Improspectives

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Lessons Learned from the Wharton MOOCs

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

What did I take away from my four Wharton MOOCs? The courses certainly reinforced that I have strong and weak areas. I’m most effective at managing what I call “semi-formal” systems, where analytical techniques and practical applications overlap. I thought Professor Terwiesch’s operations management course hit that sweet spot nicely—it wasn’t as theoretical as some operations research courses I’d taken and not as practical as on-site management training.

I’ve also thought a bit about the rhetoric of the courses and how their presentation argues for or against on-campus programs, reflect on Wharton as an institution, and my personal growth as a result of my studies.

Do the Wharton MOOCs argue for or against attending the on-campus program?

MOOC critics often raise the concern than providing even part of a curriculum for free reduces the likelihood that students will choose to pay for the on-campus version of the program. I don’t believe this critique holds for the Wharton School or graduate-level programs from institutions such as MIT, Stanford, or the University of Michigan. Anyone who has completed undergraduate training in a field knows who the heavy hitters are at the next level, and Wharton is easily in that group for MBA candidates.

Business careers are built on relationships. Corporate finance, especially, is an unforgiving arena where years of exemplary performance can be undone by a momentary lapse of reason that costs millions of dollars. Sharing knowledge gleaned from one’s successes and failures, not to mention acquiring new jobs after the latter, helps analysts solidify their status within the industry and find new jobs when necessary.

These relationships blossom in business school cohorts. Learners who wonder whether they can handle material at the Wharton MBA level can try the MOOCs on their own and, if reassured, apply to the program. Once at Wharton, earning an MBA becomes a team sport. This approach starts with team-oriented development of marketing programs and continues through self-selected study groups.

I suspect, but might be wrong in stating, that the team-oriented approach of a Wharton education and business analysis conflicts with the sort of independent learner who is attracted to MOOCs. I personally prefer to work alone when I can, both so I can gain full understanding of the material and to avoid the “free rider” problem where one group member avoids their responsibilities but earns a good grade because other team members pick up the slack. (I still remember you from 1992, Mark L. at George Mason University.)

Going it alone through the Wharton gauntlet seems a daunting proposition. Some classes don’t allow it and others are made easier through cooperative study and the relationships built up in those sessions. The sort of individual who might complete a MOOC, or a series of MOOCs, on their own might not be drawn to the program, but someone who examines the lecture videos and assignments as a way of testing the waters might be more likely to apply. The program cost and opportunity cost of lost earnings while at school are considerable, so potential applicants could test their mettle in a low-stakes environment before making their decision.

In the end, I believe that individuals who understand the context of MOOCs as compared to that of on-campus learning will be more likely to apply to (and accept offers from) the Wharton School than to competing programs that don’t make their offerings accessible through MOOCs. The difference is slight, but at over $250,000 in tuition and fees per student, you can afford to take a risk to improve the quality of your applicant pool.

How do the course presentations and material affect Wharton’s message?

MOOCs don’t generate revenue, except in a limited sense for Coursera or edX when they can sell a verified certificate, so free courses are promotional ventures for the participating institutions. As with all marketing, one must have a message so the offerings can be “on message.”

Each of the four Wharton MOOCs (operations management, marketing, accounting, and corporate finance) adopted different presentational styles. The marketing course was the most accessible in that the quizzes and exam asked students to recall material presented in lectures and readings. Operations management required us to apply concepts from the lectures and practice problems to the homework, which required a bit more practical application than the marketing course.

The financial accounting class required significantly more advanced applications of abstract concepts to practical problems, but the instructor enthusiastically communicated what could have been dry material in an entertaining manner. Professor Bushee said he walked us through about 80% of the material he teaches in his on-campus class, so I feel I received very good value for my time.

I’ve left Professor Allen’s course An Introduction to Corporate Finance for last for good reason: his MOOC was closest to Wharton students’ classroom experience. The lecture videos documented actual classroom presentations, but unless we formed our own study groups we forged our way through the practice problems and assignments alone.

I appreciated Professor Allen’s approach because it demanded we overcome some of the challenges facing his on-campus students. In essence, he said: “You want to be a Wharton MBA student? Right. Here it is, then.” The concordance broke down when we were given multiple attempts at each assignment and didn’t have to use calculators for the exam, of course, but we were asked to receive the material as presented.

To me, this difference doesn’t need to be addressed. Teaching styles differ and, because the finance course isn’t part of the fixed core, students can avoid it if desired. The course’s rigorous requirements alert students to the nature of the challenge they face but shouldn’t dissuade serious candidates from considering the program. Do you really want a Wharton MBA who backs away from difficult situations?

How did I benefit from taking these courses?

At the most prosaic level, I discovered (again) that I should ask for help when I need it. Completing many assignments in the accounting and finance classes would have been easier if I’d been willing to turn to the forums for help. Call it a character flaw.

I plan to use the knowledge I gained from these four MOOCs in my own online courses. I’ll adapt some of the analytical techniques from operations management and corporate finance for use in future projects, with the caveat that I’ll only teach what I truly understand and can apply to examples I create independently. The course examples are the instructors’ intellectual property and, though the underlying recipes and algorithms are up for grabs, their illustrations are not.

I’m overjoyed the Wharton School made these courses available, but I’m fully aware that I didn’t receive the equivalent of a Wharton MBA education. The online versions of the classes lacked the rigor of their live counterparts, but I’m now aware of the Wharton School’s offerings and would set my sights on its program if I wanted to pursue an elite MBA degree.

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