News of universities partnering with massive open online course providers has become commonplace, which is why Yale University stands out for what it’s not doing: rushing.
While many top universities -- including Harvard and Stanford Universities, along with many others -- were announcing partnerships and launching their first MOOCs, Yale sat back, watched, and evaluated.
In December, some eight months after Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor joined Coursera  and three months after Brown, Columbia, Emory, and Vanderbilt Universities did the same , Yale’s Committee on Online Education, a faculty committee, submitted its online report and recommendations to the dean of Yale College. Though the report suggests that Yale investigate different MOOC platforms, there is no timeline for when the university, seemingly already late to the MOOC party, might select a company or start providing MOOCs. Cornell University similarly just completed a committee review of its MOOC strategy; the university will likely announce a MOOC partnership in the next few weeks, according to the dean of faculty, Joseph Burns.
Craig Wright, a co-chair of Yale's Committee on Online Education, said that because the university has experimented with online education before, it felt comfortable taking time to examine its options and the changing online landscape.
“We felt Yale had done a great deal with open education, with digital dissemination, and indeed had been a leader, and we felt no particular pressure to demonstrate our capacity in this area,” he said. “We were confident it was not necessary for us to race ahead in any way here.”
Yale certainly has been a presence in the online education world for some time, as the committee’s report  details. In 2000 Yale, along with Stanford and Oxford, launched the AllLearn consortium, which offered noncredit courses for a fee, but shut down in 2006. But that same year, Yale began offering  free course material online through Open Yale Courses, where anyone can access video, syllabuses, and other course materials at any time. At that time, Open Yale Courses was viewed as a step forward for open education. Though other universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posted class material online for anyone to use, Yale was the first to consistently provide lecture video. And in 2011, Yale offered its first online classes for credit through its summer session program. Students in those courses paid the same tuition as those on campus, and all were required to be “in class” at the same time, joining a live video discussion. Finally, Yale students can take online, video-based courses in rare languages  through a partnership with Cornell and Columbia Universities.
Part of the Committee on Online Education’s task was to evaluate the college’s existing programs and determine how they can inform future online endeavors. For example, Wright suggested future MOOCs might draw on material and videos that have already been produced for Open Yale Courses.
But that discussion is still some ways down the road, he notes, and Lucas Swineford, the director of Yale’s Digital Media Center, said Yale will not rush into any decisions.
“What’s going on with Udacity and Coursera and edX is exciting, when you see the pace at which they have accelerated the conversation,” Swineford said. “We know that’s an important conversation, which is part of the reason we wanted to take our time and make sure that when we did look at that space, we were comfortable with the decisions we may make.”
Watching and waiting — and strategizing — can be a difficult choice to make given the “herd mentality” that has developed around MOOCS, according to Peter Stokes, executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University. Still, he thinks there’s value in the approach.
“It’s certainly reasonable for an institution like Yale to pause and to ask its own community whether this is something they ought to be involving themselves in or not,” Stokes said. “That is, in fact, very sensible. There probably hasn’t been enough reflection like that over the last six to eight months.”
Yale’s decision to establish a committee and conduct a review was driven in part by the acknowledgment that MOOCs are not the only issue that deserve attention. And indeed, the committee's report covers not just MOOCs, but also the next steps for Open Yale Courses, the future of Yale's online summer session program, and training for graduate student teaching fellows who work with online courses.
“Joining one of the MOOC platforms in and of itself is not an online strategy,” Swineford said. “It’s one step.”
To Stokes, the idea of a strategy is key. He said that many colleges seem to have taken the plunge into MOOCs without a clear sense of their goals, and he worries about how that might play out in the long run.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with any university deciding to put a course online for free, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the notion of a MOOC,” he said. “But many of the schools who have jumped into it are doing it in a nonreflective way.”
The benefits of diving in include greater publicity – as Stokes said, partnership announcements that once made front-page news are now “one-line items buried on page three” – and possibly fewer complications to consider, at least at the outset.
“As [the MOOC movement] has accelerated very quickly, it has become a lot more complex,” Stokes said. “So I do think for a school that has stood on the sidelines up until now, it’s probably a different environment to jump into today, in January 2013, than it would have been in September 2012. The issues were a little less muddy back then.”
The increasing complexity of online endeavors simply underscores the need for a strategy that goes beyond a decision to experiment with MOOCs, Stokes said.
He sees three roles in the current MOOC ecosystem: course provider, testing service, and credit granter. Any institution looking to experiment with MOOCs needs to decide which role it wants to play, he said, and then determine its goals for the first year and its intentions for growth five years out.
He acknowledges that setting five-year goals might be difficult, given the rapid evolution of MOOCs over the past year. Still, he said, institutions must try to think that far ahead, beyond any immediate benefits.
“Either you have to have a pretty high tolerance for uncertainty and a complementary willingness to be adaptable to a rapidly changing situation, or you would have to believe that this thing you’ve already been doing for some time is actually perfect for the MOOC environment,” Stokes said.