MOOCs: Identifying Expectation and Hope

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“MOOCs have the potential (if we do it well) for making higher education available globally to those who cannot afford it.  In this particular sense, MOOCs are not a threat to conventional U.S. brick-and-mortar education.  They offer a form of education to those for whom education is off limits.”[1]

~ Cathy Davidson

NOTE: Georgianne Hewett, Director for Shared Academics at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), contributed to this essay.

In general, people are fascinated with trends that predict dramatic changes in the way we live, work, communicate and learn. Whether The Next Big Thing” or “The End of [insert established cultural milieu here] As We Know It,” trends that have the potential to deconstruct the familiar seduce us into obsessing about them and endlessly bandying them about in conversation and debate. We relish in reacting—often with little information—to evolutions (and advertised revolutions) that promise to move us further from how it was done in our day.

That has certainly been the case with MOOCs. In late 2011 and early 2012, anyone following education media might have seen them mentioned in one or two articles each week. But before the year was out, MOOCs had come to dominate education news and draw crowds to conferences and online webinars. Now, hopes for MOOCs have blown sky-high. But what exactly do we hope to gain from this latest iteration of online learning? What actual problems are MOOCs expected to solve? Reading the plethora of essays, articles, blog posts, and survey results on the topic makes clear that expectations for MOOCs are varied and contradictory.

A quick survey of publicly declared hopes reveals that MOOCs will reduce the cost of education, increase the cost of education, save money, make money, lower tuition, raise tuition, generate revenue, incur additional costs, shorten time to graduation, increase enrollments, ensure that students are able to register for required courses, provide data for learning analytics, kick-start competency-based assessment programs, provide the highest quality education from the most elite institutions for free, and solve the global education crisis.

Each of these expectations has been expressed in serious articles and essays this past year. But those who have stripped away the Next-Big-Thing veneer from the MOOC debate have begun to understand that MOOCs can be made a useful tool for higher education. MOOCs in all of their manifestations can connect learners, instructors, and knowledge in dynamic and extensible ways.  They can foster student-centered learning and require students to take responsibility for their education in a forthright manner.

For those charged with defining the strategic direction of institutions of higher education, however, it is vital to guard against being swept up in the wave of overheated rhetoric and keep a focus on strategies that advance the institutional mission. Carefully analyze reports and review them with staff and colleagues in the context of your stated strategic plan. And in the review and analysis of potential MOOCs, keep in mind the role that learning plays in modern life generally. Such an exercise provides a baseline for productive review.

We are hard-wired to learn from the moment we are born. Whether we attended public or private school, were home-schooled, or fall into the newer category of the “unschooled,” we are all learners. We are excited by the discovery of subjects that capture our interest and stir our imagination. We value lessons that expand our knowledge, change our perspective and send us down new paths.  We disdain work or education requirements that chafe and feel like a waste of time. At its core—and most pertinent to the present conversation about MOOCs—learning connects us to one another. This is why MOOCs are so inherently appealing at first glance: they promise to deliver access to learning and interaction in a new, almost infinitely expansive mode. If we regard MOOCs in the broader context of our regard for learning, we are better positioned to discern their inherent potential and the role they could play as part of an institution’s strategic mission.

            Campus Leaders reveal their hopes and expectations. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal John Hennessy, President of Stanford revealed his anticipation for the future: “What I told my colleagues is there’s a tsunami coming. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to break, but my goal is to try to surf it, not to just stand there.”  There is clearly value in identifying the hopes and expectations we have for MOOCs, online learning, and open education resources. (It is requisite that we analyze MOOCs not as a standalone construct but in the larger context of the development of all open and online education resources.) There is now a substantial, representative body of work to review that can help us understand the thinking of presidents, provosts, and other academic leaders in regard to the immediate and future potential of these emerging technologies.

