Why 50,000 People Are Signing Up To Take This Business Course

Darden Professor Edward Hess

In a typical year, Professor Edward 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 the school to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. The free online class is part of a partnership with Coursera, a start-up online education company 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 (see Our Guide To The Best MOOC Courses in Business).


Very few of those courses, however, have been in business. Mostly, students have gravitated to classes in computer science, math and engineering. But as of today, a staggering 34,000 people have lined up to take the 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 ten times the number of students I teach in a year.”

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. “They signed up because they have a need, but you have to keep people intellectually and emotionally engaged when they are very busy. You don’t want to lose the eyeballs and ears, yet you can’t get immediate feedback.”

For Hess, a former lawyer, executive and banker, 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 one-half classes for the course. Each class will be divided into four modules. 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.