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

Of course, business schools have been handing out degrees via distance learning from 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 partner 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 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. Maybe I could reach 2,000 or 3,000 students and private business owners. Maybe there is something there that helps someone achieve their dreams.”


During the trip, the UVA group visited with Disney Interactive in San Francisco. “We spent time there talking with the designers on how they continually iterate to improve their games and learn how to keep people engaged,” he recalls. “They could see hundreds of thousands of people playing an online game in real time and they would watch people dropping out. Then, they would make adjustments to bring the drop out rate down. That made a huge impact on me.”

On their return from the trip, Hess volunteered to rework his course on growth into two parts and go online. Dean Bruner sees the course as a way to tip the school’s toe in the MOOC water. “This is a learning launch,” explains Bruner. “We will gain important insights about the benefits to students, instructional techniques, production values, and synergies with our classic case method teaching—and also insights into production economics. So much of online education is terra incognita—like those sections on Renaissance maps that said, ‘here be dragons.’  You have technophiles making extravagant claims and technophobes forecasting absolute disaster.  We need to let some sunlight in. The launch of Ed Hess’s MOOC will do just that for the Darden School.”

After Hess raised his hand, 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.’”


He spent most of the summer plowing though academic papers, articles and blogs on the science of learning and the difference 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. So I try to make sure the key principles, concepts and tools are being repeated again and again.”

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.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.