6 reasons why institutions offer MOOCs—and whether or not they’re working

New research suggests that institutions offer MOOCs to reach many goals, but they’re often unmet

goals-MOOCs-institutionsAccording to a new report, there are six main reasons why institutions are offering MOOCs, but only two of them are actually working.

The report, conducted by Columbia University and Brown University, interviewed over 80 online learning and MOOC-knowledgeable administration and faculty from a wide range of colleges and universities to determine why institutions are offering MOOCs.

What the researchers found was that many of the reasons institutions list as the motivators behind MOOC offerings aren’t accomplishing intended goals, and there are often logistical considerations as to why these goals are going unmet.

According to the study, these are the six reasons institutions are offering MOOCs, as well as information on whether or not the goal is being met, and potential solutions to reach the goal:

1. Goal: To extend reach and access. According to the report, this goal was the most cited among administrators and faculty members (42 percent) from varying institutions as to why they offered MOOCs. Some institutions said they provided MOOCs to provide high-quality education to a global population, while others said they were trying to reach a specific population or solve a particular challenge relating to access.

Accomplished? No. Though many institutions have partnered with platforms like edX or Coursera to attract a larger number of participants, the report notes that even though enrollees are spread across different countries, “only a fraction of those who registered actually participated in the courses, and far fewer completed them.” Also, most enrollees are already “well educated, with only a small fraction of these participants fully engaged with the courses.” One barrier to access, says the report, is available infrastructure and internet bandwidth across cultures. Another barrier is that education “is more complex than simply providing access to content,” and pedagogy must also be considered.

Solutions: If the goal is to better democratize education, institutions must accurately document the level and diversity of participation in their program both before and after offering MOOCs, said the report. Institutions must also identify multiple channels of communication to reach potential recruits. For example, they may need to use social media networks and advertise through high schools, employment agencies, or community organizations in the U.S. and abroad. Accreditation agencies and state education departments must also review and revise regulations to accommodate online offerings that reach beyond local confines.

2. Goal: To build and maintain a brand. Institutions (41 percent) said that MOOCs, just like other branding, can serve to retain students, faculty members, and increase partnership opportunities with funders, other institutions, and alumni networks.

Accomplished? Currently unknown. The report’s participants said that many institutions are currently trying to determine how to measure MOOC’s branding effectiveness.

Solutions: Institutions are already starting to compare historical data on applications and admission with post-MOOC statistics. Institutions must also be aware of where the brand actually lies; for example, do participants opt for a course because it is on a particular platform or because it is offered by a particular university? The report notes that some participants said that “as MOOC platform providers such as edX and Coursera open their platforms to a wider range of institutions, some of the initial cachet of belonging to these consortia is being lost.”

(Next page: Reasons 3-6)

3. Goal: To improve economics by reducing cost or increasing revenues. 29 percent of all institutions claimed that this goal was critical in determining whether or not to offer MOOCs.

Accomplished? No. According to the report, to date, MOOC production and delivery have negatively affected faculty time and financial investments from institutions, leading many stakeholders in education to acknowledge that the current expenditures on MOOC development cannot continue indefinitely without financial justification.

Solutions: As the report emphasizes, MOOCs as an education technology are still in their infancy, with potential to one day improve economics as institutional structure and practice change as well. For example, potential cost savings could come from reusing MOOC materials, but the technology used to create the MOOC must be easily customizable if needed. Also, sharing MOOC materials across instructors and campuses could lead to cost savings, but logistical issues such as how tuition and credits are transferred (and a shift in culture away from creation of content at each site) would need to be resolved. Concerning additional revenue, institutions would need to offer credit for MOOC completion or charge tuition, but quality standards for MOOCs (for assessments, especially) would need to improve. Institutions could also charge licensing fees for use of MOOC materials or data by other institutions. Fees for additional services offered to MOOC participants—for example, online tutoring or face-to-face instruction with a local instructor—could also generate revenue.

4. Goal: Improving educational outcomes. 38 percent of institutions said that they expected MOOCs to lead to an improvement in educational outcomes, with some believing improvement would occur directly within the MOOC format and others believing improvement would happen indirectly through the transfer of new strategies and techniques to on-campus teaching.

Accomplished? Unknown; hard data is needed. According to many interviewees, “the most significant impact of MOOCs has been on the motivation they have created for instructors to rethink how they teach,” states the report,” with many “intransigent” faculty members reconsidering teaching styles. However, no hard evidence currently exists that MOOCs improve learning experiences. The report highlights that current studies are often conflicting as to whether or not educational outcomes have improved.

Solutions: Though adaptive learning technologies have clear potential to provide accurate data feedback on student outcomes, “it is clear that current turnaround time for analyzing MOOC platform data is too long to allow for even midcourse corrections,” says the report, “let alone to provide just-in-time customization for individual participants.” Moving forward, coordination and collaboration among content experts, instructors, researchers, instructional designers, and programmers will be essential to reach progress towards personalized and adaptive learning features for better outcomes.

5. Goal: To bring innovation to teaching and learning. 19 percent of all study participants said MOOCs would help innovate pedagogy and other models of higher education to better prepare for an uncertain future.

Accomplished? Yes. Participants in the study note that MOOCs have promoted many faculty members to engage in new educational activities, and that strategies employed online—frequent assessments and short lectures interspersed with questions—are subsequently being used on campus.

Advice: Take tips from online learning experts. Some report participants said that many MOOC developers are “reinventing and re-learning the missteps and successes of online learning and failing to take advantage of scale, the most characteristic aspect of MOOCs that differentiates them from other online education.” Also, measuring the value of innovation is hard unless it’s tied to tangible objectives, says the report. “While a few institutions are developing metrics to assess the impact of MOOC-related innovations on various objectives, most are not yet making any rigorous attempt to assess whether MOOCs are more or less effective than other strategies to achieve their goals.”

6. Goal: To research teaching and learning. This goal was stated by 18 percent of participants, mainly research universities. This goal refers specifically to work that is conducted by individuals who consider themselves researchers first and aim to publish their work.

Accomplished? Yes. Several types of research have been, and are being, conducted that use MOOCs as the vehicle for delivering data on participant behavior and performance, says the report.

Advice: “A great deal of effort has been expended on trying to improve participant engagement and completion of MOOCs and less effort on determining whether participants actually gain skills or knowledge from the courses,” concluded the report. More of a focus on whether or not students learned something, rather than on simple completion of a MOOC equating having learned something, should be emphasized in research.

For much more detailed information, including critical analysis of potential solutions, read the full report, “Why Do Institutions Offer MOOCs?”  here.