Forget the MBA

Forget the MBA When Luis Ochoa wanted to make the leap from investment banking analyst to corporate strategist, he didn’t follow the usual path of getting a master’s of business administration degree. Instead, the Stanford University graduate took a few free strategy and financial accounting classes on Coursera, one of the major providers of so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which have grown in popularity globally over the past few years.

“I gained a foundation with those courses that helped me transition into corporate strategy” at Oppenheimer Funds, the 29-year-old New Yorker said. “Now, I’m not interested in an MBA because I’m where I want to be.”

Like Ochoa, a growing number of people are hoping MOOCs will be a ticket to a new job or promotion —without the cost and time required to secure a traditional university degree. The challenge is to increase employers’ awareness and appreciation of the value of online courses. “We still get questions from companies about how good MOOCs are, but we’re finding that businesses are more and more willing to consider them to help fill skill gaps,” said Sebastian Thrun, chief executive of the MOOC platform Udacity, based in Mountain View, California. “For some jobs, companies are looking for specific credentials that MOOCs can provide, and not necessarily a degree.”

For some jobs, companies are looking for specific credentials that MOOCs can provide, and not necessarily a degree. — Sebastian Thrun
A Bainbridge Strategy Consulting study of US human-resource professionals found that only about a third were aware of MOOCs, while about half of the managers and directors in a global survey by CarringtonCrisp said they are “uncertain of what a MOOC offers.”

“There’s a generation gap between those doing recruiting and the younger people taking online courses,” said Andrew Crisp, director of CarringtonCrisp, a London-based higher education market research firm. “The older people in companies got their degrees 10 or more years ago and have limited comprehension of the changes taking place in higher education.”

Global reach

MOOCs are appealing because they are typically free of charge and available to anyone in the world with a computer and internet connection. Schools across the globe, including Stanford University, Princeton University, University of London, University of Melbourne, Universita Bocconi and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, are creating MOOCs.

The online courses feature videos of lectures with discussion forums for interaction with the teacher and other students. Some offer certificates of completion or achievement for a small fee, and some companies are packaging several related courses in business or technology to create a sort of mini-degree with affordable tuition.

When employers do understand MOOCs, their attitudes are generally positive. In the Bainbridge study, more than half said they have begun to notice MOOCs on applicants’ resumes, and 60% said such courses are a “valid certification of one’s skills or knowledge.”

Steve Coman, an HR executive at Celanese, isn’t seeing these educational courses on resumes yet but says he would view them quite favourably because they would show the job candidate “still has an appetite to grow and views education as an ongoing need.”

Although he already has an MBA, Coman is taking four MBA courses on Coursera from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to earn a certificate and refresh his skills. “I’m finding instant applicability in the workplace,” he said. “If I’m sitting with a finance group talking about budgeting or cost accounting, I’m more in tune with the conversation and can add something of value.”

Even full degree programs are starting to use MOOC platforms, but they aren’t “massive” because people must qualify for admission. Georgia Tech in Atlanta began offering a master’s degree in computer science using Udacity’s platform this year, and has admitted more than 1,000 students so far. “One of the measures of success will be acceptance by employers, but we’re confident about the degree’s appeal because the courses are identical to those we offer on campus,” said Zvi Galil, dean of the College of Computing. Students will pay less than $7,000 for the MOOC version, a bargain compared to the on-campus degree, which can cost nearly $45,000.

Some technology companies are helping fund and develop MOOC courses. AT&T Inc is perhaps most active, providing $2m to Georgia Tech’s computer science master’s and partnering with Udacity to create a customised nanodegree, with a series of classes on such topics as web development and mobile applications.

“We need more skilled individuals in data science, engineering and software development, and these online programs can provide a deeper talent pool than we can get on campus,” said Scott Smith, senior vice president, human resource operations, at AT&T. The company expects to hire both Georgia Tech and nanodegree students for internships first and then move some into full-time positions. In addition to recruiting new talent, AT&T is sending some of its employees to both the Georgia Tech and nanodegree programs.

While a series of three or four related MOOCs in business or technology would look most impressive to employers, even a single course can sometimes provide an entrée to a new field. Pablo Philipps, who worked at a Trader Joe’s grocery store, parlayed a Harvard computer-science course on the edX platform into a junior application developer position at St Louis-based Fusion Marketing. “MOOCs are absolutely perfect for coding and computer science,” said the 27-year-old who majored in philosophy in college and expects to take more online courses. “One thing I’ve learned since completing the class is that a computer coder must constantly be learning — that’s the only way to keep up.”


The major MOOC platforms realise they need to reach out to more employers to explain and promote their courses. They must try to overcome some of the negative perceptions of their online classes, notably the low completion rates, which often are 5% or less of total course registrants.

The completion rate jumps considerably, however, when students have some skin in the game, even if they’re paying only a small fee to obtain a certificate of achievement or receive special services. For $150 a month, Udacity has added some premium services, including personal mentors and access to telephone help lines, to keep students from falling behind. As a result, Udacity says, completion rates can reach as high as 60%.

Coursera partners with LinkedIn to help students add MOOCs to their online resumes. It also has reached out to employers over the past six months to encourage them to get more involved with MOOCs, such as through collaboration on capstone projects in certain courses. In an Android programming course, for example, students will create apps, the best of which will be featured in the Google Play store, said Julia Stiglitz, director of business and international market development for Coursera. “This kind of project is important in adding value to MOOCs; it will give students a portfolio to show employers what they learned.”

Most MOOC takers already have undergraduate or master’s degrees and are acquiring practical skills for career reasons. It’s unclear whether MOOCs also can help low-income, less educated individuals improve their station in life. A small University of Michigan study of underprivileged MOOC learners who couldn’t afford a formal college education didn’t find evidence of job offers. “But MOOCs did expose people to fields they didn’t know anything about,” said Tawanna Dillahunt, an assistant professor at Michigan’s School of Information. “And they helped build people’s confidence to take more classes.”

Read full story: BBC News

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