In 2011, as we began to hear a bit more about MOOCs, Kenneth C. (Casey) Green conducted a “Presidential Perspectives” survey of nine hundred fifty-six campus and university system presidents and chancellors for Inside Higher Ed.  The results include the following:

  • A majority of presidents believe that online education supports the mission of their institution and provides an opportunity to increase tuition revenues.
  • Seventy-eight percent of presidents surveyed believe that online learning provides a vehicle to reach more learners and thus increase enrollment.
  • The percentage of presidents who believe online education is a means to increase enrollment and revenue was “consistently high across all sectors, although slightly higher among public institutions than independent institutions and highest in community colleges.”

Elsewhere in 2011, fifty-seven percent of academic leaders reported that open education resources would have value for their campus (less than five percent disagreed), and nearly two-thirds of all chief academic officers agreed that open education resources offer the potential to reduce costs for their institution. There was wide agreement among most academic leaders that this cost reduction would result from the impact that access to open education resources would have in the development of new courses in the curriculum. Yet only one-half of all chief academic officers report that any of the courses at their institution currently use OER materials.

In November 2012, the Babson Survey Research Group’s survey Growing the Curriculum: Open Education Resources in U.S. Higher Education reported findings on the expectations of campus leaders on this issue. Many academic leaders were only minimally aware of the role of open education resources in higher education and just over half identified themselves as being “Aware” or “Very aware.” Moreover, when explaining their understanding of open resources, most of these respondents equated “open” with “free.” It is important to understand that there are costs related to the development of open resources. When your college or university contemplates this opportunity, consider the steps you and your staff will take to identify those costs in order to work towards a return on your investment. (This is a critical component of MOOCs that we will address at greater length in subsequent chapters.)

More recently, in January 2013, the Babson Survey Research Group’s annual Survey of Online Learning was released.  Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States is the tenth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. The survey asked a range of questions about institutional use of and plans for MOOCs, and the answers reveal a mixed bag of expectations.

Nearly seventy percent of chief academic leaders who responded believe that online learning will have a critical role in their long-term institutional strategy, while eleven percent do not. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they don’t believe MOOCs are a sustainable method for delivering courses, twenty-eight percent said they are, and thirty-five percent were neutral. Yet seventy-seven percent of chief academic officers rate the learning outcomes in online learning as “equal or superior to those in traditional face-to-face courses”—an increase from the fifty-seven percent who rated them as such when Babson first asked the question in 2003. Interestingly, while the majority of academic leaders remain unconvinced that MOOCs themselves represent a sustainable method for delivering online courses in the context of their institution, nearly sixty percent believe that MOOCs provide an important means to learn about online pedagogy. Also noteworthy: the percentage of chief academic officers who believe that faculty members on their campuses appreciate the value and legitimacy of online education is now thirty percent—lower than the results from the same question in 2004.

There is a general sense that access to open educational resources will benefit campuses.  There is less specificity about what exactly the benefits are, or how they will manifest themselves. Kenneth Hartman, senior fellow at Edventures and the former president of Drexel eLearning at Drexel University, has recommendations that are worth review when working to identify institutional expectations for open resources and online learning. As Hartman suggests in his February 11, 2013 Insider Higher E article, Tips for college leaders to make online programs work, the “fundamental question that must first be addressed (and consciously built around) is ‘Why are we doing e-learning?’”  There are several possible reasons including the need to increase tuition revenue and decrease costs; create greater access and allow greater flexibility for students; experiment with pedagogical approaches to better educate a new generation of students.
Before considering the benefits of MOOCs and e-learning, it helps to decide what a “benefit” is in the larger institutional context.  Identify institutional expectations and precisely synch them with institutional needs.  Assess organizational structure and its capacity to meet expectations.  As Hartman states, if you are new to the online learning space, “it requires the thoughtful use of both internal and external resources, including . . . the careful use of third-party vendors and consultants to properly assess your institution’s market niche.” Without knowing the “why,” it makes no sense to press too far down the path toward the “how.”

