Sramana Mitra: Interesting. Online learning is something that you can do at your own time in a very flexible way. That flexibility goes away with that. You’re saying that there’s more benefit in terms of engagement and learning, but there is that other benefit of flexibility that gets taken away from that setup.
Peter Hirst: That’s right. There are certainly trade-offs like that. Although you can use technology to track whether people have watched the videos that you’ve asked them to watch, one of the realities that we have is they will have done the pre-viewing or pre-reading with varying degrees of concentration. In some cases, maybe none at all. In the physical class, one of the things that we find that we have to do is allow time for the people who didn’t really do the pre-work intelligently as others to catch up, and do that in a way that is not totally frustrating for the people that did actually prepare very carefully. In a sense, we end up devoting time anyway to that exercise and so that’s a more complex trade-off than it might first appear.
I think we do a combination. We still have things that we ask people to have looked at and engage with in their own time. The other way I’m thinking about the trade-off is that degree of flexibility is different. Compared to how we deliver a course in-person, it essentially requires someone to come here for two days or a solid week. Whereas when we deliver a course in a virtual classroom, if all participants are virtual, then we can structure the schedule of the class differently. We would much more likely have a series of one and a half hour small class sessions spread out over a period of several weeks. That’s still considerably more flexible than the alternative of coming in person to the class.
Sramana Mitra: What is your level of participation in the MOOCs? Of course, MIT has been a pioneering developer of the MOOC movement. In fact, my former advisor is leading the edX effort. Is Sloan participating in that movement or is that something you’re avoiding?
Peter Hirst: We are participating. The lead of the moment is a little bit more in the place where edX started, which is putting some degree course content online. We have a couple of Sloan courses at the moment that are already up on edX but none of those in the executive education space at the moment. There’s also a short course in entrepreneurship that has been created in a MOOC format, which is an introduction to some of our entrepreneurship courses.
We’re talking right now with Sanjay Sharma, who is the Head of Digital Learning at MIT, about ways that we might take some of those materials being produced for those courses and make an executive version of them that could be delivered in MOOC format. One of the things that we believe is that the amount of content involved in some of the MOOCs that we’ve been creating so far is very daunting for an executive audience. We’ll need to make shorter and more focused versions of some of these MOOC course if we really want executives to not only engage with them, but to complete them also. We still have to learn what that means and how to do that. There have been beginnings of experiments with that but we’re only at the beginning.
Sramana Mitra: What is your philosophy on this imputing and protecting your business model? How much of this do you foresee making available in a free MOOC format? How much of it do you want to make available more in a paid format, but maybe in bite size pieces as opposed to full executive education courses?
Peter Hirst: What I foresee is, over time, a lot of the curriculum at Sloan school as a whole will end up being available in a free or nearly free kind of format through the edX platform. Those will be the longer versions of those MOOC courses. Leveraging that, executive education at Sloan and professional education in the School of Engineering will create shorter and more-focused versions of those courses that are aimed at more executive and business audiences and will be charging more than the $50 we’ve been hearing about at edX.
There’s one example of that already. In the school of Engineering, CSAIL [Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Laboratory] created a MOOC-type professional education course on big data, which they piloted in March. They charged a little under $500 for the pilot version of that and had nearly 4,000 people sign up for that. The completion rate of that course was much higher than what you’re used to hearing about completion rates of MOOCs.