Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are getting lots of press. The 3/4/12 issue of the NYTimes declares that "Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls". 160,000 learners participate in Stanford's AI course, which begets a whole new crop of MOOCs in everything from natural language processing to game theory.
Should your university offer its own MOOC? Probably not. Higher ed is a "me too / follow me" business. We are risk adverse because most of us have lots to lose. So when an MIT does an OpenCourseWare / MITx or a Stanford does a MOOC we are all much more likely to follow along. But offering open course materials or learning environments may not make sense for your institution.
Rather than copying Stanford or MIT or the other pioneers, ask yourself "what does my institution do better than any other college or university?" In the past we could only offer academic programs if we could find a market for a particular offering. Today, the reduction of online production and distribution costs (through the consumerization of cloud services), allows us many more choices for turning local expertise into educational offerings.
We are no longer dependent on a single model of educational program development, that of the tuition paying student attending courses that aggregate to a degree. The proliferation of delivery options, ranging along the spectrum from fully face-to-face classes to blended to online to open certificate to open materials, means that the instructional model can flex to meet any level of demand. Under this new regime, the key questions to ask are not "is there a market for these courses," but "where do we have faculty and institutional expertise?"
Let's say that your campus is one of the best in the world at biofuels. You have faculty who are the leading researchers in the field of cellulosic ethanol. What your goal should be is to find a way to communicate this expertise to the world, and diffuse this knowledge and expertise. Turning local expertise into educational opportunities has positive feedback loops, in that knowledge expands and is refined through the process of teaching.
Once you have identified your comparative advantage (in this example biofuels), an analysis can be completed about the level of market demand for this speciality. It could be that the demand from energy companies and people wanting to get into the clean and renewable energy field is large enough to support an entire program. Perhaps local demand is not high enough, so an online or blended program that can accommodate non-local students makes sense. But maybe even with an online program, even one that delivered in a method that allows working adults to participate, can not generate enough potential students to fund a degree program. In that case it may make sense to offer the program as a lower cost certificate or non-degree program. Lowering the cost may drive up the demand, enough to make the program viable. Or perhaps there is still not enough demand for a non-degree certificate program, in which case it may make sense to offer the classes on the internet for free.
Every college or university does not need a MOOC or an MITx, but every institution should have at least one signature program. Something in which the entire world knows that to study X they must go to your school. The internet economics of low information sharing costs and global reach demolishes any excuse for not creating your own tent-pole program.
What is your institution better at than anywhere else?