Support for the MOOC: Does it scale?

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.

Consider this: MOOCs amplify pre-existing support challenges

Are you prepared to support the communities of practice at the scale of MOOCs?  For many colleges and universities, technology support is funded and staffed for current technology implementation with little room for exploration or innovation, especially where that exploration requires supporting users not formally affiliated with the institution.

Central IT provides fundamental (and approved) information technology resources to the campus. The policies are clear and the support model is documented. The constituents (registered students, faculty, and staff) work on campus. IT departments have a long history in the provision of these resources, know what to expect, have budgeted for system upgrades, license renewals, and incremental expansion, and are generally staffed to ensure appropriate response time to users troubleshooting issues and concerns.

In addition to “fundamental” campus-supplied technology, however, faculty, staff, and students make use of remote wikis, blogs, and social media sites on their own, with no institutional support. The ubiquity and growth of these readily available online services has made it easy for users to adopt and incorporate them into research and study and to connect with colleagues and collaborators with little or no assistance from central IT. This reality of extra-institutional technology usage reveals a gap in programmatic provision and support of IT services. Campuses, it turns out, don’t have a comprehensive account of technology usage by faculty and students in the pursuit of their research and scholarship. Faculty and staff routinely use external, discipline-specific technology resources developed and delivered by extramural professional associations to accomplish their work. Significantly, most would say that these technologies are also “fundamental” to their academic and professional success.

For example, the Modern Language Association (MLA) recently launched MLA Commons, a gathering space for humanists and others to work together, based on the Commons-in-a-Box resource developed by the City University of New York (CUNY). MLA Commons already had 1,361 active users as of March 2013. Users, primarily registered members of MLA, avail themselves of the Commons’ networking resources without relying on the support of their host institution, since MLA provides both the resource and the support.

MLA Commons users fly under the local campus IT radar; their own institutions cannot know the extent of their activity with these tools, issues encountered, support received from providers, and what it would cost the campus to provide comparable services. From a strategic thinking perspective, this is an important point: There are (potentially) good and bad outcomes to effectively outsourcing academic technology resources and legitimizing faculty and staff usage of them.

On the other end of the spectrum, should your institution decide to implement MOOCs, you bring (remote) users onto the (local) IT support radar screen. You may be obligated to support their needs and troubleshoot their problems regardless of location and affiliation. The introduction of MOOCs, with their legions of outside users, into your existing services and support model will have an impact on the quality and timeliness of support for traditional, on-campus, constituents. With no experience at this scale, and no metric available, it may well prove difficult to quantify the extent of that impact.

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