Recent best practices and research from adventurous, innovative colleges and universities yield 5 takeaways about MOOC implementation.

MOOC-lessons-onlineLove them or hate them, MOOCs are still a popular option among college and universities. Yet, only the institution that takes note of MOOC evolution via trial-and-error will be able to effectively harness the multiple campus and student benefits offered by this notorious mode of online learning.

After reviewing recent studies, best practices, and research reports over the last two years as published by eCampus News, there are five major takeaways from the MOOC implementation boom, which could potentially help students, professors, and campus marketing better take advantage of what MOOCs originally aimed to do for higher education: increase access to education, increase student engagement, and promote branding of the institution—all without adding an unmanageable financial burden to the institutional budget.

See any MOOC lessons learned not on the list? Leave your suggestions in the comment section below, email me at, or leave your feedback on Twitter @ecampusnews.

[Listed in no particular order]


1. They may be more expensive than you think…and you should care.

Is a MOOC worth anywhere between $39,000 to $325,000 in development and delivery costs to your college or university? How do you know? According to Fiona Hollands, associate director at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; and Devayani Tirthali, independent researcher at Brown University, “…lowering costs is not the highest priority for MOOC initiatives,” say the authors: “among the 140 or so institutions of higher-ed offering MOOCs in Allen and Seaman’s sample, less than ten indicated that exploring cost reduction was an objective for their MOOC initiatives.” In a separate study, Hollands and Tirthali also found that, of 29 institutions offering MOOCs, improving economics was a goal for only 38 percent. But with recent national spotlights on college affordability, as well as questions surrounding MOOCs’ effectiveness for learning, can institutions continue to turn a blind eye to the high price of MOOCs?

Based on interviews conducted with 83 administrators, faculty members, and researchers; and using case studies, as well as the U.S. national average salary and benefits rates for public postsecondary faculty members and public sector research scientists, the two authors aimed to determine not just what most MOOCs cost institutions [as the producer, as opposed to the platform provider], but also how to calculate those costs.

“We estimate total costs per MOOC, including facilities, equipment, and overhead, of $38,980 to $325,330” the authors explain. [The costs of the platform, captioning, content hosting, and analysis of user data to populate the data dashboard were assumed by Coursera for all xMOOCs analyzed by the authors.]

For the full findings of the study, as well as how to calculate the costs of developing a MOOC at your institution, click here.

(Next page: Access and reinvention)


2. Access is not a given.

Who actually gets access to MOOCs? And what are they getting access to? According to Susan Meisenhelder, professor emeritus of English at California State University, San Bernardino, “access is a complex, even slippery, term. It means much more than the mere opportunity to enroll in a course just as access to the middle-class dream of home ownership meant much more than the opportunity to get a loan and move in for a while. For access to be meaningful—and not just an empty advertising slogan—students must have a real chance, if they work hard, to succeed in getting a quality education.”

““MOOCs are another tool in the box,” says David Wiley, a leader in the open education movement and an expert in instructional technology. “If we start swinging them, hammer-like, at everything, we will do so to the detriment of students. We should be honest about the situations they may be appropriately used in, and make heavy use of them there. We shouldn’t make inappropriate claims about broader applicability.”

According to two-year assessment of the massive open online courses (MOOCs) created by HarvardX and MITx through their edX online-learning partnership, “those who hope that MOOCs will spread higher education to underserved populations in the United States or around the world, it is thus fair to say, the promise is so far not being definitively met by the high-level HarvardX and MITx offerings…” (Read more here.)

Meisenhelder believe that faculty have the expertise and the access to numerous platforms for exposing what she calls the “fake access claims” made for MOOCs. “Even the simple act of demanding that those institutions beginning to push MOOCs for credit inform students about the data on success in MOOCs could empower a student to make wiser choices—and ask some hard questions.”

Meisenhelder also believes that demanding administrators answer questions about the digital divide among students being “targeted” will not only highlight a very concrete problem with MOOCs but also open discussion of other social class and equity issues in their use.

“As faculty we can also demand—and actually do—research on MOOCs and other innovations. Right now, the research ‘agenda’ on MOOCs is largely being driven by universities sponsoring them and corporate providers. We need not only to scrutinize their research claims; we also need more independent research that pushes beyond what Phil Hill has called the ‘billions served’ metric currently passed off as MOOC assessment.” (Read more of Meisenhelder’s essay here.)


3. Like desktop computers, MOOCs are going smaller, easier.

Like many disruptive innovations, the initial tech offering may not be the one that survives. In fact, it’s often an easier-to-implement, smaller offshoot of the original that is the true disruptive innovation that changes the market.

Though its success will depend on its performance over the next year or so, Edcasting may just be the iPad to MOOCs’ desktop computers. EdCast–a personal learning network platform– developed what it says is a new social media platform that allows people to post mini-MOOCs, or video snippets of educational content; the new functionality is called “EdCasting.”

EdCasting is a less formal version of online courses, and is akin to tweeting, with the difference being that each post is based on a video or link that can be described without being limited to 140 characters.

“Just as podcasting and Tweeting made it easier to share general content, EdCasting empowers everyone to share their knowledge and help create the new culture of lifelong learning in this knowledge economy,” said Karl Mehta, CEO and Founder of EdCast. “With EdCasting, you are just a button push away from being connected to subject experts.”

