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Are You Ready To Partner With MOOCs?
By Anita Reetz and Jim McGiffert


Are You Ready To Partner With MOOCs?“Advocates of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) claim they have the potential to transform higher education by expanding academic access on an unprecedented scale,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

After all the hype and the many millions of venture capital dollars that have poured into MOOCs over the past few years, it may seem more than a little surprising that only 2.6 percent of US colleges and universities are offering MOOCs, and fewer than 10 percent have plans to offer them, according to The Babson Survey. But a close look at pros and cons provides ample evidence for the reticence. Less surprising is a significant increase in the number of chief academic officers who say that online learning, whether “massive-open” or not, is critical to their long-term strategy: 69 percent in 2012, up from less than half a decade earlier.

The MOOC-makers are offering a smorgasbord of choices to colleges and universities as they consider giving credit courses online and expanding programs to grant credentials and degrees earned there. However, institutions face at least as large a variety of challenges in this regard. Among them include accommodating student abilities and needs, courting faculty acceptance, and meeting financial constraints.

Online course enrollments are increasing faster than overall enrollment. Between 2011 and 2012 there were 570,000 additional students enrolled in at least one online course, bringing the total at over 2800 US institutions to 6.7 million. The Babson survey found that “the proportion of all students taking at least one online course is at an all-time high of 32 percent. Adding the many adults who are not in school but are seeking more education, further growth is expected. Paul Ginocchio, an analyst at Deutsche Bank in San Francisco, predicts that “more than 80 percent of the US population will have access to less expensive online programs from their own state universities by the end of next year, up from 62 percent in 2012,” as quoted in Bloomberg News.

As Institutions incorporate online learning into their long term strategy and consider partnering with MOOCs, they need to assess a host of issues including: How prepared are their students to study independently? What’s the proportion of students taking quantitative (science, technology, engineering and math) versus qualitative (arts and humanities) courses? Is the faculty ready and able to participate in design, development and delivery of MOOCs? Is the physical plant crowded and classroom space at a premium? How will MOOC offerings be priced? How will financial aid apply to these courses? Will the decreasing marginal cost of online instruction be a long-term financial benefit?

MOOCs are creatively responding to some of these questions by offering a variety of contractual arrangements. One approach is to exploit the ”M” for “ massive” and produce “high technology education online for a worldwide audience” as underscored by Udacity. Emblematic of this is Udacity’s partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology. They recently announced an online Master’s degree program in computer science, supported by $2 million from AT&T, which will use the program to train employees and find potential hires as mentioned in the New York Times. “The plan is for Georgia Tech to provide the content and professors, and for Udacity to offer the computer platform, and provide course assistance.” Zvi Galil, Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, predicts that the program could attract up to 10,000 students annually in the years ahead, many from outside the U.S., noting that “online, there is no visa problem.”

Another approach is for a MOOC provider to collaborate with a public university system to produce, deliver, assist and advise on online education. Coursera and edX have formed many such partnerships to develop online competency-based credential and degree programs. For these multi-campus institutions, a scheme of “cross linking” enables students enrolled at one campus to take online courses originating at another campus, thus saving classroom seats and possibly shortening the time to graduate.

Coursera contracted with 10 university systems, including SUNY, in May 2012. The contract with the University of Kentucky, similar to those with the other nine, specifies “guided” courses, “open access” courses, and “licensed” courses. The differences lie primarily in how much of the content is university developed, how much comes from Coursera, and how the revenue is shared. Guided courses are essentially developed and administered by the university using the Coursera platform and open to registered university students. Access courses may be taken by anyone using the Coursera-administered website; credit bearing and non-credit bearing enrollments are both accepted. “Monetizing” such courses is mentioned in the contract, but terms are not specified. Licensed courses are developed by the University and sold to third party institutions; revenues are shared by Coursera and the University.

edX, the Harvard  and MIT  sponsored non-profit, into which each invested $30 million, has created X Consortium, partnering with 27 other educational institution worldwide. edX offers the university self-service and the edX-supported models. The self-service model resembles Coursera’s guided course where the university develops its own MOOC in-house and uses the edX platform. The edX-supported model offers production assistance to develop the MOOC.

