Musing on MOOCs

Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version.

These are just some relatively unstructured musings on MOOCs now that the dust has settled, or at least stopped blowing furiously. It’s worth reviewing the landscape and to reflect on the opportunities and challenges these iterative learning environments represent. MOOCs and their associated technologies provide opportunities for education. But MOOC-related decisions need to be based on a mission-driven process that properly engages the entire institutional community.

The question that schools, colleges, and universities face relates to the educational institution’s reason for being: How will tools like MOOCs further the mission of the institution? For institutions that traditionally have large, lecture-hall-based classes, or for whom distance learning is a component of their core technology, a MOOC might simply be an extension in scale of those paradigms. For institutions that traditionally have small classes, or who have not embraced distance learning, the role of the MOOC and its component technologies is less clear. Whatever the case, the mission of the institution must drive the development of strategy and subsequent planning and decision-making.

As of this writing (October, 2013), there continues to be disagreement and confusion about the disposition of MOOCs. Some of the experiments that received very public pronouncements (Udacity and San Jose State for example) have dimmed if not gone dark, at least for now. MOOC advocates and opponents have strong views that, while ostensibly intended to clarify, have tended instead to obscure the range of issues campus leaders and program managers must grapple with as they identify next steps in addressing the review and possible implementation of MOOCs. It’s worth trying to identify, define, and challenge those assumptions.

Implementation of MOOCs and online learning requires an inclusive, pan-institutional approach to investigation, review, planning, and implementation. We should encourage campus leadership to develop a strong—and inclusive—program of planning to ensure that their institution is ready to appropriately integrate online learning.

Many institutions face daunting challenges with the development and implementation of MOOCs. Technology, support, funding, and organizational development are all concerns that must be part of the discussion if campus leadership is to actively manage online learning rather than simply react to external pressures. To diminish or conceal these challenges confronted by campuses would be ill advised at best.  Rather, we should expose them, share them, and engage one another in dialogue about them in order to encourage and facilitate productive and challenging conversations on schools and campuses across the country. Individuals strongly for or against MOOCs might perceive such deliberate process as unduly slow, but experience and successes say otherwise.

Because technology vendors are changing so rapidly, institutions require exceptional internal clarity as they decide on MOOCs, if only to ensure that they are not left holding the bag on vendor contracts. While many schools will make the conscious decision not to implement massive online learning programs as part of traditional local efforts, there may be real value in making use of MOOCs in all their iterations as part of ambitious and authentic efforts to engage in globalization efforts.

Individuals charged with making thoughtful decisions in the face of persistent pressure (from faculty, staff, presidents, and trustees) to reflexively implement MOOCs now are in both an unfortunate and an exciting position.  The work they are doing, the decisions they are making, their responses to government legislation and mandates, will have profound impact on the nature of online education.

Recent surveys by Babson and others reveal mixed understanding and apprehension of MOOCs in every sector of higher education.  Data and commentary from private and public, baccalaureate and doctoral, community-college and four-year institutions all reveal deep differences amongst campus leaders on what to do about online learning in general and MOOCs in particular. We need guidelines and more effective information to help institutions make the best decisions for their constituents.  Presidents, trustees, provosts, librarians, faculty, and technologists will benefit from clear questions to ask and a concise analysis of the environment to employ on campus as they map their next steps.

Whatever decision a college or university makes regarding MOOCs, success will depend more upon mission fit and a solid strategy than on first-to-market advantage. Indeed, the “market” is a great unknown. For all of the excitement about MOOCs, revenues—or even a revenue model—has been slow in coming. To date, MOOC providers have offered over a dozen ideas as to how revenue may be generated for their partner institutions, yet it remains theoretical at best, hypothetical at worst.

Given the unknown revenue potential and significant costs of MOOCs, it would behoove governing boards and institutional leadership to fully engage the institutional community through the normal mechanisms of shared governance. While these processes can be maddeningly slow, they are specifically designed to make difficult, mission-based decisions. The pace of the process also allows leadership to fully develop an associated strategy and plan for following through on a decision, and allows time to consider the implications of different revenue models.


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