University of Virginia

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. More

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