MOOC-tastic or MOOC-trocious?

MOOC-tastic or MOOC-trocious?
Dr. Susan Aldridge, Senior Fellow of AASCU delivered this speech, titled “MOOC-tastic or MOOC-trocious? Exploring the Academic Value of Higher Education’s Latest Trend”. It was delivered at AASCU Winter Conference, Point Clear, Alabama.

As MOOCs explode onto the higher education landscape, American colleges and universities are rushing to jump on the distance learning bandwagon. But amid the hype, these ventures have also raised a number of legitimate questions. For example, does university brand necessarily equate to quality teaching, especially in the online environment? Likewise, does the rapidly emerging xMOOC model exploit the power of technology to promote effective learning (as its predecessor, the cMOOC, did)? And do the courses and certifications offered actually meet the needs of MOOC participants?

Although MOOC mania has only recently taken higher education by storm, the very first Massive Open, Online Course was actually offered in 2008, by a group of Canadian online learning experts, Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier. It was indeed Massive in the sense that it enrolled 25 fee-paying students on campus, along with 2,300 others who paid nothing for the privilege. It was also Open from the standpoint that anyone with an email address could register. And it was entirely Online.

But while it was billed as a Course, it did not meet the traditional definition for one, in that it was far less bounded and structured. Even more important, it connected anytime anyplace learners in what its creators termed “collective sense-making,” by providing multiple avenues for them to interact with both the content and each other. Consequently, RSS feeds were used to make the course modules available. And students could choose from among such digital tools as threaded Moodle discussions, blog posts, Second Life, and synchronous online forums. Daily e-mails also provided links to course announcements, blog posts, and Twitter messages.

In the years that followed, two distinctively different models have emerged. There is the original cMOOC version – which continues to grow in popularity among some of the more experienced distance education providers. And there is the newer xMOOC variety – which has exploded onto the higher education scene, catapulting elite institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and MIT into the e-learning business.

cMOOCs are for the most part much smaller in size, enrolling anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand learners. So they are designed to inspire self-directed learning communities, fueled by the desire to co-create and freely exchange knowledge on any number of topics. Of course, that means cMOOCs are, by design, interactive and learner-centered. Even more important, the ultimate goal is to create social capital, by building knowledge networks of value for those who take part in them.

That being said, cMOOC learners sign on to connect and collaborate beyond the boundaries of a traditional classroom setting. And with no set curriculum, there are opportunities to both consume and produce knowledge much in the same way online communities of practice enable groups of like-minded individuals to share interests and information. In addition, cMOOC learners master and demonstrate their competencies by actively creating web-based learning artifacts, such as blogs, wikis, and podcasts.

On the other hand, xMOOCs have taken massive to unimaginable heights, attracting literally millions of learners from every corner of the world to log on to courses that can accommodate tens of thousands at a time. Unlike its more collaborative counterpart, this model is grounded in the traditional broadcast method of passive knowledge transfer or duplication, in line with the so-called factory model of education. Which we all know is predicated on the teacher-centric “drill and grill” instructional methodologies that continue to dominate many of today’s campus-based classrooms. And because some of the more elite universities are driving the bandwagon, so to speak, there is also an institutional focus, as these prestigious content providers rush to promote their brands on the global stage.

Moreover, massive is far more important than open, as venture capitalists, who invested heavily in creating these platforms, clamor to develop business models that will eventually generate healthy returns. Not surprisingly then, most of these emerging xMOOCs are far more interested in creating financial capital over time.

With these attributes in mind, xMOOC students typically learn in virtual isolation, although some of the better courses do provide opportunities for limited peer interaction. As such, they consume knowledge by watching typical college lectures, often chunked into 15-minute segments, as well as by reading course materials online. It follows then that, for the most part, learners periodically demonstrate their proficiency by taking machine-graded, multiple choice tests, designed primarily for measuring content retention. Some courses require students to grade assignments of other students.

But in spite of their questionable pedagogical practices, xMOOCs like Udacity, Coursera, and edX continue to attract world-famous universities, intent on embracing the next big thing in higher education. Coursera, for example, already offers more than 200 courses – ranging from astronomy to public health – taught by some of the biggest faculty names around.

To date, venture capitalists have underwritten some 100 million dollars in start-up costs for these three companies alone. What’s more, MOOCs are not free to the institutions that support them. Of course, for extremely well-endowed universities like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, the associated investment is well worth its weight in terms of the exceptional public relations opportunity it affords.

And while the jury is still out when it comes to long-term sustainability, learners continue to sign on in record numbers, with as many as 200,000 in a single course. Consequently, fledgling companies like Coursera and Udacity are beginning to give some of the more established, tuition-based open universities a run for their money in the enrollment department.

