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The Future of Business Education and the Value of MOOCs

The Future of Business Education and the Value of MOOCs


One of the chapters in Jason Wingard and Christine Farrugia’s book, The Great Skills Gap: Optimizing Talent for the Future of Work, is “The Future of Business Education.” Written by Anne Trumbore, Executive Director, Digital and Open Enrollment, Executive Education – Lifelong Learning at The Darden School at the University of Virginia and formerly at The Wharton School, the article focuses on results from a study investigating in-course behaviors as related to post-course career advancement.

Ms. Trumbore opens her article noting that the traditional brick-and-mortar way of offering business education to degree students and professionals is expensive and only benefits a few people. She adds that the changing workplace will require workers to switch jobs and obtain multiple skillsets throughout a career that may be as long as six decades.

Short, asynchronous and credential-bearing online courses offered at a low cost are one of the new models for delivering business education. Ms. Trumbore writes that The Wharton School has been offering micro-credential programs in this format since 2015, and 100,000 learners have earned certificates. What is unknown, according to her, is the value of these credentials/courses and whether the true value is in the content or the credential.

Online continuing education, on the surface, seems like the best response to keeping enough workers trained in order to meet the changing demands for the jobs of the future. Residential degrees require substantial investments in time and money.

Business schools face a challenge and have an opportunity in this new dynamic. In order to thrive, business schools must change their definition of learner to include employees who want to remain relevant and hireable, corporations that want to provide education to their employees, and workers outside of those corporations who want to remain competitive in job markets.

Ms. Trumbore observes that massive open online courses (MOOCs) can provide reputable, accessible educational content at an affordable price. She notes that The Wharton School was the first business school to provide courses on Coursera in 2012, and it now offers more than 50 courses on Coursera and EdX, the two largest MOOC providers.

In 2015, The Wharton School launched Wharton Online, offering next-generation MOOC courses, according to Ms. Trumbore. Using data on learner behavior from their first-generation MOOC courses, Wharton Online developed the following design standard for its open enrollment courses:

  • Each course contains four modules.
  • Each module contains 60 to 90 minutes of short lecture videos and an associated assessment.
  • Individual modules are created to stand along, allowing for multiple course designs from existing modules.

As of the date the article was written, Wharton Online offered 60 courses that run continuously throughout the year, with more than 240 modules of interoperable content. Since 2015, over 100,000 learners completed 225,000 courses.

Wharton Online has also partnered with several global corporations to provide customized curricula to support employee development at scale. Because no one had yet published the results of a study to determine if completions of MOOC courses/certificates are linked to career benefits, Ms. Trumbore designed one.

Ms. Trumbore’s study was based on one originally published by Fiona Hollands and Aasiya Kazi in Educause in 2019. At the end of the paper, its authors concluded that the data was unable to support whether the learners who completed the certificates were able to receive career benefits.

Ms. Trumbore’s study was sent to random samples of learners who had completed at least one Wharton Online MOOC since 2015. Surveys were received from 2,800 respondents. Course behavior data – videos watched, number of assignment submissions, grades on assignments, and forum posts – were linked to the survey results.

Nearly 80% of the MOOC students believed they experienced career benefits from taking the courses, while only 5% said the courses had no value. The intent of the learner was important as approximately 44% of the students who were sampled enrolled with the intention of achieving career benefits.

But only 18% enrolled with the intention of learning more versus achieving a career benefit. Approximately 55% of the learners received career benefits different from those they expected when they enrolled.

Only 8% of the learners cited improving their application to a business degree program as part of their motivation for taking the MOOC course.  Eighty-five percent of students paid for their course fees, with 57% paying by themselves and 28% receiving financial aid from Coursera.

Survey respondents overwhelmingly enrolled in Wharton’s quantitative courses. Not surprisingly, twice as many men enrolled in these courses as women.

However, women reported being more likely to receive career benefits from MOOCs than males, and women were twice as likely to receive a pay raise or promotion as a result of taking the course. There was no significant different between gender and pass rates.

Contributing to forums in any way is correlated to passing the course in multiple studies. However, of the 2,808 learners who passed courses in Ms. Trumbore’s sample, only 980 posted in the forums. Of the posters, only half posted three or more times and that counts all their postings in all their classes completed.

Ms. Trumbore writes that MOOCs in business topics can be valuable to learners seeking career advancement and the university that offers them. Business MOOCs are used most frequently as a credential that learners pay for to upskill themselves. Learners who report receiving career benefits from Wharton MOOCs are primarily college-educated, employed, and male, which mirrors the demographic composition of learners who complete MOOCs.

Ultimately, Ms. Trumbore concludes that more research is needed. While most learners surveyed indicated that they believed there was a benefit to their career by completing the course(s), a majority also believed that there would be a benefit to their career before they completed the course.

Ms. Trumbore notes that the value of MOOCs should be evaluated from all perspectives, particularly the perspective of a hiring manager. She adds that MOOC providers are capitalizing by positioning their products as a hedge against unemployment and displacement. She indicates that there is an opportunity for universities “to develop models of educational innovation as well as significant new revenue streams to ensure their relevance and survival.”

I agree with Ms. Trumbore that the value of MOOCs should be evaluated from all perspectives. It is my opinion that her survey did not answer whether the value is in the content or the credential.

For MOOCs that are designed and taught (asynchronously) by Coursera, EdX, or Wharton, it’s likely that the academic credentials of the instructor are in the top quartile, perhaps even the top decile, of all instructors for that topic. That would imply that the content is excellent.

However, most of the learners in these courses have already earned a bachelor’s degree. Without knowing more about the specific assessments that were utilized, the policies about retaking courses and grading (pass/fail vs. letter or numeric grades), and the time given to complete the course, it’s difficult to conclude that the benefit is related to content or credential.

Without receiving feedback from employers or hiring managers, it’s also difficult to determine if there was a value to the credential or course. There is no data indicating that any of the Wharton Online courses have competency-based assessments, so hiring managers may have to make a qualitative interpretation versus a quantitative interpretation.

Educators have known for years that there is value to self-paced learning for learners who are able to learn that way. I like the premise of Ms. Trumbore’s study that online business education is the best and most cost-effective way to scale reskilling for learners who are already working.

Affordability matters and the percentage of learners who paid out of pocket indicates that low(er) prices are meaningful. If I were considering an addition to the available research, I would find a population of students who had not earned a bachelor’s degree to study as they may be the employees most susceptible to disruption by technology. I would also consider finding a way to interface with their supervisors or hiring managers.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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