MOOCs—A New Starting Point for Business Ethics Scholarship and Teaching

By Brian Moriarty

On November 4, renowned business ethics expert Kirk O. Hanson and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics are launching a free four-week massive open online course (or MOOC) on Business Ethics in the Real World. The course will “offer practical advice on confronting unethical situations in the workplace — from white lies on resumes and manager pressure to falsify reports, to bosses accepting bribes or questionable company actions against industry competitors.” Enrollment is
unlimited and the course expects to garner thousands of students from around the world.

Business Ethics in the Real World MOOC

For over 30 years, Kirk O. Hanson of Santa Clara University and R. Edward Freeman of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business have been two of the most highly regarded academics in business ethics, a discipline they helped found. A key to this sustained excellence is a genuine desire to engage with current and future business leaders in true dialog—a deep hunger to learn from others as much as to teach.

While much of the attention given to massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has been focused on speculations about how they will alter current institutions of higher learning, one of the most attractive elements of MOOCs for professors like Hanson and Freeman is that they offer an unprecedented vehicle for engagement. Popular MOOCs like Freeman’s New Models of Business in Society are creating important global conversations among people who represent a diverse range of cultural, geographic, social, and economic backgrounds.

I recently had a conversation with Professor Hanson about his upcoming course, Business Ethics in the Real World. Below are my questions and Professor Hanson’s insightful replies:

[styled_box title=”Interview with Kirk O. Hanson” color=”blue”] How does the current course compare with the pilot you launched earlier this year?

HANSON: We conducted the four week course in February-March 2013 as a pilot with a capped enrollment of 500. The enrollees came from approximately 35 countries, though we hit exactly the average with 10 percent completing and getting the letter of completion. This time the enrollment will not be capped.

Two other things are different. The course is open for four months and participants may do the four weeks of the course at any point during the four months. Second, we will follow this four week course with two more four week courses, launched January and March 2014. The three courses together will constitute the equivalent of a full semester course on business ethics.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a marketplace need for more educators with expertise in business ethics, particularly in developing markets. Do you think MOOCs can help to fill this gap?

HANSON: Yes, I think the availability of MOOCs by senior professors long working in the field will help developing markets to provide business ethics content. However, such courses can also be an opportunity for sharing learnings about business ethics across cultures and countries, something senior professors in the US can benefit from.

Kirk O. Hanson

Kirk O. Hanson

In some areas of the world, corruption is viewed by some people as a cost of doing business. Do you think that MOOCs will help to flatten expectations of what constitutes common business practices across regions?

HANSON: Participation in globally-available MOOCs may provide an opportunity for sharing expectations about business behavior, and “lean against” the acceptance of corruption as inevitable in some societies.

You have two additional MOOCs scheduled to start in early January and March 2014. What will these courses cover?

HANSON: The two additional MOOCs, which develop other topics normally covered in a semester-long course on business ethics, will have as their themes – 1) Creating and sustaining the ethical corporate culture and 2) Global Business Ethics.

As one of the founders of the field of business ethics, how do you anticipate MOOCs will change the discipline?

HANSON: I hope that the availability of MOOCs will give professors of business ethics worldwide a starting point for their own scholarship and teaching. They may not have to spend so much time “reinventing the wheel,” rediscovering the core concepts of business ethics. I hope our MOOCs on business ethics will be followed by MOOCs on Chinese business ethics, Indian business ethics, and so on, by professors from those countries.

What do you hope to learn from your students?

HANSON: I hope to learn about my students’ experience of business behavior, and how business behavior in their societies may be improved. Many of my students in the Spring of 2013 were indeed professors of business ethics from the United States and elsewhere, so I have already learned much from their experience teaching these same topics in their environments.

If Hanson is right, and I suspect he is, MOOCs are becoming a nexus for the sharing of ideas and viewpoints across cultures which has the potential to become a catalyst of innovation for both scholars and business practitioners. If we view MOOCs through the lens of social media, what stands out is the enthusiasm most participants have to listen to one another’s ideas. It is yet to be seen if MOOCs will spur entrepreneurial activity—like a Silicon Valley in cyberspace—but it already seems clear that they are creating social capital in the form of cross-cultural understanding and respect.