November 2, 2021

Comparing MOOCs to Online MBAs

comparing moocs to online mbas
Introduced in 2008, massive open online courses (MOOCs) became a near-instant hit, enrolling millions of students within a few years. Their benefits were the subject of countless news articles, and new courses and providers — fueled by investments from universities, nonprofits, industry titans, and venture capitalists — emerged so rapidly and received so many enrollees upon launch that The New York Times dubbed 2012 “the year of the MOOC.”

Where do MOOCs stand in 2021, and how do they compare to traditional master’s degree programs? MOOCs gained popularity in part because of their affordability, offering a more cost-friendly route into the STEM and business fields for many. However, in the decade since their first appearance, have MOOCs proven themselves a viable alternative for business-minded graduate students, or will these individuals be better served by a traditional online MBA?

MOOCs vs. Online MBA Summary

Benefits of an Online MBA Benefits of a MOOC
  • Personal instruction and mentorship from industry experts and business school faculty.
  • Limited class sizes that facilitate deeper and more authentic connections with peers.
  • For-credit courses allow for transfers to other colleges or pursuit of PhD-level studies.
  • Accreditation ensures a quality education aligned with industry needs and standards.
  • Electives and concentrations provide a tailored education.
  • Low cost for non-credit certificate programs.
  • Large class sizes and minimal requirements for admission.
  • Pre-recorded lessons that allow for a self-paced learning structure.
  • May have pre-prepared readings, slideshows, or other learning materials in place of expensive textbooks.

What are MOOCs?

MOOCs are online courses, often in high-demand or high-interest fields, structured to bring a quality education to an unlimited number of students. They are asynchronous programs with pre-recorded lessons, often in video or slideshow format, that students review at their leisure.

MOOCs have a few varying factors, including:

  • Education level: Options for students vary from individual noncredit classes to full graduate degrees.
  • Start times: Some MOOCs enroll students at any time, while others have recurring enrollment periods.
  • Pacing: While all MOOCs are self-directed, some incorporate assignment deadlines, scheduled quizzes, or locked content to keep students moving through the program at a steady pace.

Coursera and edX are two of the most popular MOOC platforms and particularly notable because they compile course options from many different colleges. Other MOOCs are offered by individual schools or organizations and may place restrictions on the students they accept — for example, by limiting enrollment opportunities to alumni only.

Otherwise, MOOCs are lauded for their accessibility, for a number of reasons:

  • Admission requirements and class sizes: Many open MOOCs have relaxed or nonexistent prerequisites for admission, which enables them to support thousands of students at once.
  • Cost: Non-credit MOOCs are sometimes free or significantly less than the cost of a traditional college course. That said, MOOCs offering college credit or a degree are more expensive; a graduate-level MOOC program can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Format: MOOCs consist of pre-recorded video or slideshow lectures that can be viewed at any time on multiple devices. Students do not have to attend classes in person, nor do they need to log in for virtual sessions at a predetermined time.
  • Materials: MOOCs often replace textbooks with slideshows or PDFs prepared by instructors, saving students even more money.

However, these benefits have a few trade-offs that diminish their overall value. Although MOOCs appear to be an alternative to MBAs and other graduate degree programs, a MOOC program alone may not adequately prepare students for advancement in the workplace. As such, some professionals opt to leverage these courses to supplement their professional experience or other academic credentials, such as a master’s degree.

MOOCs versus online MBAs

MOOCs aren’t the only distance-learning options available to graduate students, of course. Colleges across the world have transitioned their MBA programs online, bringing a quality education to students who can’t travel to campus.

When making decisions about your education, it’s important to think beyond the program itself. Will enrolling in a particular course simply give you new knowledge, or will it provide the support you need to achieve your career goals?

In that regard, MOOCs lack some of the benefits of an MBA, particularly because:

  • MOOCs can’t offer personalized attention. Because of their large class sizes, MOOC instructors have little time to support students who want to go beyond the curriculum or are struggling with certain lessons.
  • MOOCs have inflexible curricula. Because the lessons are prepared so far in advance, there’s little room for instructors to explore specific topics in depth or to adjust their teaching to the needs of their classrooms. As a MOOC student, you may find yourself spending valuable time covering information you’ve already learned as part of your undergraduate program or during your time in the workforce. MBA programs, on the other hand, are generally designed for students with existing business knowledge or experience. Additionally, MBAs offer electives and concentrations, allowing students to tailor their education in support of their individual goals.
  • Most MOOCs do not provide college credit. Choosing a noncredit program makes it difficult to advance your education further or to transfer to another institution. While some MOOC-partnered colleges offer bachelor’s and even master’s degree programs through MOOC platforms, these sacrifice many of the benefits (including cost, format, and admissions requirements) of traditional MOOCs.
  • MOOCs lack established best practices and quality assurance requirements. Accrediting agencies primarily focus on traditional degree programs, including online MBAs. They evaluate a host of factors, such as faculty involvement and institutional initiatives. Individual colleges may have guidelines for their MOOC offerings, but MOOCs as a whole lack such centralized standards. This makes it difficult to determine the value of a MOOC program prior to enrolling.

In addition, the efficient format of MOOC education means that these programs don’t offer the same support services that many online degree programs have available for students, leading to lower retention and completion rates. One study reviewing edX shows that the majority of its students never return to their programs after one year, and the platform has been struggling with retention for the last six years.

Another point, one particularly relevant to prospects attending school to further their career opportunities, is how businesses view MOOCs. These programs offer some benefits compared to having no education, but employers on average would still rather hire applicants with a traditional degree like an online MBA.

About The Clark University Online MBA Program

The Clark University online MBA program provides a business education that takes students beyond the bottom line. An AACSB-accredited program grounded in the liberal arts, Clark’s online MBA uses a cross-disciplinary approach to prepare graduates for an increasingly dynamic business environment.

This program is part of the Clark University School of Management, a leader in social innovation business education whose mission is to prepare leaders for lifelong success with an education built on principles of social responsibility, sustainability, and ethics.

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