Cornell report understands the promise of MOOCs, but warns of shaky revenue, taking up faculty time

MOOCs-learning-cons Colleges across the country are either showcasing their massive open online courses (MOOCs), in stages of development, or considering their value as thousands of students attend distance learning courses on a daily basis. However, a new report cautions that there may be drawbacks to supporting one form of distance learning over another, and that some trends might not last forever.

The report, presented by the Cornell Distance Learning Committee—comprised of faculty members, administrators, and IT leaders—notes that new developments in distance learning are “generating much excitement,” especially with “the recent rise of MOOCs.”

However, though there is much excitement, there are many who are worried that issues such as faculty time, quality of the online class, and sustainability of the revenue model are just some of the reasons to hold back on over-offering, or over-investing in, MOOCs over other forms of distance learning.

Instead, the report advises that the institution “pursue a diverse portfolio of distance learning avenues, continually rebalancing it as evidence emerges…in particular, we do not want our faculty making commitments that adversely impact on-campus teaching and research.”

The committee suggests that Cornell should foster skills that can benefit online and on-campus courses while weighing the pros and cons:

(Next page: The pros)


1. Recruiting and bolstered reputation

“Cornell faculty in a number of fields report that a substantial online presence (not necessarily from MOOCs) is important for recruiting excellent students,” notes the report. “Online courses can have an outreach or public relations goal, providing an avenue for broadly enriching society and promoting Cornell’s reputation.”

The committee also noted that high-quality online courses help to broadly advertise faculty and their research, and “may lead to improved application rates. These outreach efforts strengthen visibility among peer departments, and may indirectly yield advantages even in recruiting top faculty.”

2. Enhanced professional learning

“MOOCs may provide a valuable service to students, offering a path to enhanced professional credentials (for example, via eCornell programs) or to academic credit (for example, in classes offered during Cornell summer and winter sessions),” explains the report.

3. Lower costs for attendees

“Because MOOCs have substantially lower per-attendee costs than traditional classroom teaching, some argue that a revolution in education has started, in which such online courses profoundly change how people learn,” says the report.

The report details that MOOCs at other institutions rely on different sources than traditional revenue. For example, the course may be free, but one can pay for an ID-verified certificate of completion. MOOC consortia can also generate revenue by displaying advertisements, or licensing MOOCs to degree-granting institutions.

“It is noteworthy that eCornell, Cornell’s solely owned company which charges a participant fee for its courses, has recently been returning funds ($1M annually) to the university which help to support online ventures,” says the report.

(Next page: Cons)


1.  Takes up faculty time

“We do not want our faculty making commitments that adversely impact on-campus teaching and research,” notes the report, and an important parameter to keep in mind is “the amount of faculty time required to produce a MOOC, and the consequent reduction of time teaching local Cornell courses by these excellent instructors.”

The Committee recommends that “administrative structures must be put in place to manage such conflicting pressures,” and that the current requests for proposals require department chairs to approve the professors’ plans.

“Additionally,” emphasizes the report, ” if MOOCs are derived from especially important and popular on-campus courses, tied to the talents and interests of the instructor, it may be hard to maintain the original courses while also running the MOOC and respecting the instructor’s need for time on research and other tasks.”

2. Expensive to produce

The models for deriving revenue that would sustain MOOCs are untested and could lead to undesirable changes in the higher education landscape, says the report.

“For example, we recommend that Cornell proceed strategically and carefully in considering whether to continue our commitment to edX beyond our two-year contract and, if that contract is extended, how many courses to offer per year. In the short term, we do not anticipate any income from any of Cornell’s first round of MOOCs. Moreover, we estimate that if verified certificates of completion were offered, any fees would fall below the threshold required for edX to share revenue with Cornell.”

3. Not equivalent to the traditional classroom

According to the Committee, “MOOCs do not provide an educational experience that is equivalent to a traditional classroom.”

The report also emphasizes the importance of “prudent educational policy (overseen by the faculty’s Educational Policy Committee). For instance, we recognize the value of the credit given through Cornell’s established online courses, but at this time recommend against giving Cornell credit for MOOCs. We provide discussion of the possible impact of licensing Cornell edX (CornellX) MOOCs for credit elsewhere, a topic that should play a role in future policy deliberations.”

For Cornell’s recommendations concerning MOOCs and diverse distance learning options, as well as more in-depth details on the Committee’s concerns, read the full report.

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