Campus Leaders reveal their hopes and expectations

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.

            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.

Next: Equitable and expansive access.

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