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5 Tactical Questions Higher Ed Administrators Should Be Asking About MOOCs

Massive open online courses — offered free and without admissions criteria to anyone in the world — may or may not be a suitable tactic for your organization, but if you are an administrator at a college, university or state system, you probably find yourself in the position of having to consider MOOCs, if only to answer anxious questions for your stakeholders.

MOOC strategic planning

Ethan Lofton via Flickr

When a phenomenon like MOOCs comes along, it’s tempting to react to it without taking time to put it in context. Hopefully, your college or university is working within the context of a clear mission and a strategy for achieving it. Assuming your school has developed a clear sense of the strategic position it is striving to establish, you have probably gone on to identify tactics that will help you claim that position.

The universe of possible tactics is always expanding, though, and the introduction of MOOCs in the last year is a doozy. Not quite the Big Bang but maybe comparable to the birth of a new solar system . . . or a black hole, depending on your perspective.

MOOCs raise a growing list of challenging questions for university administrators, but here are five tactical questions you can start thinking about now that will help you stay focused on your strategic plan. For each question, I provide examples for you to consider. Of course, the answers you arrive at will ultimately depend on your own organization’s mission and strategy.


1. How might MOOCs help us pursue our target market?

The University of Wisconsin – La Crosse discovered a market advantage to MOOCs accidentally. Their developmental math MOOC last spring, offered in the spirit of experimentation, got participants from 40 countries who are unlikely ever to attend UW-Lax. But they also found that a large number of students were seniors in Wisconsin high schools, many still making up their minds about where to attend college.

Effectively, the MOOC turned prospective students into participants and provided them with a sense of what college-level work at La Crosse would consist of and what kind of faculty they would encounter. It remains to be seen if this will affect applications and enrollment, but presumably this high-touch encounter places La Crosse front-of-mind compared to other choices.

To take another example, suppose an institution has identified working adults as a target market that they are serving well and want to continue recruiting from. Online education in general is very attractive to these learners, and a free open-enrollment class, particularly a “toe in the water” version, may be a useful recruitment tool. That’s the model of Open2Study, a collaboration between several Australian universities offering short introductory classes in subjects ranging from astronomy to design to management.


2. How might MOOCs help us serve our students better?

Over and over again in interviews I’ve heard MOOC instructors talk about how the experience has energized their on-campus teaching. The change in perspective seems to bring out better work when they return to the classroom.

That’s hard to quantify, obviously. A clearer example of benefits to students are the ways in which MOOCs have enabled many classrooms to “perform the flip.” Flipped classrooms operate on the theory that it’s preferable to shift the less interactive part of the learning process — knowledge transfer — to the homework time and to free up classroom time for more coaching and mentoring, particularly on the exercises traditionally done as homework.

That’s easier said than done, but some college instructors are finding MOOCs offer a way. At San Jose State University, Professor Khosrow Ghadiri now assigns the lectures and quizzes provided in MOOC form by another professor at another university as homework and uses classroom time in his electrical engineering course to engage with his students in ways that had never been possible before. This lecture course was traditionally a heart breaker with a 50% pass rate. In his first semester using the flipped model, 90% of his students passed.


3. How might MOOCs help us strengthen our relationships?

One other benefit of the UW-La Crosse MOOC I discussed above has been more contact with faculty at the feeder high schools their students come from. They also have more cooperation with math departments on other campuses of the UW system since those other campuses helped provide live tutoring sessions during the MOOC. Regional and system-wide cooperation are mission critical for many schools, and the creative use of MOOCs may be effective ways to achieve that.

Other schools may have town-gown relationships they wish to cultivate or improve. The Ivy League school near where I live, with generous workload policies, can afford to send faculty to volunteer in every after school program, health clinic and library in the area. But other private universities in this area with more limited resources participate in the community less consistently. MOOCs offered in partnership with local organizations and that play on a school’s unique academic offerings could be a cost effective way to increase their community engagement.


4. How might MOOCs help us leverage our advantages?

Different institutions have identified different strategic positions for themselves. Schools may try to establish themselves as the the most exclusive, the most inclusive, the most connected to Wall Street, the most welcoming, having the most engaged alumni, or the lowest-cost choice in their region.

All of these in theory could be leveraged with the imaginative use of MOOCs. In practice, it is probably more obvious how to leverage advantages at a micro level. The basic practice of this idea is the “superstar professor.” While Coursera and edX are leveraging the names of elite schools, the schools themselves send their A team onto the field. For example, from MIT, Eric Lander’s MOOC on introductory biology is very popular not only because his lectures are very effective but also because nothing says strategic advantage like a Nobel Prize for cracking the genome.

Your institution may not have any Nobel Prize winners, but it most likely has a lot of hidden gems, and MOOCs provide an opportunity to let them shine. When Ball State University wanted to experiment with a MOOC, they turned to a doctoral student in Educational Studies who teaches a particularly popular course in the Anthropology program. Christina Blanche’s MOOC “Gender Through Comic Books,” became a viral hit with 2,500 active students, and Ball State got a ton of press last winter.

If strategic advantages can be placed on a spectrum between a university’s defining characteristics and its individual faculty, somewhere in between are programmatic offerings. Consider the following scenarios:

  • A state university campus near where I live offers the only Ed.D. in educational leadership in the state.
  • The same campus offers the only traditional MFA in creative writing in the state while a private university nearby offers a low-residency version.
  • Two private colleges nearby both offer flex-schedule MBA programs that are undifferentiated in the marketplace.

Administrators at these universities should be asking themselves if MOOCs provide an opportunity to maintain, extend or capture a strategic advantage for the program itself or for the institution as a whole.


5. How might MOOCs offered elsewhere weaken our strategic position?

Though I think there’s more to be gained by seeing MOOCs as an opportunity to achieve your organization’s goals, it’s also important to think about how they may be a threat.

One obvious example is the potential threat posed by the new master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech using a partnership with MOOC provider Udacity. It plans to be be very low cost and to recruit a very large number of students. Much of that may come from “growing the pie,” but peer computer science programs must be worried that Georgia Tech will nevertheless get part of their slice.

The Georgia Tech example aside, it’s not clear that MOOCs can provide an alternative to higher education. In theory, prospective tuition-paying students could decide to forgo a degree in favor of a do-it-yourself version using free resources. This is obviously not an imminent threat, and critics of MOOCs are correct to point out the gap in quality between most MOOCs and most traditional classes. But that gap is narrowing, and in the long run it may not matter to a certain percentage of students. Clayton Christensen makes a persuasive case that only a small percentage decline in tuition revenue would be a mortal danger to some institutions. How many adventuresome, self-directed learners can your school afford to lose to MOOCs?

In short, MOOCs need not be a better alternative — just a viable alternative — to be a threat. If or when that alternative will challenge your strategic position is an open question, not only because it is not easily answered but also because any credible answer today probably wouldn’t still apply tomorrow.


Closing thoughts

I truly believe MOOCs over the long run are a means to providing more education to more people, and that is ultimately a good thing for students. But it won’t automatically be a good thing for everyone with a stake in providing higher education. MOOCs, along with other powerful economic, social and demographic forces, are going to make waves that will require college and university administrators to stay alert. Given how new MOOCs are, it’s impossible to say exactly what their impact will be, but one thing higher ed administrators can do right now is to focus on their mission and ask if MOOCs are a tactic to help them achieve their strategic position.


Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.