May 02, 2013 (10:05 AM EDT)
MOOCs: What University CIOs Really Think

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Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
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Can a university dependent on convincing students and their parents to part with tuition dollars afford to participate in a movement that says online education should be free? On the other hand, can a university that wants to stay relevant afford not to?

Those were the questions in the air when CIOs representing about 40 institutions gathered to discuss massive open online courses, or MOOCs, at the The Higher Education Technology Forum in San Diego, an invitation-only event organized by Consero.

The panel on MOOCs included three CIOs: David Baird of Wesleyan University, Gayle Barton of Amherst College, and Patricia Schoknecht of Rollins College. Each school has a different approach to MOOCs. Wesleyan is active in Coursera, the for-profit MOOC that has so far accumulated the longest list of university partners. Amherst was recently in the news after faculty shot down a proposed partnership with edX. Rollins will offer a MOOC-style course, but do it independently.

[ Source of friction: Distance Learning Regulation Needs Simplification, Officials Say.]

"When I started last July, online education was the last thing on my mind," Barton said. Amherst is a small liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass., known for small class sizes and faculty-student research collaboration. Yet after Amherst was approached first by 2U (formerly 2tor) and then Coursera, she felt responsible to investigate other options. She approached edX, the non-profit started by MIT and Harvard, that so far supports a relatively exclusive club of a dozen universities, as well as Udacity, which like Coursera is a for-profit company. 2U offers a cloud-based online education platform that allows schools to charge tuition.

"Those of us working on it felt that edX was the best fit because of their focus on very high quality courses and helping people do that," Barton said. She figured Amherst needed the help coming up to speed on online education. In addition, she thought it would be valuable to get access to the assessment and analytics tools built into the edX platform.

As negotiations continued, Amherst president Carolyn Martin publicly supported a partnership with edX but left the final decision of whether to participate to a faculty committee, which in April rejected the plan. Barton said she was disappointed but takes heart from the fact that about 40% of the faculty voted "yes" and many of the others agreed the college should do more to experiment with online education -- just not with edX. Although some press accounts made it sound like they feared online education would be a threat to their jobs, faculty concerns had more to do with surrendering control to a consortium with an undefined business model, she said. The discussion about what Amherst should do instead is continuing, she said.

Other CIOs at the forum wondered aloud whether those pursuing MOOC partnerships had really thought things through, particularly the potential damage to the brand of a "high touch" school that charges $50,000 a year or more based on the value of the on-campus experience. As one man put it, how can a small liberal arts school like Amherst make the case that it is worth the money while at the same time saying, "Oh, by the way, you can also get this Amherst lite experience for free?"

On the other hand, those who refuse to become involved "may come to regret it" as larger players shape the MOOC movement, another participant said. "If these courses wind up having the same weight as brick-and-mortar classes, then we have problem to contend with."

Yet Wesleyan, a private university in Middletown, Conn., is willing to take the risk, Baird said. "We decided we'd be better able to position ourselves if we're involved than if we're standing on the sidelines."

Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth was in the process of closing a deal with Coursera when Baird joined the university in August. Although Wesleyan also consulted with faculty as part of the decision-making process, the deal was cut over the summer when many professors were away, Baird said. A six-week course on The Language of Hollywood recently wrapped up, and the film studies professor who offered it is so enthusiastic he plans to do it again in the fall.

Wesleyan president Roth personally taught a philosophy and great books course on The Modern and the Postmodern. Wesleyan's Coursera offerings have been averaging an enrollment of about 30,000, although a Social Psychology course to be offered this summer has attracted more than 100,000 signups and counting.

The professors who have tried the MOOC course format tend to be "flattered by the idea that students in (pick your country) would meet in a coffee shop to talk about Nietzsche," Baird said. Others are inspired by the vision articulated in Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller's TED talk about making high-quality education available in places around the world and to people who would never be able to access it face-to-face.

In addition, distribution through Coursera gives Wesleyan alumni an opportunity to take classes they weren't able to get into during their time on campus, Baird said. There is also the recruiting value of reaching "students around the world who we want to give an inkling of what a Wesleyan education is like," he said.