Context Matters: Why Offer a MOOC? #cccmroe

Sampler TrayIn part one on my series reporting on the “Multidisciplinary Research for Online Education” (MROE) workshop held last week in DC, I addressed the question, What is a MOOC? In part two, I tackled the question, Whose MOOC is it? Today, let’s take a look at a third question: Why offer a MOOC?

Since I spend so much of my time supporting the development of open online courses at Vanderbilt, it’s easy to take a provincial view of MOOCs. I know why Vanderbilt is offering MOOCs. We want to experiment with online education (an area that Vanderbilt has not explored much in the past, outside our School of Nursing) and how it might enhance teaching and learning on campus, we want to fulfill our mission to “disseminate knowledge” in a new and different way, and we want to make sure we’re not getting lapped by other research universities experimenting with MOOCs. Also, our online learning initiative is good PR, and there’s a chance it will be a mechanism for alumni to be more involved in the life of the university. All good reasons to experiment with online learning.

Attending the MROE workshop meant interacting with colleagues at a variety of institutions, many of whom are launching online learning initiatives for very different reasons. I tweeted this after the first night of the workshop:

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I learned about an institution that started building online courses not as a way to share knowledge with the world, but in order to flip classrooms on campus. Instructors filmed lectures and designed robo-graded quizzes so that content delivery and basic assessment could occur outside of class, freeing class time for active learning and more difficult material. Once these course tools were produced, sharing them publicly as a MOOC could be done for a low marginal cost.

This approach has meant that the university’s online courses cover as much material as their on-campus courses. In contrast, Vanderbilt’s MOOCs are more like one- or two-credit courses, given their topic coverage. This means that we have an easy answer to students who worry that we’re giving away a Vanderbilt education for free: Our MOOCs are more like free samples than free courses. This answer doesn’t fly at the institution that started by flipping their courses. They are experiencing some pushback from students who feel that their tuition-funded education is being devalued.

I talked with a computer scientist at another institution which is struggling to find the space and faculty to teach the students they have. This is a common problem at public institutions: not enough capacity to meet demand for courses from students. In many places, this has meant that students take more than four years (sometimes six or seven) to finish degrees. At this particular public institution, MOOCs are seen as a way that they can expand capacity. Instead of teaching an intro computer science course at 8pm to a class of 400 students, the institution could offer the course as a MOOC, or at least a “MOC,” a massive online course. I’m guessing the university will require its students to pay tuition in order to receive credit for such a course.

This reason for offering MOOCs is not unlike the reason many institutions (especially public institutions) have ramped up online learning programs in the past decade. Online courses offer students more flexibility in their schedules for staying on-track to finish their programs, and they allow more students to take courses, adding capacity to the system. With the advent of MOOCs, the latter aspect of online courses in emphasized, as MOOC technologies and practices allow for more meaningful learning experiences at much bigger scales.

I’ll add that this isn’t a reason that Vanderbilt is offering MOOCs. Although we have trouble staffing a few courses here and there (often courses required by accrediting agencies that don’t fall in the research specialties of our faculty), those courses are niche courses and likely wouldn’t fly as MOOCs. They would just be OOCs in our case.

During the workshop, I talked with a faculty member at a third institution that is considering MOOCs as a replacement for their introductory courses. It didn’t sound like this institution had a capacity problem, just that administrators saw MOOCs as the next big thing that they should pursue. This faculty member pointed out that their current introductory courses work very well, particularly at bringing women into the traditionally male-dominated field, and that there’s no research showing that MOOCs work as well or better. These are important points; MOOCs should be seen as experiments right now. Perhaps in a few years we’ll have enough research on MOOCs to determine where they are most effective in the higher education ecosystem, but not yet.

I’m curious, if your institution is considering offering MOOCs, what’s the rationale? One of the reasons I’ve outlined here or something else?

Image: “Sampler tray,” urban bohemian, Flickr (CC)

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