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ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management

Arizona State University

The Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University plans to launch a new global management and entrepreneurship online certificate program that will offer five free online business courses in 40 languages worldwide and aims to reach 100 million learners by 2030, 70 percent of them women.

The program was announced by the university Thursday and will be funded by a $25 million alumni gift matched by in-kind donations from the business school and the university, which will bring the business school at least halfway to the $100 million goal for launching the program across the next two years, said Sanjeev Khagram, dean of the business school.

Khagram said the program is a natural extension of Thunderbird, which calls itself the most global and digital management and leadership academy in the world. With the new program, the school’s administrators hope to catapult people in the developing world into business careers and entrepreneurship by showing them what’s possible. Khagram said officials are particularly focused on reaching an estimated 26 million refugees worldwide.

People who enroll will earn a badge for each course taken, and if they complete all five courses in the program, they will receive an executive certificate. Khagram said he is working with the university to ensure the certificate can be converted for college credits. He noted that Thunderbird professors will help design and teach the courses, but the program will include supplemental professors from various regions in the world “for cameos” to ensure courses are culturally appropriate.

Khagram said he expects there to be many doubters of the plan, given the sweep of the program’s ambitions, but he believes Thunderbird’s long experience in online education and in reaching international students equips it for the challenge.

“We’ve been working on these things for a long time,” Khagram said. “We’re not a start-up here. We already have thought through a lot of how to use AI, how to use mobile technology, how to get internet access to students all over the world, including Africa.”

Khagram is from Uganda and fled the country when it was ruled by strongman Idi Amin in the 1970s, and he spent time in an Italian refugee camp before immigrating to the U.S. He said Thunderbird is committed to reaching and supporting underserved populations and will partner with organizations worldwide to ensure success.

“We know that there are skeptics,” Khagram said. “We know this is bold and ambitious. But we believe in moon shots.”

Some online education experts are indeed skeptical. Phil Hill, an education market analyst and co-founder of MindWires, an educational-technology consulting firm, said that even the massive open online course juggernaut Coursera needed a decade to reach 100 million learners and did so only with venture capital support far more robust than the amount with which Thunderbird is working.

Hill called the goal of reaching 100 million people “press release hype” and said Thunderbird officials “need to have cold water thrown on them.”

“There’s no realistic plan to say they can come even close to what they’re planning,” Hill said.

Hill said Thunderbird’s decision to offer a certificate program makes a lot of sense and harnesses the growing momentum for such online offerings. But he questioned whether there are 100 million people worldwide who will even want to leverage the opportunity. Noting Thunderbird’s goal of reaching learners in Africa, he pointed out that any coursework offered there will need to be optimized for mobile delivery so that students without reliable internet connections can find one to download work and then complete it from home when off-line.

Thunderbird officials pegged the announcement of the new certificate program to the World Economic Forum’s State of the World online sessions. In making the announcement, Thunderbird highlighted United Nations estimates that the coronavirus pandemic has wiped out 20 years of educational gains.

The program’s courses will be translated with what Thunderbird officials are calling a “unique Google engine purpose-built for the Global Initiative.” They said native speakers will be retained to ensure the digitally translated language renderings are high-quality. Thunderbird also plans to leverage a global network of 50,000 alumni in more than 100 countries and its network of 16 Centers of Excellence around the world to augment the effort.

The certificate program’s five courses will be developed and taught by Thunderbird faculty. They are Global Leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Customer Experience and Digital Marketing in a Global World, Global Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Business, Data Analytics and Digital Transformation in a Global World, and Global Financial Accounting.

The first course will launch April 8.

Russell Poulin, an expert in online learning and executive director at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, a membership organization focused on practice, policy and advocacy for digital learning in higher education, said ASU’s track record of success in implementing innovative educational programs can’t be overlooked. But he warned that “grand plans like this one” bear careful watching.

“As for offering courses in different languages, other institutions have learned that the issue runs far beyond simply translating the text,” Poulin said. “There are many flavors of Spanish. There are local idioms that are not universally used. Business concepts will have to be placed into context. Monetary units differ … business practices differ, and so do cultural contexts. It’s a big job.”

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