As we might expect then, MOOC mania has raised any number of legitimate concerns among those of us who have fought long and hard to drive technology-enhanced learning into the mainstream of higher education. To begin with, completion rates are unbelievably low, even in courses that are relatively well-designed. In fact, none of you in this room would be employed for long if your course completion rates were consistently hitting the five to ten percent mark.

And although elite universities are posting their courses for free, they are certainly not giving credits for them – although there is some talk of awarding “badges” for successful completion. Of course, these badges will more than suffice for learners, particularly overseas students, who are simply attracted by the prestige associated with taking free classes offered by universities like Harvard and MIT. By the same token, with big investments at stake, xMOOC providers will eventually need to come up with some plan to recoup them, whether through certification fees, secure exam assessments, or applicant screening for companies and universities. Institutional partners will also need to ensure that their costs of participation are not being shifted to paying students in the form of increased tuition fees.

Of even greater concern, however, is what I will call the quality factor. Keep in mind that most of the current crop of xMOOC institutional partners earned their reputation around research and not teaching. On top of that, these are the same universities that have in the past claimed that online education is inherently inferior to the face-to-face environment. So it’s difficult at best to make the case that institutional brand is necessarily a substitute for quality distance teaching and learning.

Individual faculty members are often asked to develop and produce their own online courses, thus engaging in what e-learning expert Tony Bates calls the Lone Ranger approach. And I’m sure we would all agree that effective virtual learning environments are the end product of teamwork among, at the very least, content experts, course designers, and assessment specialists.

Yet another problem rests with the tight control that universities and their faculty members continue to exercise over what and how courses are offered. So given the high buy-in expense for platforms like Coursera and Udacity, institutional players with high-profile brands will be tempted to put scale and cost ahead of quality and innovation when it comes to course selection and design.

But like any new educational practice, there is most definitely an upside to MOOC mania, beginning with the renewed interest in online delivery. In fact, the traditional publications of our trade are using words like revolutionary and tsunami to herald the coming of a new virtual era in higher education.

It has also ramped up the competition for cutting-edge knowledge generation, as universities rush to distinguish their brands in this new era. Likewise, competition will inevitably lead to expanded opportunities for continuous learning, while opening the door for new student markets. For example, xMOOCs are beginning to attract a significant number of adult learners who view these open courses as a viable option for ongoing professional development. And early adopters like Stanford and MIT are exploring ways to use MOOCs as an additional tool for identifying and recruiting gifted students.

Equally important, this massive online platform will give lesser known universities a unique chance to prove their value – particularly institutions with expertise in delivering quality online education. MOOCs will also pave the way for universities large and small, public and private, to experiment with technology-enhanced instructional methodologies.

As the “bricks versus clicks” debate continues to gain traction on campuses everywhere, a growing number of faculty members are moving in the direction of blended instruction. So it’s only a matter of time before they begin leveraging open online content to enrich the face to face learning environment. And as this new form of instruction takes hold, students will undoubtedly demand far greater control over their learning process. That being said, MOOCs will serve as yet another impetus for making the critical shift from teacher-directed to learner-centered education.

Many of us in this room have experience working with the basic tools of the e-learning trade – from podcasts and interactive discussion forums, to blogs, wikis, and virtual simulations. Consequently, we know firsthand the real power of technology in supporting an exceptional learning experience for our students, whether on campus and at a distance. But MOOCs offer something we have never really had: the opportunity to reach literally thousands of students at one time. And that suggests any number of opportunities for AASCU members to enhance their own institutional missions.

You might begin by creating free or low-cost casual courses that are customized for specific target audiences. Take prospective students, for instance. At a time when recruitment has become increasingly competitive and expensive, universities are looking for innovative and cost-effective ways to differentiate their brands and promote their programs. So why not recruit exceptional faculty members in some of your more popular programs to create well-designed MOOCs, as “teasers” for prospective students and parents.
In addition, casual courses provide a promising vehicle for alumni engagement. In fact, as thoughtfully conceived lifelong learning opportunities taught by favorite professors, they offer an extraordinary way to keep your graduates both connected and committed.

Universities also serve a vital role as curators and arbiters of knowledge. Consequently, when there are emerging issues to explore and problems to solve, the community naturally turns to higher education. And MOOCs can provide a unique forum for stimulating public discussion, while also showcasing institutional research efforts and faculty expertise.

Given the regional focus of most AASCU members, you might also consider using MOOCs as a college prep option for secondary education. High school students are always anxious to get a jump on college credits, and MOOCs can help them do just that, by providing high quality, self-paced coursework at a minimal cost.
For example, they might be designed to supplement Advanced Placement coursework or broken into smaller modules that could be taken over the summer. Likewise, students who successfully complete MOOCs from any recognized source might earn college credit, by passing a CLEP-like exam, as part of the admissions process.

Some universities are even using MOOCs to better prepare students for the rigors of college work. Incoming freshmen are often required to take courses that reinforce good study habits and time management skills. These same courses can easily be offered free of charge, in an open online format, for students to complete before they hit campus in the fall.