Beyond such obvious hopes and expectations as increasing tuition, raising revenue, and extending institutional brands, there are other provocative expectations that merit scrutiny, fueled by healthy skepticism.  These are not necessarily the only expectations that MOOCs elicit, but they seem to resonate the most widely.

            Equitable and expansive access. One of the more intriguing and marketable aspects of MOOCs is their potential for allowing all students to enroll in highly valued courses and study with distinguished faculty from the most elite schools in the world. This is built into the MOOC program offered by Coursera, for example, which is contractually limited to partnering with elite universities. This MOOC model affords unprecedented access to talented professors at prestigious universities.

Closely related to the potential of studying with prestigious faculty is the possibility of creating equitable, worldwide access to education. A new era of globalization is looming, and MOOCs may be a big part of it. American colleges and universities have long sought to bring a global perspective to their students, but they have done so in fairly traditional ways.  Study abroad and international exchange programs are typically constrained by institutional, programmatic, and geographic boundaries (not to mention funding and support). By contrast, the vision of MOOCs convening cadres of students from all over the world to share diverse perspectives and learn from one another in a massive, open, and collegial space seems to offer great promise for education.

MOOCs, by definition and design, are available for free to anyone with the wherewithal to connect to the Internet.  Although that is by no means a universal audience, the capacity to connect continues to increase.  The rapid deployment of smart cell phones even in nations with rudimentary Internet access, and the concomitant re-development of web resources to be mobile-device compliant, further increases the potential reach of MOOCs.

As Duke University’s Cathy Davidson says in “If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Ed, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and we won’t like it),” there are far too few colleges and universities and far too many students with academic aspirations for the current system to accommodate them all. In a world which increasingly clamors for an educated global populace with the critical analytical skills that college education provides, we are asking too much of the existing education infrastructure. MOOCs have the potential to address this burgeoning challenge.

In India, ninety-eight percent of the five hundred thousand hopefuls whose academic standing qualifies them to take the entrance exams to the Indian Institutes of Technology are rejected. Ironically, many of those rejected qualify them for their second choice: elite schools in the United States. Similarly, Peking University has a one-half of one percent acceptance rate, as compared with Harvard’s nearly six percent acceptance rate.[2]

MOOCs can make an emerging form of higher education available to many who are excluded because of space limitations or inability to pay. Most of these potential students would never become a matriculated student on a college campus in the United States (or anywhere else, for that matter). As Davidson notes, MOOCs “offer a form of education to those for whom education is off limits.” In MOOCs there lies hope for a system that has the capacity to connect elite educators with eager learners who have access to few—or no—alternatives.

            Analytics, assessment, and improved educational outcomes. The massive nature of MOOCs offers a new laboratory for approaches to developing competency-based assessment.  Many have longed for the opportunity to make use of emerging analytical tools in education. We have large amounts of data that is unstructured and lacks context.  MOOCs are poised to provide purposeful data sets about student interaction with course materials.  We may have a new opportunity to feed the analyses and make predictive decisions about performance and outcomes in those courses for which such an approach makes sense. In “Can Big Data Analytics Boost Graduation Rates,” Ellis Booker noted that “the advent of computer-mediated and online instruction, especially massive open online courses (MOOCs) with their tens of thousands of students per class, are changing what’s possible.”  MOOCs, as a result of their scale, “provide so much data about student interactions, not only with the course material but with teachers and even other students. This massive amount of data can be parsed, compared, merged, modeled and analyzed, with the goal of improving educational outcomes.” Progress may well be made in the refinement of the analytics and development of data collection from MOOC environments. The application of these metrics to the data mined from MOOCs has the potential to teach us a great deal about learning in online environments.

