A Wide Wake

 Communications in the post-MOOC age.

August 14, 2016

Times have changed since we began our multi-author blog, Higher Ed Beta, in December 2013. After a spring-summer hiatus, we've decided to embark on a reboot and a re-title, graduating from beta to gamma. The first three pieces, one authored by each of us, reflect on where we've been, what we've been up to, and where we hope to go with the blog, and more generally, with our own journeys in the higher ed landscape. - Steve, Michael, & Akiba​


“A lot of our early learner growth came from PR: people heard about us through PR and said, ‘I’m going to go and check it out.’ We reached 20 million learners with minimal marketing costs, largely because of the PR cycle around us.” - Coursera President Daphne Koller, Times Higher Education Supplement, July 9, 2016.

As someone who worked in PR and communications for and during the MOOC tornado years, thank you for the shout out.

At the same time, thank you and others in the “disruptive” learning space for leaving a lasting, perhaps less noticed, mark on our profession.

MOOCs in particular, brought big data and analytics to learning, and by extension, to higher education. More and more institutions now put out data, not just anecdotes, about everything: What their students are doing post graduation and their earnings; whether they enjoyed their college experience; and even how happy they are.

Rather than be held hostage to a singular U.S. News number, a recent report suggested that “facts may trump rankings”, giving institutions a way to offer nuance and control. Doing so does comes with a cost, transparency.

You cannot always be selective about data, so put out as much as you are comfortable with, and avoid spin.

If you want to justify a huge tax-free endowment you need to open up your books and/or show impact on the local and national economy, the number of start-ups, and other benefits.

The consequence for communicators and leaders is that “trust us” is no longer sufficient.

Trust us, our students are learning.

Trust us (alumni), we are using your gifts well.

Statements, however well crafted, need to be backed up by evidence, numbers, citations---expect to be called out and be prepared to bring out the footnotes, graphs, and tables. 

When Harvard and MIT announced the creation of the online platform edX, it signaled not only an embrace of technology, but of a new way of doing business---and communications.

It was okay to experiment in public, rather than just behind the closed doors of the classroom or lab.

In the words of Harvard President Drew Faust, “Our experience in edX and HarvardX has been very much a matter of recognizing we weren’t in total control, but recognizing that we wanted to be in the mix and to see things unfold as a participant rather than as an observer.” (Commonwealth Magazine, July 11, 2016).

Just think about the recent rise of university-based venture funds, non-degree programs, and competency-based learning. Communicators are then left not to debate the virtues of such efforts, but with the challenge of conveying the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Experiments might fly high. Opening up global access to learning is a win! Experiments might fail or be fraught. Internally, faculty can disagree and air such disagreements (i.e. Michael Sandel vs San Jose State).

Pivoting happens---a lot. Free suddenly has to become paid. Platforms change. Priorities shift as the markets do. Much of this undulation is in plain view of bloggers, journalists, students, and protective alumni.

The best approach, akin to what I discussed earlier with data, is to be transparent, honest, and direct (and timely).

Look what the dean of Harvard’s business school admitted: I was wrong about the value of online learning. In fact, he’s now doubling down.

The newest phrase you see popping up when a new program or approach takes holds, is at the heart of what academia actually prizes: “we are figuring this out as we go along. Hey, it might not work, and we are okay with that.”

I remember attending a future of learning conference a few years ago where an academic dean from Stanford stood up and talked about the school’s plans to deliver content and programs across various channels and modalities to reach specific audience segments.

No one blinked.

While common parlance among those in professional education, executive, or extension programs, to hear her say it seemed like a watershed moment. No, this was not the victory of corporatization.

Instead, students (now more properly called learners) were recognized as existing along a continuum, with both individual and collective needs. Learners were also not just the teen undergraduates playing Ultimate Frisbee on the quad.

And some learners wanted different things than a four year degree.

In turn, communicators now had to step up with nuanced, audience based outreach rather than just blasting out content---and not just for revenue generating programs, but for everything. Analytics mattered. KPIs mattered. Differentiation strategies were a must.

Post-MOOC, modern marketing tactics were not just for those folks in the shiny exec education suite. And no, this is not about “serving customers,” but meeting people where they are and, better, recognizing the opportunity of reaching new audiences who now have more ways to engage with a university, from open courses to open educational resources to open access publishing.

In short, the MOOC, post-MOOC era has left a wide wake on communications and marketing in higher ed.

It was not the only instigator: the economy, increased non-academic competition, scrutiny by politicians, the specter of student debt, all come to mind.

But, just a few years ago, I felt like an outlier in an upstart unit that no one quite understood.

And now, I go to cross-functional meetings several times a week where the word MOOC never comes up, but all of its consequences do.

Michael Patrick Rutter is director of strategic communications and media relations at the MIT School of Engineering.


Back to Top