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In the fall of 2011 when then-Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun unveiled the first Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) by opening his graduate-level artificial intelligence course up to any student anywhere in the world, more than 160,000 people in more than 190 countries signed up. This phenomenal number and the creation of MOOC platforms, like Coursera and then edX, fueled the suggestion that MOOCs were poised to upend the post-secondary landscape.
Suddenly, MOOCs were gaining momentum. This was even evidenced by the rise of the term ‘MOOC’ on Google Trends; in 2013, the number of searches for the term MOOC relative to the total number of searches done on Google reached ratio of 90/1. During this time, MOOCs morphed from an experimental offering into a:
Yet the core elements of MOOCs have been present for some time: open-source content is neither novel nor scarce, digital platforms and learning management systems are ubiquitous; and, online courseware is in its second decade of wide distribution.
If nothing else, MOOCs have brought legitimacy to online courseware and ended the long-simmering debate as to whether online education was a fad. Regardless of individual perspectives on the disruptive power of MOOCs, they are here to stay and cannot be ignored. This past summer, in an effort to better understand how MOOCs will ultimately fit into the post-secondary landscape, The Parthenon Group interviewed leaders at more than forty post-secondary institutions working with one or more MOOC providers. Our discussions led us to identify four strategic considerations that college and university leaders should address in the coming year:
We’ve created an infographic that underscores these four considerations:
Let’s take a closer look at our four assertions:
MOOCs are already here as an alternative credit. Public and political pressure to offer low-cost degree pathways will make MOOCs for credit inevitable in public systems and market pressures will do likewise in private colleges and universities. More powerful, however, are the existing protocols into which MOOCs will slip. Processes that allow colleges and universities to accept Advanced Placement (AP) for credit, credit for prior learning, and prior credit transfer provide a roadmap for accepting MOOCs. Credit for MOOCs will play out differently across institutions: some will grant credits for MOOC completion at the introductory level while others will only allow students to place out of courses; some will accept MOOC credit from a broad array of institutions while others will be highly selective in their vetting process; some will form coalitions to share MOOCs for low-demand classes, and some few will ultimately decide that only courses taught at their institutions by their faculty are valid – just as is done today.
Each one of these approaches is a valid institutional stance; pretending that MOOCs for credit will not happen, however, is not.
Although MOOCs are criticized for low completion rates, the vitriol is somewhat befuddling as there is virtually no impediment to signing up for a MOOC and no cost to the enrollee. (After all, there is no societal concern for unfinished television shows; unread books checked out from the library, or backyard soccer games abandoned for a call to dinner.) These negative reactions will likely abate, as MOOCs become better understood. Further, there recently is an increasingly sophisticated exploration of what the completion equations’ proper denominator should be.
What is clear is that not everyone has the capacity, or desire, to complete an entire university level course entirely online without deep faculty engagement and institutional student supports. A cursory examination of how MOOCs are actually being deployed reveals a much more nuanced use by faculty. While the traditional MOOC course – one with limited to no faculty or institutional support – is predominant, many institutions report that using MOOC courseware in a traditional classroom setting is perhaps the most powerful impact.
Faculty who “flip the classroom” are often campus disciples for the power of digital courseware to enhance traditional face-to-face instruction. More powerful, perhaps, are emerging outcomes from the combination of a MOOC (or other digital courseware) with light tutorial support. Early results seem to indicate that MOOC with tutor, particularly a weekly “face-to-face” tutor, may have a powerful impact on completion rates and student acceptance.
There is no correct manner for an institution to deploy MOOCs but a haphazard one will increasingly be unsatisfactory.
Currently, the MOOC buzz is centered on higher-level courses and introductory programming offerings. However, MOOCs will likely have the most profound impact on introductory and general education courses where student-to-instructor ratios are the highest. Back-of-the-envelope estimates suggest that private institutions generate close to $1000 of variable surpluses per student per credit hour in large format introductory classes. The public institution comparable is roughly $250 per student per credit hour. MOOCs have little variable cost per student, but they also have no tuition and thus generate no variable surpluses. Institutions must be financially viable and for years flat credit hour tuition rates have helped masked the fact that some courses generate surpluses and some courses consume them. MOOCs could cannibalize those that generate.
Economic impacts should not be an excuse to not move forward with MOOCs but they should be a prominent part of the strategic discussion.
The MOOC space is becoming crowded and days of 160,000 student enrollments may have passed. Building a MOOC is not cheap and, thus, the size of the opportunity must be weighed against the cost. Ultimately, institutions will need to deploy MOOCs strategically where they have the right-to-win; otherwise they risk offering a plethora of SOOCs (Small Open Online Courses). Individuals will organically seek offerings from institutions that have highly differentiated offerings. For those institutions, MOOCs will become an integral component of their marketing mix – funneling students into core programs, upselling adult learners to tuition programs, burnishing and expanding brands that were already powerful.
For highly differentiated programs, MOOCs will be a powerful force multiplier when added to the marketing mix; for the undifferentiated masses competitive actions will dictate a “me too” response.
Online education, digital courseware, and MOOCs are now embedded in the post-secondary landscape. Positions to the contrary are highly recusant. How these forces become intertwined in higher education remains unclear; developing a strategic framework to navigate the transition is vital and should be on the agenda of every post-secondary leader.
Partner and Co-Head Education Practice
The Parthenon Group
Robert is member of Parthenon’s Education Practice. For more than 15 years, he has led client engagements on general strategy, performance improvement, and investment due diligence across a broad spectrum educational organizations. His clients include high-growth companies, publicly listed Global 100 companies, non-profit institutions, financial investors, and international governments. In addition, Robert has participated in numerous high-profile corporate turnarounds, mergers, divestitures, and privatizations in Europe, North America, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. Robert is a frequent speaker at leading global forums on the education sector. Prior to joining Parthenon, Robert was with Bain & Company and served as a U.S. Army aviator. He holds a B.S.E. in Economics from the Wharton School of Business and an M.B.A., with high distinction, from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.