school has educated in more than a century of existence.
You can’t earn Wharton credit by taking the free courses, but a future student could potentially use them to test out of the core classes and spend more time on advanced and career-specific studies, according to Huesman.
The issue that providers of online courses and the schools that provide the content face is how to get employers to appreciate the effort people put into these courses, and verify that students have put in the work in a rigorous way.
Though there are already highly successful online degree-granting programs, they’re far less open, more expensive, and require more of a time commitment, which excludes many people. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken Wharton’s online courses, and thousands more will take these new offerings, but it’s hard to prove to a potential employer that you’ve picked up Wharton-calibre skills from them.
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