Desire2Learn, a company that provides learning management systems to the education market, is investing big in big data. “In the last three or four years, we built a team of five PhDs who’ve built algorithms and models to predict student performance,” says company CEO John Baker. The company created a “risk quadrant,” a visual representation of how each student is likely to do in an online course. The predictions are made dynamically on a week-to-week basis. After launching a beta version of their analytics program, Baker noted that “depending on the availability of historical data associated with a specific course, we are able to achieve accuracy rates approaching ninety-five percent as early as week two or three.” These results were validated with research data sets, including one from the University of Wisconsin. This research echoes some of the data received from surveys of chief academic officers who hope that MOOCs and other iterations of online learning will afford opportunities to learn more about best practices in online learning.

            Reduce the cost and improve the access. For many, the value of MOOCs lies in their potential to reduce the cost of education and corresponding bottlenecks in course registrations. They hope that MOOCs will create increasingly accessible, low-cost paths for learners and reduce the overhead of developing and delivering courses. Clayton Christensen, in The Innovative University, profiled the success of BYU-Idaho in that college’s development of an online program that simultaneously grew the student population while reducing cost.  BYU-Idaho offers online degree programs for $65 per credit, reducing the cost of a degree to less than $10,000. Similarly, the University of Texas announced plans to explore the deployment of MOOCs with the stated hope of reducing the cost of a UT degree for at least some students. The university has partnered with edX in hopes of using edX courses to get more students into the pipeline and through college more rapidly and for less money.

Students in the United States are increasingly shut out of courses, unable to register for required classes because of high demand and an overburdened infrastructure. Students who have already matriculated are increasingly placed on waiting lists for classes they need to complete their degrees, transfer to four-year institutions, or register for enough courses to remain qualified for financial aid.  State colleges and universities in California, New York, and elsewhere look to MOOCs and other online learning models to open up access to required courses for students suffering from being stuck in systems that are increasingly unable to meet demand. 

*          *          *

            As our network connections grow and evolve, we begin to question the theory of Dunbar’s number, that cognitive limit on the number of people with whom we can successfully sustain active and stable relationships. We find intriguing possibility and potential as we navigate new and existing relationships in the context of our layered network ties. The promise of active and intellectual engagement with innumerable minds is inspiring.  MOOCs provide hope to connect in a structured manner and in new ways with individuals who share our interests and enthusiasms.  MOOCs are open and inviting; at present, the only price of admission is curiosity and an Internet connection. MOOCs are not restricted to the traditional student—which makes the diversity of participants itself well worth reviewing, as we do in our next chapter.

Recommended Readings

Allen, I. Elaine, and Jeff Seaman. “Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States.” Babson Survey Research Group, January 2013.

Booker, Ellis. “Can Big Data Analytics Boost Graduation Rates?” Information Week, February 5, 2013. http://www.informationweek.com/big-data/news/big-data-analytics/can-big-data-analytics-boost-graduation-rates/240147807.

Christensen, Clayton M., and Henry J. Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. 1st ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Davidson, Cathy. “If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Ed, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and We Won’t Like It).” HASTAC, January 13, 2013. http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2013/01/13/if-we-profs-dont-reform-higher-ed-well-be-re-formed-and-we-wont-it-s.

Green, Kenneth C. “Mission, MOOCs, & Money.” Association of Governing Boards, February 2013. http://agb.org/trusteeship/2013/1/mission-moocs-money?utm_source=Informz&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Trusteeship+Jan%2FFeb+2013.

Hartman, Kennth E. “Tips for College Leaders to Make Online Programs Work.” Inside Higher Ed, February 11, 2013. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/02/11/tips-college-leaders-make-online-programs-work.

Mossberg, Walt. “Changing the Economics of Education.” Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303640104577440513369994278.html.

Pappano, Laura. “Massive Open Online Courses Are Multiplying at a Rapid Pace.” The New York Times, November 2, 2012, sec. Education / Education Life. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/massive-open-online-courses-are-multiplying-at-a-rapid-pace.html.


[1] Cathy Davidson, “If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Ed, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and We Won’t Like It),” HASTAC, January 13, 2013, http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2013/01/13/if-we-profs-dont-reform-higher-ed-well-be-re-formed-and-we-wont-it-s.

[2] Ibid.

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