As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
This week, public universities announced  two different initiatives designed to use free, online, open-enrollment courses to drive students to more traditional credit pathways. The move attempts to position free, online courses as a complement to the traditional model of higher education, rather than a disruptive innovation that could undermine it.
“After any initial enthusiasm, a significant portion of students want to turn that into credit, and to do that they want to work with conventional partners,” said Richard Garrett, vice president and principal analyst for Eduventures. “It’s logical for schools in that business to push that.”
Georgia State University announced Tuesday that university faculty members would review courses offered on open, online platforms to see what types of credit the institution could award students who complete such courses. A day later a consortium of public universities announced that it would launch a new platform that will offer introductory classes of existing online degree programs in an open and free format, hoping to entice students to enroll in the full program.
Garrett said the moves this week reflect an understanding that, despite all the talk about new technologies disrupting higher education, the majority of individuals and employers still want traditional credit pathways and degrees, at least for the moment.
“The evidence we’ve found when we’ve done some consumer work is that most consumers’ interests in MOOCs is not about getting free credit,” he said. “It’s about curiosity, access to elite institutions that they don’t typically have access to, a narrow skill they want to develop. Only a small minority, under 5 percent, really see this as disrupting the status quo.”
This week's developments are also an attempt by institutions that don’t have the national profile of institutions such as Stanford University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which have dominated the conversation about free, online courses so far, to capitalize on the hype by launching their own platforms or by tapping into what those institutions produce.
Georgia State announced Tuesday that its faculty members would review open, online courses -- similar to how they review credit from other institutions or from competency-based tests -- and that it would potentially award credit if students complete those courses.
“We know it will not be long before a student wants to register for and take calculus or physics but doesn’t want to take it the traditional way, they want to take it through a MOOC,” said Mark Becker, Georgia State's president. “How are we going to answer that question when it comes to us?”
The scenario posed by Becker is one many presidents and faculty members have said they expect to face soon.
The university’s move places it out in front of the American Council on Education, which in November announced  that it would review a handful of courses offered through MOOC providers and make recommendations about credit equivalencies.
How universities and partner companies will derive revenues from open, online courses -- particularly those offered for free -- remains an open question. Becker said Georgia State will likely have limits on how many credits a student can obtain from sources outside Georgia State and still obtain a Georgia State degree, similar to limits it has on other kinds of transfer credits. The university might also require students to pay some fee if it has to verify credit through an exam or some other format that requires university resources.
Becker and others said they don’t expect the move to draw in new students or any significant new revenue stream, so it is less a business decision than a strategy to tackle new challenges posed by technology.
He sees open, online courses as benefiting the university in three ways: by providing content -- and therefore potential courses -- that the university doesn’t offer, such as languages or highly specialized topics; by meeting demand that exceeds what the university has resources for, such as for some introductory classes; or by supplementing what faculty members do in the classroom.
The technology could also allow for more flexible scheduling. Georgia State serves a high number of low-income students who often have to work, as well as nontraditional students who might have other demands on their times.
Becker said the approach will probably evolve as new courses and methods enter the space, but he said the policy helps outline a general philosophy about how the university will meet the coming changes. “This isn’t even close to the end,” he said. This is the beginning.”
Also this week, a group of nine universities that work with Academic Partnerships, a company that converts traditional degree programs to online formats, announced a new platform through which they will offer initial program courses open to the public, online and free, in the hopes of attracting students to enroll in the full program.
“The business model we’re thinking about is an attraction model,” said Dave Szymanski, dean of the college of business at the University of Cincinnati, which will offer a course on innovation and design that could serve as an introductory class to a degree in either business or engineering. “Through the MOOCs, students get exposed to the institution and determine whether there’s sufficient value there, whether they’ve been stimulated by what went on and see themselves as degree candidates and then matriculate to the program.”
If students enroll in the subsequent degree program, they would likely be granted credit for the free, open course. Administrators at each participating institution are discussing whether students will get some kind of credit for the course even if they don't enroll in the subsequent program.
Think of the program like one of the old America Online CDs that used to be available at grocery stores and Blockbuster. The universities and Academic Partnerships are hoping interested students will sign up for the free trial, realize the course meets their needs, is engaging and provides value, and eventually sign on (and pay) for the full program.
In a conference call Wednesday announcing the new platform, Elizabeth Poster, dean of the nursing school at the University of Texas at Arlington, said her school will offer its “RN to BSN” program through the platform. She said the program could have broad appeal to registered nurses across the country. The university has seen the program grow from 100 to 5,000 students since 2008 by offering it online and using Academic Partnerships' platform, and she said the school has been able to accommodate the demand.
Poster said she also hopes to use MOOCs to help nurses meet continuing education requirements by providing some sort of proctored exam at the end. In Texas, nurses must take 20 hours of continuing education every two years.
While the Academic Partnership initiative is more focused on returning a profit than what Georgia State is doing, academic administrators at Cincinnati and UT-Arlington, the two institutions on a conference call Wednesday, seemed unconcerned Wednesday with the financial aspects of the arrangement. Neither institution has estimates for how many MOOC students they would have to convert to paying students in the full program to make the MOOC worthwhile.
The initiative, which Academic Partnerships hopes will eventually include most of its 40 university partners, also creates a new MOOC platform, MOOC2Degree.com, which will join Coursera, Udacity, edX and others in a growing field.
The initiative raises the question about how important an elite brand is to the model, and whether institutions such as Arizona State, the University of West Florida, and Utah State University will have the same draw as Harvard University, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When Moody's Investors Service outlined the potential effects of the open and online model of course delivery, the ratings agency said they were likely to provide the most benefit to “industry leaders.”
“We expect positive credit effects to develop for the higher education sector over all as elite universities offer more classes for an unlimited number of students across the globe through-low cost open courseware platforms,” the ratings agency’s analysts wrote in September. “However, there will eventually be negative effects on for-profit education companies and some smaller not-for-profit colleges that may be left out of emerging high reputation online networks.”
Like the Georgia State program, however, the Academic Partnerships platform's real focus is to guide students back toward more traditional pathways, rather than to supplant how universities are currently serving students.
“They are positioning MOOCs in a nonthreatening way,” Garrett said.