Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

After American Laurie Pickard worked out what an MBA would cost her at a US business school, she took matters into her own hands and completed her now widely publicised "no-pay MBA" using massive open online courses, or Moocs as they have come to be known, as well as other free or low-cost online resources.

Today, there are plenty of ready-packaged, online MBA-style programmes for those lacking time or money for the traditional route.

George Washington University in the US and Macquarie University in Australia are among dozens of reputable institutions offering online MBAs. In SA, online programmes have also become part of the MBA "furniture".

The problem with online MBAs is that they can’t replicate the "learn how and learn who" of a traditional classroom MBA, says Nicola Kleyn, dean of the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs).

The "learn what" — the pure knowledge component — is easily obtainable from textbooks or online material, she says. But for that knowledge to be applied to real-world problems, one requires face-to-face learning and interaction.

This process brings a "richness of content to the learning process", says Kleyn.

Skills are learnt in navigating group dynamics. All of that is difficult, if not impossible, to get from a purely online experience. "By definition, Moocs are massive and generic," Kleyn says.

They also don’t provide the same powerful network. This is a major drawcard of traditional MBAs, particularly those at the world’s elite business schools. Consider that the 207 students enrolled in the 2018/2019 MBA at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School represent 51 nationalities.

Relationships formed during an MBA open doors to new job opportunities and influential, often international, business networks.

"An MBA is less about curriculum and more about accreditation and prestige," says Tracy Dawson, a partner at executive search firm Jack Hammer. "Most of the people I’ve dealt with do an MBA because they want to stretch themselves. It’s a really good way of testing yourself in terms of capacity."

Most universities do not think Moocs are a viable alternative to a traditional MBA but consider them a useful learning tool.

Online teaching is "just another tool in the arsenal", says Anna Malczyk, academic manager at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. "We use online tools to enhance what we do, but the offline component is still the most important and it’s very hard to replicate that online, if not impossible."

Skills that are widely predicted to hold the most value in an increasingly digital world, such as collaboration, problem-solving and creative thinking, are far more effectively obtained in a physical learning environment, says Malczyk.

Still, Moocs are a helpful reference for those wanting to understand what type of content an MBA would cover, adds Kleyn.

But even if much of the knowledge can be obtained online, individual assessment is a hurdle.

"Moocs can only evaluate or test you up to a certain point, which is largely at the lower levels," says Terri Carmichael, associate professor of management education at Wits Business School.

Standardised online tests can evaluate knowledge and some understanding but not an individual’s ability to handle complex business situations. An MBA student, says Carmichael, will be called on to define a unique research problem, interpret data and display rigorous thinking — none of which can be evaluated by a Mooc.

It will, however, prove useful as a teaching tool within MBAs, Carmichael says. Wits is exploring ways to put some of its MBA syllabus into Moocs, for use in combination with face-to-face sessions.

So while Moocs may never entirely displace a traditional business school education, they remain valuable tools to gain knowledge and their use looks set to grow.