The Boom In Online Executive Education

Andreas Steenbuch Mathismoen was alone in his cabin outside of Oslo the night of a fierce winter storm last year, making it a perfect opportunity for him to work on an executive education class he was taking through MIT’s Sloan School of Management. As the wind howled outside, he perched by candlelight over his laptop, listening intently to a lecture given by his Digital Strategy course professor, who lived more than 3,500 miles away in Cambridge, Mass. 

The flexibility of MIT’s open enrollment online executive education classes appeals to Mathismoen, a busy marketing and communications consultant for the Federation of Norwegian Industries. He’s also taken online classes in Artificial Intelligence and the Economics for Business, paying for the $2,800 to $3,200 courses out-of-pocket. 

“I study in my cabin, on my father’s farm and some other places which I am comfortable with,” says Mathismoen, whose current course requires between six to eight hours of his time for six weeks straight. “In my field, I have to be on the forefront of the digital development that is only coming faster and faster.”


Mathismoen is part of a new generation of business students around the world that are lapping up the growing number of online executive education classes that are being offered by the leading business schools, including Sloan, Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and others. This boom in online executive education offerings has tapped into an eager market of students who want to continue their education, drawn to the convenience of taking top business schools’ most popular classes online. Corporations also are getting in on the game, asking schools to design custom online executive education programs for a large pool of their top talent.

As a result, in the last three to four years, many business schools have ramped up their online executive education offerings, with many going from just a handful of traditional management classes to a comprehensive suite of classes in cutting-edge topics ranging from artificial intelligence to blockchain. At the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler School of Business, the school now offers 10 online open enrollment executive education courses, up from just one three years ago, said Dave Roberts, president of UNC Executive Development. Michigan’s Ross School of Business wasn’t even offering online open enrollment three years ago, but now offers a 20-week open enrollment online leadership program, and is developing another multi-week offering that will be launched next year.

What’s more, schools are enlisting superstar faculty for many of these online courses.  Columbia Business School’s $1,989 online course on Globalization Strategies, the school has brought out two big guns: Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and world-renowned economist Bruce Greenwald. Harvard Business School’s $1,600 online course on Disruptive Strategy was created and is taught by Clayton Christensen, the superstar prof who coined the theory of disruptive innovation (see our list of selected online exec ed courses).


One of the early leaders in this area has been Wharton, which made a heavy investment in online learning when it started Wharton Online in 2015 with about six courses. Today, the school offers 60 online classes, from ones in leadership and management to the business of health care. Wharton Online has issued 250,000 certificates to online students since its inception, 55,000 of which were issued last year. The online program is able to reach far more students than Wharton’s traditional on-campus executive education program, which issued 11,000 certificates to students last year.

Wharton has its own team that creates the programming and develops the courses, and uses over 60-plus faculty members to teach online, said Anne Trumbore, senior director of Wharton Online. The school’s learners tend to fall into four categories: career starters, career switchers, career advancers and career enrichers, she said.

Much of the school’s growth in online executive education has been propelled by individual learners over the last four years, but the school is now seeing a shift in the market, with many large-scale corporations coming to the school asking them to create online executive education courses for thousands of people at one time, said Mike Malefakis, Wharton’s associate vice dean of executive education.


“Executive education used to be an area of privilege within certain organizations. You had to be at a certain level for them to send you to campus. That still exists for senior positions, but now they are scaling down,” Malefakis said. “You can send the top 150 to courses at Wharton, but you can also reach then next 5,000 through skilled online program.”

Another leader in this area is Columbia Business School, which has made a heavy investment in online executive education classes since it first began offering online classes in 2012. The school partners with companies like EXEConline and Emeritus, and now has a robust portfolio of 24 online programs, said Jeff Chen, the head of online and digital programs at Columbia Business School.  The school adds several new ones each year, most recently developing courses on blockchains and the Python programming language, he said.

There were about 10,000 people who took online classes at Columbia in the 2018-19 fiscal year, up from about 6000 the year before, Chen said The tuition for the online programs ranges from $1,000 to $3,750 for the school’s most expensive programs, whereas a typical three-day on-campus executive education course is around $6,500, he said. Like other schools, Columbia is also seeing an uptick in requests from companies that want online programs customized to their specific needs, said Anthony Madonna, Columbia’s acting executive director of executive education.


“We are getting lots of request from corporation that want to do a training in a way that is easily scalable,“ Madonna said. “For major corporations to be asking for this means not only is there no doubt it is here to stay, but now it has gone to the next level.”

Some schools find that online executive education offerings dovetail well with on-campus courses. For example, Harvard Business School offers several general management programs for executives that are a blend of online and on-campus programming, including its Program for Leadership Development, which has two online modules and two on-campus modules, the school said. Its popular Advanced Management Program can be taken as either a seven-week on-campus course, or as a modular program with both on-campus and online learning, the school said. In addition, HBS has more than a dozen fully online programs of shorter length, with platforms that let participants engage with each other through chat and social features. 

For example, in the school’s online $1,750 Leadership Principles course, students take skills inventory surveys and complete a 360 review with coworkers and colleagues. They are required to upload a video of themselves addressing a leadership challenge in an exercise where members of their online cohort evaluate them. The entire course is taught over six weeks, with two weeks of pre-work and four weeks of course content. HBS, moreover, is pricing its online courses more aggressively than many of its rivals, offering many of its online programs at $1,600, half of the cost of online options at MIT Sloan and considerably less than the online courses at Columbia Business School.

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