I’ve posted a couple of articles recently on the No-Pay MBA Facebook page suggesting that perhaps the low completion rates in MOOCs are not evidence that they are a failed experiment.  As an Atlantic article recently put it,

“Out of all the students who enroll in a MOOC, only about 5 percent complete the course and receive a certificate of accomplishment. This statistic is often cited as evidence that MOOCs are fatally flawed and offer little educational value to most students. Yet more than 80 percent of students who fill out a post-course survey say they met their primary objective. How do we reconcile these two facts?” 

I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of people who are saying that maybe it’s completely understandable that only a slim minority of MOOC registrants make it all the way to the finish line.

The way I see it, there are two ways MOOCs can be valuable. A MOOC can either build your knowledge about a particular subject, or it can build your skills to apply knowledge in a particular way.  I’ve written about my strong preference for skills building courses, but I see the value in both types of learning.


Ways of knowing

One of the things I’ve found most valuable about studying business via MOOC is the process of discovering – and putting firmer boundaries around – what I don’t know.  It’s like the elephant parable, which you have probably heard if you have ever done any type of leadership or team-building retreat.

Basically, a bunch of people in a dark room are all standing around an elephant, touching it and describing what they feel (“It’s soft!” – the nose; “It’s rough and hairy!” – the skin; “It’s smooth and hard!” – the  tusks) and trying to figure out what it is.  Eventually they figure out that it is an elephant, but only with everyone’s input – hence the team-building connection.  (Just as an aside, having been charged by an elephant, I can tell you that it’s probably not a great idea to put one in a dark room and let a bunch of people feel it up. ) 

ElephantPhoto credit: Ethan Handel


For me, putting together an MBA curriculum is like the elephant parable. Each course provides information about what an MBA really is. The elephant begins to take shape. Even as I realize how many things I still don’t know about it, I start to recognize it for what it is. I refine my understanding of it.

If you ever work with me you will learn that I think in matrices. It’s a good thing I was born into the information age because without Excel I basically wouldn’t have a way of organizing my thoughts.


Here’s one:

knowingMOOCs are really good for moving from Box 1 to Box 2 – that’s knowledge building. For example, prior to taking a course on corporate finance, I would have been hard-pressed to even identify the types of situations in which corporate finance is used. Now, while I am not an expert in the subject – you wouldn’t hire me to value your company prior to a sale – I am conversant in financial terminology.  That is valuable in and of itself, apart from any skills I may have learned.

MOOCs can also move you from Box 2 to Box 4, though it is more difficult. Moving from Box 2 to Box 4 is what happened when, after learning that corporate finance is used to make investment decisions, I learned how to calculate the net present value of an investment.

MOOCs can even generate movement from Box 3 to Box 4. You might say Box 3 doesn’t exist – how can you not know something you know? Well, sometimes you realize that a concept you understand very well is called by a different name – like the fact that my employer, USAID, uses the term “cost-benefit analysis” for what I know as “net present value.”  Sometimes you find that something you intuitively understand actually has a formal definition and is associated with particular methods. For example, my course on business strategy validated my matrix method, which I had no idea was part of business strategy until I took that course.

In fact, this type of movement – discovering what I didn’t know I knew – has been crucial in providing me with the confidence to present myself as someone who can offer most – if not all – of what an MBA-grad can offer.  With all the hype surrounding MBAs, the de-mystification of the degree is really useful. By the way, if you are someone who hires MBAs or who competes with MBAs in the job market I highly recommend you at least audit some business MOOCs as a way of understanding what you’re dealing with.


It’s all about incentives

For those who are using MOOCs to build knowledge, watching a few videos may be enough. As the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, most students come away from the MOOC experience satisfied.

For those of us who are interested in building skills, completing the assignments may be more important. But even for us, what is the incentive to complete every course requirement and earn a Statement of Accomplishment? 

I’ve set up this whole website basically as an incentive to myself to complete my courses. Because finishing courses is hard, and you need a good reason to do it. MOOC certificates don’t have any proven value – at least not yet, and certainly not in comparison to a degree. If finishing a course – meaning that you’ve earned a certificate – won’t provide any marginal value over watching some videos and possibly completing an assignment or two, then it’s really not surprising that most people don’t do it.

Question: Without this blog, would I be wiling to stick it out for every course?

Answer: Probably not. 


Capturing value

Now for the big question:


How will anyone capture value from all the knowledge and skills that MOOCs are building?


MOOCs are most certainly creating value. All that learning is important. And someone will figure out how to monetize it – probably soon.

Maybe one day I’ll even be able to trade my set of certificates in for a degree, though I doubt it. A more likely scenario is that I will be able to convince an employer that my MOOC education has equipped me with skills and knowledge that have increased my productivity – and will pay me accordingly. 

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