Free Wharton MBA Classes Are Just Like The Real Thing -- Almost

This week, students started a new course on accounting at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. The class was like any other first-year MBA offering, except that it had 76,000 students and nobody paid tuition.

The course is one of four in Wharton’s “Foundation Series” now offered for free online. They are four of nine core classes for first-year Wharton students -- without the classroom. They’re available though Coursera, an online education platform that has partnerships with more than 87 academic institutions. The credits don’t count at Wharton, but students can pay a $49 fee to get a “verified certificate” that shows they completed the course.  Even a first-year accounting student knows that’s a great deal -- but virtual students are missing out on the campus experience and networking opportunities that regular Wharton students pay $59,736 for in annual tuition costs.  

The online courses run from six to 10 weeks and are available for four classes: operations management, marketing, corporate finance and accounting, and all begin sometime in the next few weeks. Students will have access to PowerPoint slides, lecture recordings, quizzes and other supplemental material. However, besides an online chat room, students can’t participate in class discussions and group projects, which have long been considered one of the most important parts of a business school education.

“The most boring part of class is when a professor stands up there and is talking about PowerPoint slides,” professor Brian Bushee, who's teaching a 10-week-long Intro to Accounting course that began on Sept. 15, told the school’s newspaper. “You got to have people talking to each other.”

He and other professors plan on using the online material for their live students as well, but just as a preparation for classroom activity. Meanwhile, the virtual students are missing out on campus events, and Wharton’s alumni network of more than 92,000 people in 150 countries.

The courses won’t be overtaking a live MBA program any time soon, but they do allow anyone to access the material. This can be helpful for students thinking of attending the school, or anyone who wants to learn a little business in their spare time.  

While Wharton is the first business school to make such an offering, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have been growing among higher education institutions in recent years. Penn offers 18 other online classes ranging from medicine to arts. In May, the school announced that it had more than one million online enrollees through Coursera.

Next year, two Wharton professors will be featured on a new Wharton channel on Sirius XM Radio Inc., where they will host shows about a variety of topics they teach and accept live call-in questions from their listeners, in another attempt to tap the market for business information.

Coursera, the company used by Wharton, is a California-based startup founded in April 2012. Penn is one of the founding partners and board members of Coursera, which currently offers 400 courses in seven languages and said it has enrolled more than 4.7 million students. On Sept. 12, Coursera executives announced that they had collected $1 million in fees from students’ verified certificates, profits which are shared with host institutions.  

EdX, another online learning platform from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced earlier this month a collaboration with Google to create an open source MOOC platform. “Google and edX have a shared mission to broaden access to education,” Google said in a statement. “We support the development of a diverse education ecosystem, as learning expands in the online world.”

While some have predicted that MOOCs will soon take over the traditional -- and expensive -- education model, online educators are still trying to find a way to replicate the on-campus experience, which students pay thousands of dollars for every year. 

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