Stephen Carson

Principal Consultant, Digital Education Concepts LLC

MOOCs are not a strategy

In June 2012, the president of the University of Virginia was ousted by the school’s board, and then reinstated, in part—if you believe the news reports—because she was not moving the school into online learning fast enough. If in fact this was the case, I see it as an instance of a much wider phenomenon: Prior to the emergence of MOOCs (at least the edX/Coursera/Udacity “xMOOCs”) it was more or less optional for a school to have a digital learning strategy. After, it suddenly became necessity.

moocimageUp until the Stanford AI course in late 2011, online learning was largely confined to seedy for-profits and the backwaters of more reputable institutions. MIT has made a fairly big splash with OpenCourseWare, but that was a harmless philanthropic stunt that didn’t threaten business models. Standford’s demonstration of the capacity to teach an unlimited number of students a sophisticated and high demand topic like artificial intelligence most certainly did.

You can see the forces driving schools into the MOOC field in their descriptions of why they got involved. Here is Wellesley CIO and Wellesley X Associate Dean Ravi Ravishanke in a recent interview:

We are in it because we want to be in it as an early adopter of this technology. We don’t know where this is going, but it is better to be in in than to be sitting on the sidelines and we really want to learn from the likes of MIT and Harvard and Berkeley in the edX Consortium on the best practices and take it back to our Wellesley classes.

To be fair, he does come back to a more focused, and ambitious, objective:

Beyond that, our goal is to educate women. We believe this gives a chance to reach the women worldwide. Anyone with an internet connection…can get access to any of our courses and we want to give access to the wealth of courses worldwide.

Most schools could have probably developed the technologies for offering MOOCs on their own. A large chunk of the technology being developed by the major MOOC providers replicates tools that have been a standard part of learning management systems for years, with scalable assessment tools grafted on. And yet, most schools have chosen to attach themselves to one of the “big three” rather than go it alone.

There are solid strategic reasons for doing so. The marketing muscle of these groups outstrips the capacity of most of the member schools; there are opportunities for pooling data and sharing best practices. But in the case of Coursera especially, where there is no cost for becoming involved and no penalty for ending the involvement, I suspect much of the impetus for joining is low barrier to entry and little upfront investment.

In other words, the key driver was an easy opportunity to be involved. This is not to denigrate the motives of the professors creating the courses; in nearly all cases, they seem to be genuinely interested in learning about these new teaching and learning approaches. But institutionally, much of the involvement seems to be so that schools can say “Look! we do have an online strategy. We’re doing MOOCs!”

Which is great. Except MOOCs are not a strategy. They are an activity which may or may not support a strategy, and in many cases the underlying strategies are poorly articulated. There are a number of good reasons why schools might offer MOOCs: They expand educational opportunities for underserved learners worldwide. They are a great match for the lifelong learning needs of today’s information society. I am less convinced that they offer a path to reducing the cost of higher education. They will more likely provide an opportunity to reimagine residential education. But the specific strategies pursued may lead to very different approaches to MOOCs.

It’s easy enough to say “All of the above.” The problem with this is it leads to a tremendous amount of unfocused activity in a resource-intensive environment. For instance, reducing the cost of higher education and serving lifelong learners pulls in two different directions.  Serving populations of women worldwide with little or no previous educational opportunity is a much different undertaking than using technology to improve the education of women on the campus of a leading first-world college.  Each takes a different focus and a different set of resources.

This is not an argument against MOOCs, but rather an argument for careful thought about why MOOCs. There are instances of MOOCs offered with clearly articulated strategies. The CS Master’s program at Georgia Tech is a good example. Clearly, the goal is to reduce the cost and widen opportunities for the population that currently takes the residential version of this program. You can argue whether this is a good use of the MOOC model, but at least Georgia Tech knows what they are trying to use MOOCs for.  To the extent that other schools involved take the time to really think about why, it will help them to be more successful with the what.

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This entry was posted on August 8, 2013 by in educational technology, massive open online courses, strategic planning.
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