Just a couple of weeks ago the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business announced it was putting free versions of its first year MBA courses on Coursera. I am taking two of these courses, and they are top notch – so good, in fact, that I think I may have missed a calling as an accountant (more on that in another post). I am of course thrilled that one of the top-ranked business schools in the US has decided to make its first year curriculum available free of charge, but why would Wharton give away this material, which is basically the same product it is selling to its regular students? Granted, Wharton isn’t granting any academic credit to people who complete these courses, but the material is the same as in the paid versions. This begs the question, isn’t Wharton undercutting its ability to attract paying students by giving away the same product it charges for? There are three reasons I can think of why the school might consider it a good idea to give away the milk from this particular cow.


    1. Wharton believes there is no overlap between potential paying students and students interested in taking courses for free.
    2. Wharton hopes to use these free courses to attract paying students.
    3. Wharton believes that value of its MBA lies in the degree granted by the institution, not in the skills and knowledge embodied therein. Wharton assumes that potential students will also see it this way.

In order for Wharton (and other schools) to post their courses online without risking losing their core business, they must believe in the third conclusion. Indeed, signaling is quite important when it comes to degrees of all types. If your resume says Harvard or MIT or Yale, or any of the set of big-name schools, that’s a strong signal that you a) were accepted by a prestigious school, and b) performed well enough in that environment to have graduated. Does a Statement of Accomplishment from Coursera have the same effect?

I tend to think not, so I was surprised when a decision by the instructors of my International Organizations Management course not to offer a Statement of Accomplishment option sparked a firestorm of comments on the course discussion forum. Nonetheless, when I tell people I am designing my own MBA program from free online courses, the most common question I get asked is, are you getting credit? No, I’m not. But I believe that the coursework is intrinsically valuable, with or without the piece of paper.

For me, this project’s success hinges on three things:

  • The availability of enough high-quality free course material to equal what is offered in an MBA degree program. Thanks to Coursera, edX, and others, check.
  • My ability to complete the courses and to absorb the information. So far, also a check.
  • Future employers believing that I have acquired useful skills and knowledge through this endeavor.

The last criteria is as yet an unknown. Admittedly, my method of bringing legitimacy to my self-made MBA – blogging – is remarkably inefficient. I enjoy doing it, and I think it’s necessary if anyone at all is to take me seriously. Practically speaking, however, I can mention my project in a job interview, or even put a line or two on my resume, but an employer would need to dig a little in order to see that I really do have the skills that come with a traditional MBA. And even if he or she read my blog, they would still have to take my word for it to some extent. That takes a lot longer - and requires more trust - than reading the words “Wharton School of Business” on a CV.

Much of the discussion in the book College Unbound, one of several new books on the subject of how post-secondary education is changing, centers on how students who don’t do traditional degree programs can signal that they have acquired skills that employers desire by other methods. The information is out there, but it remains to be seen how online courses can go beyond personal edification and translate into increased job prospects. I’m optimistic about the possibilities, but we’ll all have to wait and see.

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