Buoyed by the rise of edtech and remote education, Wharton Online provides millions of learners access to the School’s thought leadership.

How many people does it take to service over three million online learners worldwide? For Wharton Online, the answer is 10.

The team is about the size of a typical startup in the education technology (or “edtech”) space. And according to former Vice Dean Jagmohan S. Raju of Wharton Executive Education, this resemblance runs deeper.

“I wanted to maintain that entrepreneurial spirit within Wharton Online so that we can compete with edtech firms at their own level,” said Raju, who has overseen Wharton Online for seven years, starting when former Dean Geoffrey Garrett first launched the initiative in 2015.

Innovation has been essential to Wharton Online from the start. To get the ball rolling, the School hired Anne Trumbore, an edtech expert and early employee at Coursera. “With Anne’s expertise, we created the School’s first paid certificate Specialization program on Coursera, called Business Foundations, which includes a capstone for learners to apply the foundational business concepts in a real-life business pitch,” said Stephanie Stawicki, senior director of the team.

Today, Business Foundations is one of 13 Specializations developed by Wharton Online, on topics ranging from fintech and healthcare management to how to achieve personal success. Millions of learners have signed up for Wharton’s courses on Coursera, edX, and Canvas, as well as through third-party distributors like Emeritus and ExecOnline. The initiative’s many partnerships begin right on Penn’s campus — Penn Nursing, Penn Medicine, and the School of Social Policy & Practice among them — and its client base extends to global corporations seeking tailored training for their workforces from Wharton’s experts.

“We are distinctive in that we only work with tenured faculty,” added Managing Director Don Huesman. “We have the largest catalog of a big brand business school, with over 80 courses featuring 60-plus associate and full professors.”

Marketing Prof. Barbara Kahn filming for Wharton Online and Coursera in 2018.

It’s no surprise that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, over 50 Wharton faculty were already familiar with teaching to a camera. Some easily folded Wharton Online course material into their undergraduate and MBA classes. For other groups around the School, Wharton Online was crucial in the pivot to virtual learning. The team worked closely with Executive Education and the Global Youth Program to capture the value of their immersive, in-person programming in an online format.

“Wharton Online provided essential technical and strategic support during the height of the pandemic, but the value of that support will last far into the future,” said Raju. “Executive Education and Global Youth now have the virtual tools to evolve and adapt on their own.”

Keeping a Steady Course

The last edtech boom happened in the early 2010s, long before COVID sent the industry rocketing forward. Wharton Online cited an “extreme uptick” in Coursera courses in the first year of the pandemic before it saw a return to normalcy at the end of 2020.

A similar fluctuation occurred in the broader edtech landscape.

“There were a lot of assumptions made in late 2020, early 2021, of permanent shifts to the edtech landscape that have somewhat unwound themselves over the last six to 12 months,” said Adam Goldman, WG’09. His six-year career in edtech includes serving as vice president of e-textbook company Chegg and, now, chief financial officer of Codecademy. “We’re starting to see a bifurcation in edtech of places where COVID really did change the landscape, and where it just accelerated things that were happening. Some places, like K–12, have advanced incredibly in terms of adoption.”

More exciting trends are always on the horizon — personalization, gamification, and AI learning are just a few — but the future can be hard to predict. What makes foresight especially tricky in edtech is that no learner is the same.

“Apple can sell the same iPhone all over the world. Trying to sell the same educational platform all over the world is usually a guarantee for a really shiny pitch deck and failure down the line,” Goldman said. “I think one of the nice things about an institutionally-captive platform is their KPIs are going to, hopefully, be more aligned to learner efficacy and longer-term thinking than a typical early- to mid-stage edtech company.”

Huesman (left) and Criscione (right) from the Wharton Online team.

Part of keeping a steady course means Wharton Online balances innovation with a foundation built on quality courses, loyal clients, and strong partnerships. The team is able to stay nimble instead of over-committing to trends that later become obsolete.

“With over three million learners worldwide, our learners are diverse. But they all have one thing in common which is the desire to challenge themselves and learn relevant career skills,” said Lauren Criscione, LPS’21, the initiative’s senior associate director of production and digital marketing. “Learners typically take our courses to jump-start their careers, advance within their organization, learn how to better lead their team and drive their business forward, or for the pure love of learning.”

Take Elizabeth Carlyle, currently Partner at Daniels & Tredennick PLLC and a participant in Wharton Online’s Leadership and Management Certificate Program in 2018.

“When I enrolled, I was the general counsel of a large franchise,” Carlyle said. “I wanted to be a more well-rounded part of the team and offer business insights in addition to legal guidance. As a working mom, I could not make the commute from Texas to Pennsylvania. Wharton Online offered convenient options for me. The flexibility was essential.”

During the pandemic, Carlyle taught the Legal Environment of Business course at Houston Baptist University’s Dunham College of Business. It was a “full circle” experience, she said. “My Wharton professors made the subjects come to life and I tried to do the same for my students.”

The Human Component

Although Wharton Online operates under Executive Education, not all learners look like Carlyle. Users range from C-suite executives and middle managers to college and high school students — and, of course, Wharton alumni. This spring, the new AI for Business course was offered to alumni tuition-free and surpassed 1,200 registrations, including at least one member of every MBA graduating class from 1974 through 2021 (along with alumni from the ’50s and ’60s).

Finance Prof. David Musto filming for Wharton Online in 2019.

This reach reflects an enduring commitment to making Wharton knowledge more accessible and affordable. “People often say that only the elite can come to Wharton,” said Raju. “Creating access for people who value the knowledge we create as faculty is very important.”

When it comes to scaling meaningful impact and innovation, edtech is an invaluable tool, added Cabral Thornton, WG’03. Thornton is the founder of Frame Change, an education management services company that supports underserved students. “The subject matter experts are the teachers who are in the classroom, cutting their teeth doing good work at a micro-level,” he said. “Edtech allows their subject matter expertise to be scaled to a macro-level.”

Under the leadership of Patti Williams, who was named to succeed Raju as the new vice dean of Executive Education starting in April, the Wharton Online team is striving to set the standard in online business education. Someday, Wharton Online content could be incorporated into the curricula of other schools — not just in business schools, but wherever that knowledge can best benefit students.

Thornton hopes those students will go on to use what they’ve learned at Wharton to continue advancing the field of education. “Our biggest assets in edtech are the human beings,” he said. “The future of edtech is dependent on how we incorporate that human capital as part of the process.”

— Gloria Yuen

A version of this story was published in the Spring/Summer 2022 Issue of Wharton Magazine.

Posted: April 27, 2022

Related Content

Read More Stories