At dinner recently I was asked by a young chap who had just joined the faculty of an elite B-school whether  he had signed onto a sinking ship (not in those words of course). I did not hesitate to bore him into somnolence on the subject.

I think there are two challenges. One specific to B-schools and the other  to Universities in general. The specific one is driven by demography and (apparent) changes in preferences. Specifically, the decline in appetite among US students for an MBA and the corresponding growth in demand by students outside the US. For B-schools at the top of the charts, this will necessitate some changes in their offerings but it is a challenge that can be feasibly met. Schools that are neither regionally or internationally dominant will be up against the wall.

The second is the possible disintermediation of higher education as we know it by  the MOOC’s (massively open online courses). It was said that Universities would be killed by Gutenberg. They were not. Then, it was Marconi that would would bury them. They survived. They survived John Logie Baird as well. Why not the internet? Ok, I’m sure the same argument was made about the newspaper business. Perhaps, like them, we will  make our money in advertising. Opportunities abound. The surface of desks in classrooms, floors in the hallway, bathroom stalls (the Goldman Lavatory of Finance?), quizzes, exams, the school web site. A crawler at the bottom of screens in classrooms as well as the TV monitors in the hallways. Product placement on instructor power point presentations. Double the time spent in courses and use the extra time for employer presentations (make attendance mandatory!).

Returning to the  MOOC’s, they are  not, shock and horror, novel. Think Open University in the UK or the School of the Air in Australia. Both seek to circumvent the bonds of time and place to deliver instruction. The first attempts to do this at scale.

OK, so what is the challenge MOOC’s pose? They allow students to customize the timing and pace of the class to their needs without having to scale up the size of the faculty. How might B-schools (and Universities) respond to this? We have to systematically exploit the fact that we bring students and faculty together in one location at the same time. That synchronicity allows us to do things that none of the MOOC’s I have sampled can do: sustained and deep discussion. In contrast, the famous Thrun AI course, for example, was a well delivered compilation of lists, facts and recipes.  It is possible the kind of Socratic experience I have in mind can be replicated by discussion among students on the discussion board (which are then filtered up the pyramid to the professor). I don’t think so. If I’m wrong, I’m a dodo  and  it does not matter.