How Moocs Pave the Way to an Online MBA

Business schools are launching credit-bearing, stackable certificates as they ‘unbundle’ higher education

When massive open online courses (Moocs) first emerged on the higher education scene, they were billed as a disruptive alternative to traditional degree formats that would open up access to the masses. While they enjoyed rapid early growth in enrolments, Moocs have since struggled with persistently high dropout rates. 

This has led some training providers to enable students to earn credits towards a degree such as an MBA from a number of top business schools, to boost rock-bottom completion rates. This also reflects an “unbundling” of higher education as academic institutions seek to give more control to those seeking to learn.

Short online courses are now regarded as a pathway to a traditional degree, with several business schools offering virtual courses as academic credit towards their Online MBA programs. In addition, schools are creating alternatives to MBA degrees for those do not need an expensive graduate education.

One recent example comes from the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The school is launching a pair of fully online, credit-bearing graduate certificates, the first ever offered by the university.

These certificates are designed to reach learners who already hold an undergraduate degree and who don’t want, or need, a full graduate education. Instead, the certificates are built around specific skills or competencies that learners can use to boost their career.

“These online graduate certificates are designed for maximum flexibility,” says Brooke Elliott, executive associate dean at Gies. “As we enter a post-Covid world, learners are demanding more flexible, complementary alternatives that address specific skills – skills that can be continually updated throughout a career. They don’t necessarily desire a full degree, but they do value the option to potentially apply those credits to a degree at a later date. These certificates have it all.”

Each certificate program can be completed online in as little as four months and will be fully “stackable” into Gies’ Online MBA course, the iMBA. The hours completed can also be transferred to other universities around the world.

The certificates reflect the school’s mission to break down barriers to business education.

Jeffrey Brown, dean at Gies, says: “They are ideal for learners who simply want short, standalone credentials in a specific area. And it also provides them with an option to stack those credentials into a larger degree program so they’re not repeating courses or paying unnecessary tuition. It’s an incredible value-add that fits perfectly with the trends we’re seeing in workforce demands.”

Shorter online options abound

Several other schools offer similar options — AGSM at UNSW Business School in Sydney runs part-time online qualifications that develop specialist skills, such as innovation and digital technology. Students who complete these certificates will gain stackable credentials that can be used as academic credit for the school’s Online MBA degree.

At London’s Imperial College Business School, students from non-traditional backgrounds who have been admitted to the school’s highly-ranked Online MBA can take free online classes in finance, accounting and data analysis to get up to speed on the basics of business. The scheme has broadened the range of backgrounds in the Online MBA, including medical professionals and artists, who may otherwise not meet the admissions criteria.

The Open University Business School offers academic credit for students who complete certain courses on FutureLearn, an online education platform. Students can earn 15 credits towards the OU’s Online MBA program by completed four Moocs focused on the digital economy.

At Macquarie University in Sydney, Online MBA applicants who do not meet the admissions criteria are invited to take the Graduate Certificate of Global Business Practice. Students on the certificate program complete modules covering leadership, strategy and more before starting the Online MBA course.

Kara Adams, senior associate director of admissions and recruitment for working professionals at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, says that credit-bearing, stackable certificate programs cannot surmount a degree but they often act as a primer for an Online MBA. “They would not displace a degree but they could certainly prepare someone for an MBA,” she says.

At Kenan-Flagler in North Carolina, students can take Graduate Certificate programs that allow working professionals to expand their skills and knowledge in niche areas such as data analytics and finance. And 40 percent of the credits count towards the school’s Online MBA degree, too.

“It is akin to a professional credential, which signifies accomplishment, specialization and achievement in a particular area such as leadership development, data analytics and decision making, entrepreneurship and strategy, or finance,” says Adams.

“In addition to professional development, these programs offer students the chance to experience UNC Kenan-Flagler’s rigorous, no-compromise approach to business education first-hand.”

The graduate certificates are appropriate for professionals across all industries who may have decided an MBA degree is not necessary for professional development. “However, they recognize the credibility and value a certificate from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School would lend for potential career advancement — by increasing in-depth knowledge of specific business concepts,” Adams says.

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