The launch of EdCasting includes 10 channels ranging from entrepreneurship, architecture, robotics, technology, and health, filled with insights from over 100 “globally renowned experts and influencers,” described the company in a press release.

And just like with Twitter, the mini-MOOC platform is meant to be an informal learning ecosystem, where those who sign up for the EdCast platform can follow channels, groups, or individuals, and educators can curate content for their followers. It’s also AI driven based on user profile characteristics and activity-based interests.

“Imagine following teachers or mentors and continuing to see content they endorse on an ongoing basis,” noted a report from Class Central, a MOOC aggregation platform. “Unlike Twitter, this is not mixed with personal comments or the latest news—it is a pure-play channel for educational content. Also, there is no “re-tweeting”, so that the information flow is not diluted with recycled information–everything in your feed is a hand-selected link or video.”

Read more about EdCasting here.

(Next page: Design and strategy)


4. It’s an art form.

Clayton Christensen was asked by the University of Phoenix to record his 10 most popular lectures to be distributed by students. “It was interesting, because the University of Phoenix rented out this beautiful lecture space at a nearby art institute, which had a huge bay window that would be my backdrop. I was told the University would find people to populate the lecture as it was recorded, and when I gave the lecture, I noticed all the people were incredibly beautiful…I found out later that they were hired models.” As Christensen related the story, the models were used for moments when Christensen’s lecture became a bit dull—the camera would pan to the models who looked interested in what Christensen was saying, therefore motivating the attendee to keep watching. Other tactics used by the University included background music that rose to a crescendo during the lecture’s key points. “I realized that this wasn’t just providing a lecture online, it was a whole new model of presenting information,” he related.

According to The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), there are reams of data telling educators how students learn best online, what to avoid in designing a web-based course, and what needs to be done before students are consistently engaged. Perhaps none of that data is more detailed than the information analyzed in edX’s release of how 100,000 online students viewed course videos in its massive open online courses (MOOCs). CSAIL’s study of the 6.9 million clicks from edX’s classes showed five ways in which colleges and universities can improve web-based courses of all kinds: 1) Static PowerPoint slides are an engagement killer; 2) Fast-talking professors proved much more engaging than educators who spoke at a decidedly slow pace. MOOC professors with the highest engagement rates said 254 words per minute; 3) Lengthy online videos had low engagement rates, while short videos kept students’ attention. Students typically stopped watching the online lecture after six minutes; 4) While fast-talking professors were key, long pauses for students to better digest complicated diagrams were vital in maintaining engagement; and 5) Videos designed specifically for web-based audiences fared much better than existing videos that were simply chopped up and shown in snippets. For more information on CSAIL’s study, click here.


5. There’s no “I” in MOOC.

A MOOC on its own probably won’t be an institutional game-changer. In numerous research and best practice reports, those institutions successfully implementing MOOCs say using these courses as part of a comprehensive online learning strategy, or as a way to improve on-campus courses, is critical to MOOCs’ survival at the institution.

In a recent report from the Cornell Distance Learning Committee, institutions are urged to “pursue a diverse portfolio of distance learning avenues, continually rebalancing it as evidence emerges.” Even EDUCAUSE recommends that, in order to gain the most value from MOOCs, the courses should fit in the overall portfolio of course offerings, as well as knowing whether they complement, or substitute for, current course models.

HarvardX’s two-year assessment points toward in-classroom applications of MOOCs, with the aim to “help communicate the breadth of the impact that the HarvardX and MITx initiatives have had on the development, visibility, and usage of pedagogical resources and innovations on campus.” At this point, it observes, more than 83 percent of MIT undergraduates have used a residential MITx system in one or more classes. “At Harvard,” it says, “many residential courses that have HarvardX counterparts are using HarvardX resources to support residential instruction.” At one level, a professor noted, is the “reusability or recirculation of HarvardX content.” It is not the case, he said, that professors need to “flip” an entire course. Rather, they can adopt online units or modules to illustrate and enliven certain parts of their instruction.

For smaller institutions, the goal of providing a MOOC may be part of a larger mission toward online credentialing. According to Elke Leeds, assistant vice president for Technology Enhanced Learning and executive director of the Distance Learning Center at Kennesaw State University, the one question all institutions must first ask themselves is: “Why would we want to do this?”

“We’re not Harvard or MIT, we’re a teaching-focused state university that produces teachers, nurses and business school grads; we don’t have classes like ‘Advanced computer analytics programming,’” explained Elke Leeds, assistant vice president for Technology Enhanced Learning and executive director of the Distance Learning Center at Kennesaw State University. “So the questions that became most important to us were: ‘What is the value proposition, and what kind of MOOC is right for us? We’re credentialing-based and degree-based. We believe in offering at least the option of credentials, or peer review, so we had to devise a way to do just that with our first MOOC, ‘K-12 Blended and Online Learning.’”

Luis Llorens, professor at the University of Baja California, Mexico, explained that the first question every institution needs to ask when contemplating online readiness is: What is the core mission of the university? “This is the elephant in the room that universities don’t want to address,” he said. “The online program or course has to fit with the institution’s mission and those developing the program or course need to have a plan or list of everything they need to complete the program to present to the university before anything begins.” For more information on how to incorporate a MOOC into an institutional strategy, click here.

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