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The Inter-Institutional Approach to Massive Open Online Education

AUDIO | The Inter-Institutional Approach to Massive Open Online Education
By partnering together, institutions have the ability to innovate in the development of their courses and share ideas and resources.

The following interview is with Barbara Allen, executive director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC). The CIC, a consortium of universities from the Big Ten conference and the University of Chicago, recently made waves across the higher education space when they released a report discussing their thoughts on partnering with vendors to create MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). In this interview, Allen sheds light on the work of the CIC, discusses the group’s findings in more detail and explains why these major institutions are looking internally when it comes to joining the MOOC movement.

1. What advantages can an institution gain from being part of a consortium like the Committee on Institutional Cooperation?

Well, I think there’s a whole host of general advantages that any institution can gain from collaboration. They’re the same kind of advantages that a corporation would look to receive, for example, when they enter into a joint venture with another corporation. These are activities that drive the cost down by sharing them across multiple partners, or amortize the cost of an activity or investment by spreading the development cost over a number of partners. Or, leveraging assets that the several institutions own by combining them, for example, you have more for others to share. And then lastly … rapid prototyping or learning across organizations. These are common ways that corporations would look to achieve advantage in a partnership and it works exactly the same way in higher education.

Specifically with our group of universities, these are research universities. So, we capitalize on the investment our institutions have made in their research apparatus, for example. Our universities conduct $9 billion of funded research every year. So we make it our business across the universities to share access to lab facilities or specialized courses that are hosted in those labs. We coordinate library services; in fact, we have a very large contract with Google to digitize 10 million book volumes in our university libraries. We built a shared fiber-optic network across the campuses so that all of them have an advanced IT infrastructure that wouldn’t be possible if any one institution were investing.

2. In the report, provosts from CIC’s member institutions discussed the value of partnering together to expand access to online programming rather than partnering with a vendor to achieve the same end. When looking at the provision of online programming in this regard, how would the CIC’s role differ from that of a content aggregator and provider such as Coursera?

I think the issue for our institutions is not so much, should we or they work with any specific corporate partner or any external corporate partner, for that matter. The issue, I think, for us is flipping the conversation from just that. Is this a business proposition that institutions would simply pursue? And, really looking at it as, what is our core business as a group of universities? It’s, of course, educating and discovering and conducting research. And, when does it make sense for our group of institutions specifically, or any group of universities generally, to look at how they’re providing aspects of that core business? To see if they need to innovate and, if they do, could they do it together to again … leverage those investments, amortize those investments, or in other ways realize some efficiencies?

I think our universities would argue that it’s not so much, again, “Should we partner with an external organization to deliver very large courses online?” Rather it’s, “As higher education trends toward the delivery of learning or courses in multiple ways, how are our universities going to adapt and how are they going to provide those services?”

At the end of the day, it’s likely that all of us will be using multiple external partners, just as we do now, to deliver our business.

But in this case, what we were trying to do was focus our attention on a set of questions that we think universities need to be asking as they expand their online offerings in general.

3. Along the same lines, how does banding together to offer access to online programs through a collaborative consortium like CIC differ from participating in a partnership with private vendors?

In some ways, it doesn’t. In some ways, if you’re looking purely at the platform itself, how does one transform a face-to-face course into an online course? How is that done technically? What are the intended pieces?

Those platform issues might be accomplished by working with an external partner; you just don’t know. The difference, here, and what would be exciting for any group of universities — not just ours — is the opportunity to actually leverage the faculty effort in developing the courses. So, for example, we, in our group of universities, have successfully coordinated the development of less commonly taught language offerings across our institutions. While we could have simply gone with an external partner to develop the courses, what was really exciting here was working directly with faculty from across our member universities. It enabled them to innovate in the development of their courses, reach out to others on their own campus outside of the discipline within which they were working. So, it gave energy and, I think, a certain excitement to the development of the courses. And, in doing so, they could be assured that the courses we delivered were the caliber that our institutions would expect and that students who enroll in one of our member universities expect.

So, to just recap, I think our collaboration could work in terms of the development of the platform itself. We can do that internally or externally, but there’s that piece. Then, the other piece — the piece that the universities can and must drive — really has to do with connecting faculty, developing very high-quality courses.

And, then, the last piece which is so important — which an external partner cannot provide — is the matter of providing credentials or course credit for those courses. I think what you see in the open online environment, you know, there’s a wonderful hunger that people have for good courses. That’s what’s so very exciting about what we’re seeing in Coursera or Udacity or edX, the massive interest. The piece missing, of course, for so many who are taking these courses is, “So what?” How is that going to contribute to your degree-seeking student?

I think those lines have yet to be sorted out or crossed and, for us, in our institutions, we’re very much aware of the need to use these technologies and these teaching innovations to benefit students who are degree-seeking students in our universities.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about the access to online programming being pursued though a partnership with other institutions and what this perspective from the CIC will mean for the continued growth of MOOCs?

So, I think that our universities will continue to have a diverse and probably very complex approach to online courses of all kinds. So, you’ll have online degree programs offered out of some of the colleges that use one platform and are delivered in a certain way to a certain audience. And then you’ll have courses delivered out of distance education or continuing education that might serve a very different, non-degree purpose. And you’ll see a university partnering with multiple corporate partners or external partners or university partners in order to experiment and find what is the right set for their university.

So, again, I think, right now there’s going to continue to be — and should be — great variance, great diversity and a lot of activity. Where all this will settle down for education generally? I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know anyone who does. But I can say that I personally am so very excited about what appears to be the potential in these, again, very large, open courses and I think our universities will continue to experiment in that space. The ability to reach so many hundreds of thousands of people in ways that benefit them significantly and improve quality in life, I personally think that’s one of the most exciting advances in education, certainly in my lifetime. …

Our paper, by the way, I think it put out a series of questions and is intended as a starting place for a conversation that, again, will help illuminate and maybe be a bit of a roadmap to a complex place. Where it all ends up, I think it’s anybody’s guess, but I’m glad we’re along for the ride.

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