MOOC Strategies for Residential Universities

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, burst into the world scene with a bang in 2012. Many heralded the advent of MOOCs as the beginning of the end of traditional Universities and predicted that these would help bring about radical change in an industry that has resisted digital disruption longer than most other content-intensive industries.

Two years later, the MOOC rhetoric has died down considerably. Many observers note that this shift is simply the natural next stage of the “hype cycle” that accompanies almost every new technological innovation, and that the impact and place of MOOCs in the higher education ecosystem will stabilize in the coming years.

Boston University joined the edX MOOC platform in 2013. Through the leadership of its Digital Learning Initiative, Boston University has already produced its first five MOOCs with great success. BU views its engagement with MOOCs as an experiment in online pedagogy and as a catalyst for embarking in a broader set of digital learning projects whose objective is to help the University remain a leader in residential education in the 21st century.

As the experimental novelty of MOOCs begins to wear out, pinning down the strategic purpose of the continued production of MOOCs for a residential University remains a valid and important one, not only for BU, but for the industry at large.

This question is far from being settled. We, and, I am sure, many of our colleagues at other Universities have been thinking about it a lot. Below I am enumerating a list of possible strategic purposes that MOOCs can play at a residential University. My goal is to start a conversation. I am, thus, refraining from commenting on them but encourage the readers to do so – and also invite readers to add any other plausible strategic purposes that I am not mentioning below.

MOOCs as a component of University PR and Marketing strategy. MOOCs have global reach and are currently the subject of a lot of coverage from the mainstream press. They can, thus, serve as an important component of a University’s brand image, reinforcing the perception that the University is at the forefront of developments in educational technology. It has been claimed that MOOCs can potentially play a role in helping a University get more and better applicants, even though rigorous evidence of that claim is yet to be produced.

MOOCs as a vehicle for transforming teaching on campus. MOOCs have been recently promoted as a vehicle for transforming residential teaching. The idea is to use a MOOC in conjunction with a “flipped classroom” strategy, whereby MOOC resources (watched at home) replace part of traditional lectures, and class time is devoted to “active learning,” i.e. exercises, discussion, projects. There is a lot of discussion and research around active learning – MOOCs is one, out of many, technologies that can potentially be put in its service.

MOOCs as a potential textbook replacement revenue generator. The premise here is that MOOCs may become the textbook of the future (e.g. in a “flipped classroom” model) and will be licensed en masse by colleges. MOOC producers will then become the textbook publishers of the future and having a recognized presence in the MOOC space will allow a University to compete for market share in this future market. The open nature of MOOCs and the open access movement more broadly in the textbook arena argue against this as a strategy, at least from a revenue generation standpoint.

MOOCs as part of a University’s alumni strategy. As global knowledge production accelerates and the world changes ever more rapidly, people need to be constantly retooling and retraining themselves. Therefore, a growing part of a person’s investment in education will take place outside of the boundaries of traditional colleges. Universities and colleges, therefore, must find ways to capture at least part of this value. Alumni value lifelong learning through their alma mater and would be willing to pay for value-added services that enrich their experience. It is promising to think how MOOCs can be a component of such services.

MOOCs to provide flexibility to existing students. 21st century college students demand increasing flexibility in terms of when and where they can complete their degree requirements. The growing attraction of study abroad or international programs where students study in multiple locations makes the case for flexibility stronger. MOOCs, say, in conjunction with residential examinations, can offer students location-independence in studying University-approved course materials; offering this option could be a strategic differentiator for some Universities.

MOOCs as a vehicle for research in pedagogy and digital learning. MOOCs generate very detailed data about learner activities and, because of their scale and reach, offer rich opportunities for conducting pedagogical experiments. They, thus, represent an important laboratory for conducting research in pedagogy and digital learning. If developing excellence in these fields is a strategic goal for a University, this alone can justify continued MOOC production (see, for example U.C. Berkeley’s MOOCLab).

MOOCs as samplers of fee-based online or campus programs. The idea here is to launch free MOOCs on a subject as “samplers” and “teasers” and offer follow-on programs (either online or on-campus workshops) for a fee. This idea is a variation of the, so called, freemium business model, which is very popular in online content settings – but has not always proven to be economically viable. A related idea is to use MOOCs as the free baseline of a tiered system of fee-based value-added services. For example, one can envision offering a non-credit-bearing MOOC for free, and charge for options such as personalized tutoring and the possibility for credit.

Which of these strategies do you find more compelling as a reason to continue producing MOOCs? Can you think of additional reasons for producing MOOCs (apart from the above) that we should be incorporating into our thinking?

Chris Dellarocas is the Director of Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative and a Professor of Information Systems at BU’s School of Management.

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