A B-school class with 50,000 students? It's on.

October 5, 2012: 4:06 PM ET

UVA's Darden School has joined up with Coursera and plans to launch its first B-school class in January.

Ed Hess

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- In a typical year, Professor Ed Hess figures he teaches no more than 300 students in his courses on managing smaller enterprises and the challenges of business growth. About 120 of them are MBAs, while the remaining 180 are executive education students at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

When Hess walks into the classroom this January to teach Smart Growth for Private Businesses, however, as many as 50,000 people are expected to have signed up for it -- more students than Darden has graduated since its founding nearly 60 years ago and in all probability the largest single audience ever assembled for a business course.

The professor will be the first to deliver a so-called MOOC (a massively open online course) for Darden to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. The free online class is part of a partnership with Coursera, an online education startup founded by two Stanford University computer science professors. Since it began six months ago, Coursera has enrolled 1.57 million students in a wide range of courses taught by professors from Princeton, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and other prominent schools.

B-school gets a taste of massively open online ed

Very few of those courses, however, have been in business. Mostly, students have gravitated to classes in computer science, math and engineering. But more than 34,000 people have already lined up to take Hess' course, about 31,000 more than Hess ever expected. "If you asked me in June what would you be thrilled at, I would have said 3,000 people would be phenomenal," he says. "That's 10 times the number of students I teach in a year."

In August, when 15,000 students had registered for the course, Hess' wife bet him $100 that by early September, he would have 25,000 students. "I told her, 'You're crazy.'" But the list hit 26,000 soon after that and Hess had to pay off the bet. She now has another $100 on the line, betting that some 50,000 will eventually flock to the course. "She's enjoying the extra spending money," laughs Hess.

While there is no tuition or academic credit to be gained from part one of his five-week course, the professor sees the opportunity to gain valuable experience reaching a far larger audience in a completely different medium. "The single biggest challenge is meaningfully engaging with 34,000 to 50,000 people that you can't see or communicate directly with," he says. "You don't want to lose the eyeballs and ears, yet you can't get immediate feedback."

For Hess, it means learning an entirely new way to teach. Like other MOOC courses, his course will be broken into manageable chunks, with short video modules, PowerPoint slides, and interactive quizzes. An online forum will allow students to ask questions, get answers, and collaborate in learning teams by industry sector, work backgrounds, or geography. "This is like going to Mars," he laughs.

Instead of a classroom, Hess is going into a television studio to film the five hour-and a-half classes for the course. For three of the classes, he'll bring in entrepreneurs who are the subjects of the required case studies for 15-minute video segments. Hess also plans two live webinars in addition to the five class sessions, one to give students real time access to him and another with an entrepreneur to help students create a growth plan. He'll have to adjust to grading students on their assignments -- rather than on class participation and exams. Students who complete the course with passing grades will receive a certificate of completion.

UVA: Seeing new light on online education?

Of course, business schools have been handing out degrees via distance learning for years and many professors have put their lectures online. But relatively few have specifically designed online courses available for free to anyone who shows up. The decision to plunge into the online world came after the University of Virginia agreed to team up with Coursera after the June ouster and subsequent reinstatement of UVA President Teresa Sullivan. One of the stated reasons for her initial dismissal apparently was Sullivan's hesitation to embrace online education.

It was in early June that Hess accompanied Darden Dean Robert Bruner and several other UVA faculty on a visit to Coursera in Silicon Valley.  "I thought, 'Wow, this is a phenomenal way to reach more people and have more impact.' I am at the stage of life when significance is more important than success."

On their return from the trip, Hess volunteered to rework his course on growth into two parts and go online. Dean Bruner concedes that given the costs involved in developing the course, he's not sure how sustainable this model is. "An important aim is to get some experience and then decide," he says. "Online is more likely to spawn losses for the traditional not-for-profit colleges and universities," wrote Bruner in a blog post. "This stems from the cost of creating digital content and reinventing programs. I've been mugged by reality enough times on projects involving educational technology that I want to take a hard look at the resource requirements."

Hess, however, was all in. He recalls jokingly telling Bruner, "The first guy up the hill in the battle usually gets killed. It's the succeeding troops who climb the hill and get the medals.'"

Prepping for an entirely new sort of class

Hess spent most of the summer reading up on the differences between online and in-person teaching. "Although I've used the case method for years," he says, "I really wasn't aware of the developing science of how stories result in learning and how people relate to them. Stories are the way to go. I also learned the power of visual images and the power of certain colors to use on those images and the importance of repetition."

The course grows out of his own research on 54 high growth companies. His study shows that every private business faces a set of common management challenges created by growth. To Hess' way of thinking, not all growth is good, despite the pressures most entrepreneurs face to seek it. "Growth can stress people, processes and controls," he says.

Translating those ideas and concepts online has led to several adjustments in the way he would normally teach the course. Hess learned, for example, that while frequent quizzes were critical to reinforce learning, multiple-choice tests were not ideal. "I learned that the best way is to have students fill in the blanks. We don't use PowerPoint in most case study classes, so I had to learn the science of how to format them in colors that would make more of an impression."

In July, Hess began redesigning his MBA course for the new platform. He's done one taping trial to get used to the camera, the format, the use of the PowerPoint, and the pacing of the lecture. He begins filming in Darden's TV studio in the third week of October.

"There's is a lot to think about," says Hess. "How do I talk, behave, and make relevant content which I think is very important for a business builder or owner interested in growing businesses? How do you reach people with varied interests and different cultural backgrounds? How do you keep them engaged because they can vote with their click or their feet at any time? So it's made me think more deeply about what I do in my courses."

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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