The primary reasons many universities create massive open online courses (MOOCs), a new study suggests, are for marketing purposes.

The pedagogical benefits — or shortcomings — of MOOCs may often be the main talking point for the free online classes, but they aren’t what are driving many schools to invest in them.

marketingThe survey, which was conducted by Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson, and the Sloan Consortium, included nearly 3,000 institutions responding to questions about MOOCs and other forms of online learning.

When asked what the primary objective was for introducing a MOOC at their institutions, just under half of those surveyed said it was “marketing-related.”

Nearly 30 percent of respondents said they used MOOCs to increase institution visibility, and 20 percent said they use the courses to drive student recruitment.

“That said, MOOCs are being used very differently by different institutions,” the study’s authors wrote. “Institutions with the most extensive traditional online offerings are most likely to say that they are embracing MOOCs to ‘increase visibility of the institution,’ while institutions with no current online offerings say their MOOCs will be used to ‘drive student recruitment.’”

As more universities go online to reach prospective students, it’s not surprising that they would use MOOCs as a sort-of sampler of their more costly course offerings.

Some institutions have turned to MOOCs based on popular culture, like super heroes and the AMC television series “The Walking Dead,” to drive students to the online courses – and some of the university’s instructors. In turn, the courses help popularize MOOCs as a concept.

A study released in June found that only 23 percent of people are aware that MOOCs even exist.

“Student’s lives are permeated with so much pop culture that when you use it to teach, it makes the learning relevant, and it gets their attention,” said Christina Blanch, an instructor at Ball State University who taught a MOOC about gender in comic books in April. “And I believe that MOOCs with a popular culture element are great for people understanding what a MOOC is.”

That MOOCs still need some more name recognition themselves could give pause to some institutions looking to use the courses to boost their own. But some schools say that they have found that the gamble is paying off.

The University of London reported that recent MOOCs there “generated 45 expressions of interest” in its degree courses. If those students were to  enter into a full master’s degree program, then the university could see as much as $1.5 million in additional revenue, estimated Leonard Waks, a professors emeritus of educational leadership at Temple University.

If that’s a sound marketing investment would depend on how much a MOOC cost to produce. Some estimates put the average cost of a MOOC between $15,000 and $50,000, while other more conservative guesses place the cost at just $2,500.

In the first half of 2013, American colleges and universities spent $570 million on paid advertising. About 30 percent – or nearly $154 million – of that amount was spent on internet display ads.

When asked in the Babson survey if MOOCs were actually meeting an institutions’ marketing objectives, two thirds of the respondents said it was still “too early to tell.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter @eCN_Jake.


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