How many people does it take to service more than 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,” says 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: Business Foundations, which includes a capstone for learners to apply business concepts in a real-life business pitch,” says 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 health-care 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 distributors like Emeritus and ExecOnline. The initiative’s 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,” adds 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.”

It’s no surprise that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, more than 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,” says 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 industry.

“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 past six to 12 months,” says Adam Goldman WG09. His six-year career in edtech has included serving as vice president of e-textbook company Chegg and, now, as 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.”

“Creating access for people who value the knowledge we create as faculty is very important,” says former vice dean Jagmohan Raju.

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 says. “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.”

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,” says Lauren Criscione LPS21, 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.”

The Human Component

Although Wharton Online operates under Executive Education, 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 registrants, including at least one member of every MBA graduating class from 1974 through 2021 (along with alumni from the ’50s and ’60s).

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,” says 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, adds Cabral Thornton WG03. 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 says. “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 will 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 says. “The future of edtech is dependent on how we incorporate that human capital as part of the process.”


Published as “Bringing Wharton to the World” in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of  Wharton Magazine.