Darden Strategy MOOC Builds Bridges in Africa

By Dave Hendrick

An innovative distance learning program is connecting more than 100 students in Africa to coursework at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, expanding opportunities for both parties.

As part of a first-of-its-kind partnership between Distance Education for Africa, the Darden School and Coursera, learners from seven African countries were recently awarded scholarships to take the series of massive open online courses (MOOCs) making up Darden’s Business Strategy Specialization, taught by Professors Mike Lenox and Jared Harris.

Although the specialization is available to anyone on the Coursera platform, the African Scholarship Cohort is completing the specialization as a group, with oversight from the online learning team at UVA. The specialization consists of five courses: “Foundations of Business Strategy,” “Advanced Business Strategy,” “Business Growth Strategy,” “Strategic Planning and Execution” and “Business Strategy Capstone.”

Students receive a certificate after completion of each course, and specialization certificate following completion of all five courses, earning official recognition for their work without incurring the nearly $500 cost for the certificates, which would be prohibitive for many students in the region.

For Darden, whose MOOCs have touched more than 1.1 million people since the launch of the first Darden MOOC in 2013, the partnership helps to further the global reach and impact of the School and its message, while establishing relationships in countries where it may not be well-known.

Students had to apply to be part of the cohort, hail from a variety of backgrounds and have varying degrees of business backgrounds. Being part of the African Scholarship Cohort allows them to gain business skills and career advancement potential from a top business school and connect with peers throughout the continent.

That’s certainly been the case for Geoffrey Bwireh, a teacher and entrepreneur who had established a bond with UVA and Darden from a previous encounter with the School.

Bwireh, an instructor at the Institute of Management Sciences at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) in Uganda, connected with Dr. Chris Moore when the professor from UVA’s School of Medicine was conducting research in the area, and helped facilitate a growing connection between the young business school and Darden, which includes plans for continued collaboration through Global Consulting Projects, among other avenues.

Darden Senior Assistant Dean for Degree Programs Michael Koenig, who has served as the key facilitator between the two schools, also saw the potential to learn how one of Darden’s most popular MOOCs could help a diverse group of African students learn from Darden, while building another bridge between Darden and the region.

Geoffrey Bwireh

Geoffrey Bwireh

A natural candidate for the cohort given his background, Bwireh said he’s grateful for the opportunity and has already seen the benefit in his work.

“It’s really great for us in Africa to be able to access that quality of education,” Bwireh said. “I’m enjoying every bit of it, and the great part is you are able to practice what you are learning there and then.”

In addition to his role at MUST, Bwireh is the founder and managing director of a commodity trading company.

“Scholarships are having a clear impact on the people and the organization,” Bwireh said. “I can testify for my part as a participant and also with the colleagues that have taken the course, too.”

The process has certainly been a learning experience for UVA and Darden, as well, according to Dr. Kristin Palmer, director of online learning programs at UVA.

According to Palmer, this program is unchartered territory with much to be learned.

Palmer said the unknowns included:

  • Would the specialization help build relationships with potential partner universities or businesses?
  • Would employees in the cohort apply the concepts they are learning in the courses to their work?
  • Do students in the scholarship stick with the program through the five courses despite other commitments of work and life?
  • Is this program helping Darden faculty members see and understand business projects and the business environment in Sub-Saharan Africa?

And while the final answers for all of those questions are not yet known, Palmer called the experience a gratifying one, with an engaged group of students eager to participate.

“They are honored to be a part of the cohort and they really put forth their best effort. It’s great to have this level of engagement,” Palmer said. “They are producing really interesting evaluations of different businesses that are located in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s been a really wonderful experience.”

Palmer said she believed Coursera, the digital learning company that partners with Darden to deliver its MOOCs, was also keen to learn from the experience, noting that the project was one of the few highlighted by the company at a recent partners conference.

“This certainly aligns with their vision of high-quality education for everyone, everywhere,” Palmer said. “It’s real world implementation of what they are trying to be as a company.”

Like other learners in the cohort, Sophie Kanyiri, a student from Kenya, credited the course with both improving her business acumen and opening cultural doors. She is also one of many who described how the coursework was already being put into practice, even before the completion of the specialization.

“Having undertaken the course I have been able to improve my marketing strategies for the benefit of my employer and myself and I have also learned how to analyze competition, a skill not well taught in our Kenyan system,” Kanyiri said. “This has allowed me to be more broad-minded and creative and improve sales at my work place.”

Another member of the cohort, Nasser Munyagwa, is taking the course with 36 colleagues at Nile Breweries, where he is a human resources business partner.

Munyagwa said he found the international strategy component particularly engaging, as well as learning about the “five forces” competition analysis.

Munyagwa, who is simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in institutional management and leadership at the Uganda Management Institute, said work, exams and a wedding had slowed his progress for a period, but was caught up thanks to what he described as the “continuous encouragement” of his colleagues and Palmer.

Sidiki Traore, the president of Distance Education for Africa, said that while there is no official measurement for the impact of the scholarships, he believes that they are in many cases dramatic.

“I can tell you that doors have been opened for some of them that had never happened before,” said Traore, noting the experience of students from war-torn countries such as Burundi coming into contact with “one of the best universities in the world.”

“They are wonderful people and I do feel like these courses are making an impact,” Palmer said. “It’s improving local businesses, it’s starting a conversation that is more informed and it is based on what and how we teach at UVA. I am honored to be a part of this program.”

The students in the African Scholarship Cohort are scheduled to complete the specialization this fall.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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