Universities such as ours are also forging new inroads with corporate learning partners as a way to generate additional revenue from targeted professional development. Likewise, these partnerships are opening new student markets for credit-bearing certificate and degree programs. MOOCs would undoubtedly give you an added advantage on two fronts. They would enable you to further these collaborative partnerships on a much larger scale. They would also provide a logical format for employees to connect and collaborate in teams, as colleagues, while also forming productive alliances beyond the workplace, with other like-minded individuals in their fields.

As the landscape of higher education continues to change, I’m sure all of you are busy rethinking and refining your models to attract and retain non-traditional students, many of whom come to college with a wealth of experience-based competencies. Consequently, to save money and time, they want to earn credit for what they’ve learned outside the traditional academic setting. On top of that, a growing number of traditional students are arriving on campus, unprepared to hit the ground running academically. To succeed, they often spend the first few semesters taking remedial coursework, which in turn increases both tuition cost and time to degree.

MOOCs furnish an innovative, albeit unconventional way to drive tuition expenses down and completion rates up. For example, by collaborating with other public universities to achieve higher economies of scale, you could significantly reduce the cost of entry level courses by offering them online. Or when needed, furnish remediation, free of charge, as a precondition for college enrollment. MOOCs can also be used as a free or low-cost assessment tool for prior learning, as well as for preparing students to take challenge exams or create learning portfolios.

As might be expected, AASCU universities are already on the frontlines of MOOC development, experimenting with some of these approaches. For instance, Longwood University in Virginia has teamed up with the learning platform creator Badgestack to offer a MOOC that helps high school students get a head start on career success. This non-credit course teaches everything from interpersonal communications skills to critical thinking and presentation techniques. Moreover, in keeping with its commitment to quality distance learning, Longwood has incorporated gaming technology to provide hands-on exercises and continuous feedback, both of which create an engaging and effective learning experience.
So much so, in fact, that most of the 1200 students who signed up for the first run last semester successfully completed it. And although it has attracted students from 12 countries, the largest percentage are regionally located, which makes this MOOC an exceptional recruitment vehicle, as well.

In another move to boost student recruitment, The University of Maine at Presque Isle is working on a concept that provost, Michael Sonntag, has dubbed a LOOC, or “little open online course.” This high touch anti-MOOC experience for non-paying students has given rise to the university’s OpenU project. Like MOOCs, these small scale courses are open to anyone. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. For starters, OpenU students learn shoulder-to- shoulder virtually speaking with their tuition paying counterparts, while also receiving the same attention from UMPI faculty members. Consequently, participation is limited to five non-paying students per course, who must also reside in Maine.

Even more important, LOOC completers can earn academic credit in two ways: by paying retroactively for up to six credits through the university’s prior learning program, or by formally enrolling in the course before the drop and add period ends. So the hope is that OpenU students will eventually become paying customers in one of UMPIs many fine undergraduate degree programs.

As one of edX’s newest partner, the University System of Texas – which includes five of our AASCU member schools – is also getting into the MOOC business to make degree completion both cheaper and faster. Under this arrangement, the system will provide certain core courses – which typically fill up fast – in the massive online format. So by having the MOOC option, students will no longer have to battle over-enrollment or wait out the semester until the course is taught again.

Some institutions will also charge reduced tuition rates for MOOC credits earned. Likewise, the system may opt to generate additional revenue by awarding low-cost, Texas-branded certificates to non-enrolled MOOC participants, who earn decent scores on a proctored exam.

San Jose State University has also joined forces with Udacity to pilot a much smaller scale model. As such, the university will turn three entry-level courses into MOOCs, and charge a very reasonable $150 for the package. The university will supply the professors, while Udacity contributes the platform, as well as the staff support, including course mentors to support student progress. And to make this process more manageable, course enrollment will be capped at 100 students, who may earn academic credit after passing a proctored exam.

For-profit companies like Academic Partnerships are also getting into the act, having created MOOC2Degree, a bold initiative, designed to significantly boost enrollment in the online degree programs it provides to public universities. By using the MOOC platform to offer the first credit-bearing course free of charge, the company hopes to turn completers into full-fledged, tuition-paying students. This experiment is already off to a good start at the University of Texas, Arlington, where some 75% of those students who finished a free course in nursing, went on to pay for the second one. Consequently, UT Arlington has attracted a new crop of prospective students, who, in turn, have had a risk-free opportunity to test-drive online learning.


Experiments, such as these, will undoubtedly lead to higher quality and greater innovation, as MOOCs continue to evolve. In remaining competitive, xMOOC providers will eventually offer a far more engaging and interactive learning experience, thus giving rise to a hybrid model that incorporates many of the original cMOOC technologies and approaches.

And as universities seek to offer credits for successful completion, MOOCs will also provide a fertile ground for mining reams of intelligent student data, which we can all use to optimize both the learning environment and the learning process.

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