Published on 2017/07/25
The EvoLLLution | MOOCs and the Scaling of Postsecondary Education
Far from a “failed experiment” MOOCs are transforming the educational landscape—both online and on-campus—while also helping colleges and universities broaden their reach and serve more students.

MOOCs are currently living in an odd place in the postsecondary environment. When they first came on the scene, insiders and observers alike were excited about the potential for the MOOC to completely transform higher education. As time went on, the hype began to fade and while some institutions swore by the massive offerings, other leaders began to turn their attention to new areas. However, enrollments in MOOCs continue to rise while the array of options available through these offerings quietly grows and grows. In this interview, Deb Keyek-Franssen reflects on some of the unique benefits institutions gain by investing in and maintaining their MOOCs and shares her thoughts on how these offerings have helped participating institutions gain unique insights on scaling.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How effective are MOOCs at helping universities create connections with large numbers of new students, especially those who are paying for MOOCs and using them as alternative credentials?

Deborah Keyek-Franssen (DKF): MOOCS are very good at broadening universities’ abilities to connect with students. Across CU campuses, we have 1.7 million learners enrolled in at least one of our MOOCs. We can argue about whether or not those are learners or students, but for us it means is that we have 1.7 million people looking at and interested in CU content.

As a public university, that number speaks to our outreach mission of making our educational opportunities available to a broad audience. We were pleasantly surprised by the fact that people also wanted to pay for this content. We realized that people around the world see a tangible benefit in a validated certificate that shows that they completed all of the work necessary to finish a course—and by course I mean MOOC, which usually now runs somewhere between 4 and 8 weeks—or an entire specialization, which is roughly equivalent to one or two regular three-credit-hour courses at one of our universities. Learners are not just getting the intangible benefits of learning and of accomplishment. When they received a certificate and shared it with their employer, they also saw tangible benefit in the form of a raise, a new project, or a new job. We have seen that by really targeting learners who are looking for career advancement, we’re able to provide them with an exceptional benefit and we’re able to get the word out about the excellent content and educational opportunities that we have for the world.

Evo: Do you see a future where MOOCs might serve as a pipeline into the university’s in-house credit and non-credit offerings?

DKF: Yes, I do. It’s small-scale, but we have people auditing content for free and then becoming interested in our online or face-to-face programs. In the future, MOOCs could also serve as a part of the admissions process, a validation that someone is ready for the rigor of our academic programs. Another trend that I’m seeing is that more and more universities are looking at MOOCs as a model for scaling credit-bearing certificates and degrees. By using excellent design of MOOCs combined with some high-touch experiences, universities can scale a program in such a way that students have the benefit of on-demand online learning and the university has the benefit of reaching a larger number of students.

Evo: What are some benefits for universities in opening up new access pathways through MOOCs?

DKF: The top four that come to mind are reach, reputation, revenue and increased quality in teaching and learning. Reach gets to the outreach mission again. There’s also the reputational piece, and we can argue about whether reputation should be an important measure for educational institutions, but it does matter. Then there’s the revenue piece, which is more about offsetting investments than maximizing profit. Another value is our experience that faculty who go through the process of creating a MOOC improve their face-to-face teaching, in part because they have to go back to the basics of instructional and curricular design. In doing so, they improve the quality of their classroom experience or their more traditional online courses.

Evo: How can universities offering MOOCs ensure the student experience is a positive one, even with thousands of students?

DKF: It comes down to excellent instructional design and understanding that students who enroll in MOOCs are largely voluntary learners—they are not required to be taking the course. Instructors need to design their courses with that in mind. It means that there need to be real world examples and applied activities and assessments. At all times students need to know where they are with their learning, where this one little module or this one week or this one MOOC fits into a broader learning objective or a broader body of knowledge or a broader field of study, and there has to be connective tissue between all of the experiences that they have in that course. I think building that connectivity comes easier in a face-to-face classroom, many instructors do this without thinking about it. But in a MOOC, we’re finding that instructors have to be deliberate about designing connectivity into a MOOC.

Evo: How can the lessons universities learn about scaling from MOOCs be applied to more traditional on-campus and online offerings?

DKF: MOOCs have proven to be a fantastic means of testing education practices at scale. For a long time, educational research has shown us that practices such as building in connective tissue or contextualizing learning materials helps learning. We know, for instance, that instructional practices such as quick feedback are good for students’ learning and persistence. With MOOCs, we now have huge amounts of data that support practices that we’ve known about for a while. As an example, MOOCs have shown us the power of peer evaluation as a learning opportunity for both the person evaluating and the person being evaluated. From artistic endeavors, to writing endeavors, to the output of a coding project, to a case study review, there’s now a lot of rich data about effective practices in the area of peer evaluation at scale.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how this MOOC endeavor is helping universities to grow their capacity to scale educational offerings?

DKF: Let’s look back to a time when people were saying things like online education was going to solve higher education’s financial woes. That didn’t really happen, but it has changed the way we approach things like instructional design and scaling. And now we’re really starting to see the unique capabilities of online education—including MOOCs: instead of trying to replicate online the things we’re used to doing in the classroom, instead of always trying to keep the structures of a semester or a credit, we’re recognizing that there is quite a bit of room for growth and experimentation that will help our students and our universities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • On top of helping public universities fulfil their outreach mission, MOOCs can help drive interest and enrollments to institutional certificate and degree offerings.
  • There are four key areas where universities benefit by opening up access pathways through MOOCs: Reach, Reputation, Revenue, and Quality Teaching and Learning
  • Through MOOCs, university leaders are becoming more aware of the importance of contextualization and personalization for students—both inside and outside the classroom.
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