MOOC Providers

A way forward.

August 16, 2015

To be sure, enrollment in online learning opportunities (MOOCs and beyond) continues to grow.

New courses (from stalwart institutions like the Ivies and unexpected ones like Wired magazine), new forms of degrees (nano- and micro-), and hybrid programs that blend traditional with online learning (where learners end up with the same credential as those who are campus-bound) continue to be released.

To the surprise of some, revenue has begun to be generated by many of the upstart providers: those with higher ed backers, others with only Silicon Valley cred (especially various coding boot camps and academies), and still others somewhere in the middle, pivoting to gain a broader share of an ebbing and flowing market (the for-profits are on the wane and the nimble next gen entities, like Lynda.com+LinkedIn, are poised to rise).

The heady headlines have not so much as faded, as become just a normal part of the news cycle, both within the higher ed media as well as national papers. (I have talked to my co-editor of this very blog about having to rethink our content strategy, as a once specialized niche is now common. Just look at Inside Higher Ed on any given day.)

Even organizations that have taken a cautious view about the evolving nature of higher ed, are starting to adapt.

”Things really are changing. And we have to change as well,” said Carol Geary Schneider, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in a recent Inside Higher Ed piece.

Harvard Business School (HBS) dean Nitin Nohria declared in a blog post that he had gone from being skeptical of online education to becoming a “super fan.” To wit: “Five years after I said ‘not in my lifetime,’ I now believe that HBX could easily be one of the most important initiatives we undertake at Harvard Business School.” That’s a bit of a wow kind of moment.

What, then, might be the future of the original MOOC providers? Or put another way and to borrow from HBS once again, what’s their potential “differentiation strategy?”

In their quest for financial sustainability, they have sought to fill the “skills gap,” providing courses developed in conjunction with major corporations. 

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Coursera has begun to partner with major financial and technology companies, including Bank of New York Mellon, Qualcomm, Splunk, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and UBS AB to provide skills training in financial analysis, the Internet of Things, and big data. edX and Udacity, too, have launched collaborations with such companies as AT&T, Google, Procter & Gamble, United Parcel Service, and Wal-Mart Stores.

This is, of course, not the only path that the MOOC providers have followed. edX, for example, has moved aggressively, with foundation support, to offer courses in translation in developing countries, and, equally ambitiously, has targeted high school students in a bid to broaden the pipeline of students who will succeed in STEM fields in college.

But there are other paths that the MOOC providers might follow that hold out a genuine promise to enhance the quality of higher education. Let me identify four areas where MOOC providers could exert a genuinely transformative impact:

1. They could disaggregate course content and make the assets available to any faculty member (or institution) to use.
Rather than threatening to displace faculty, then, a resource repository would give faculty valuable tools to make teaching more effective. Think of it as akin to what JSTOR did for journal content. In fact, if MOOC providers choose not to do this, others will. See the launch of the unfortunately named University Learning Store for how this model might work if it were student-centric. No, this institutional collaboration is not about branded T-shirts and hats, but, “as with a department store … the University Learning Store is about offering students different products from different providers. Students will be able to use online content and assessments -- with pieces from different universities -- to prove what they know and can do.”

2. They could develop a genuine cross-institutional course design and research consortium.
With the vast amounts of data that MOOCs are accumulating about student engagement and areas of learner confusion, such a consortium could advance understanding of motivation, instructional design, and the personalization of learning pathways. Former HarvardX Research Fellow Justin Reich (now at MIT) proposes just that in his Science essay, “Rebooting MOOC Research,” writing, “these challenges cannot be addressed solely by individual researchers. Improving MOOC research will require collective action from universities, funding agencies, journal editors, conference organizers, and course developers."

3. They could produce (and share) very expensive, sophisticated simulations and virtual laboratories.
Biology, Chemistry, and Physics labs are only a few of the advanced interactives that could be produced and shared. This collective development practice is already supporting humanities MOOCs. An interactive tool called Mirador (developed by Harvard, Stanford, and others) is an “open-source, web based, multi-window image viewing platform with the ability to zoom, display, compare and annotate images from around the world.” Mirador allows learners not only to take a deep dive into rare manuscripts (down to the pigment) such as “The Book of Hours,” but empowers scholars to view works in different collections side-by-side.

4. They could create activity-driven modules that could be freely adopted.
These modules would not be lecture based, but highly interactive and project-based. This could be seen as OpenCourseWare 2.0, a natural extension of the MIT initiative that pre-dated MOOCs by more than a decade. Such an approach, of course, would be challenging from a revenue perspective, but one could imagine finding foundational or other means of support (and /or monetizing other non-content services.)

All of the potential strategies above (and there are many more---so feel free to weigh in as part of the comments) can be distilled quite simply.

If the MOOC providers are to remain relevant and if they are to fulfill their promise as a catalyst for innovation, they can’t focus entirely on stand-alone courses. They must embrace a very different role: As drivers of the future of higher education.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.

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