edX has also engaged in building scale through “blended MOOCs”. The non-profit partnered with San Jose State University (SJSU) on a pilot course in Circuits & Electronics for which edX charged nothing. SJSU students watched the MOOC video lectures and took the embedded homework, but importantly, also met in class with school faculty for discussions, problem solving, group projects and lab work. This “blended MOOC” proved highly successful, with 90 percent of the students passing, compared with 55 percent in the traditional class. This success led a year later to the founding of SJSU’s Center for Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning to train faculty members from other California State University campuses interested in offering this particular engineering course and other blended MOOCs. As of late summer, edX was working on 15 similar pilots.

In the Udacity-Georgia Tech deal, students taking the course as a degree program will pay $6,600 (compared to the on-campus Masters course of $45,000). In keeping with the spirit of education for education’s sake, those not seeking a degree can take the courses for free. The venture, however, is clearly for profit with a projection of $14.3 million in costs and $4.7 million in profits by Year 3, with revenue split 60 percent to the school and 40 percent to Udacity.

Whether payment by the educational institution to the provider, or by the student to the school, it is very much a work in progress and will need clarification. Coursera’s university-system contracts set a flat fee for guided course development and an additional payment for each student. Under its contract with the University of Kentucky, the course-development fee is $3,000, and per-student fees are $25 each for the first 500 registered students, $15 apiece for the next 500, and $8 each for those beyond 1,000. The “monetizing” of access and licensed courses is referred to in the contracts but no fees are specified. The edX supported model charges a base rate (up to $250,000) for a new course and $50,000 each time the course is given an additional term.

While “blended MOOCs” seem to promise higher retention, the high dropout rate of students in MOOCs remains a problem. Early demographic findings from Coursera and edX show less than 10 percent of enrollees pass their MOOC. The successful student profile describes males (over 90 percent), aged between 24 and 37. It is usual for a quarter or more to hold a Bachelor’s degree and almost half a Master’s. Many have already taken the same or similar course and want the MOOC to hone their technical skills for professional use. It is no accident that Georgia Tech’s new degree is in a quantitative field, at the graduate level, and offered internationally, all factors that contribute to successful MOOC completion. Educated, career motivated, quantitatively adept autodidacts emerge as ideal MOOC candidates. The problem is that this does not conform to the demographic profile of the average U.S. college student. University faculties are well aware of the low retention rate of MOOC enrollees. The Babson Survey reported that “the proportion of academic leaders who cite the need for more discipline on the part of online students as a barrier has increased from just over 80 percent in 2007 to 88.8 percent in 2012”. The report continued, “The perception of a majority of chief academic officers… is [that] lower retention rates for online courses remain a barrier to the growth of online instruction.” 

Faculty push-back in non-quantitative studies is another factor. University faculties are aware that MOOCs fit into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) better than they do the humanities. In May, the San Jose State Philosophy Department wrote on open letter objecting to an edX MOOC titled “Justice” taught by Harvard Prof. Michael Sanger. The faculty voiced fear “that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially- stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact…with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant”. They added that the idea of having one single social justice course being used in philosophy departments across the country is “downright scary.”

Similarly, the Amherst College faculty has rejected working with edX to provide MOOCs. Such a partnership, it said, was at odds in a “purposefully small residential community” with “close colloquy”. At the same time, the faculty generally agreed that the college should look at doing more online.

Michael Nanfito, Executive Director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, advises academic decision makers that “whether or not you are part of a large state university system or affiliated with an elite campus with whom providers like Coursera are willing to work, you need to develop an assessment plan to help you consider MOOCs as potential solutions to enrollment problems. He proposes a nine-point program: Update enrollment needs at your institution, determine your institutional ability to develop and deliver MOOCs, decide if you will work with external MOOC providers, consider working with an outside agency to develop a critical review of providers, work with faculty to define courses that are candidates for online teaching, define an inclusive approval process that involves your faculty, define financial aid eligibility as it applies to MOOCs determine how you will charge for course enrollments, and determine how you will manage MOOC data in your student information systems.”#

This is the second in a series of articles by Anita Reetz ret. Faculty USC, and Jim McGiffert, journalist



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