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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.
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"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.
Schoknecht said Rollins College will offer its first MOOC-style course this summer, but on its own terms. Rather than partnering with a MOOC company or consortium, Rollins plans to host the course on Blackboard, without quite the same emphasis on the "massive" part. Based in Winter Park, Fla., Rollins is a liberal arts college much like Amherst and wanted to operate under its own brand, she said. "We're going to advertise this first to our students, our parents, and our alumni," Schoknecht said.
Although the course will be open to anyone who wants to register, Rollins will promote it primarily through the Associated Colleges of the South, a consortium of 16 institutions whose members will also be encouraged to make it available to their students, parents and alumni.
Most of the other schools represented in the room were still evaluating what, if anything, they will do with MOOCs. On the other hand, Rice University is working with both Coursera and edX, largely because of strong faculty interest in innovating with online education. Rice is also a hotbed of activity in the open educational resources movement, with its OpenStax textbook initiative and other projects.
Because both Coursera and edX have branded themselves as offering access to courses from elite universities, not everyone has even been invited to join.
Many of the university technology leaders mentioned 2U as the company most aggressively beating down their doors, offering a platform that would allow them to charge tuition for online courses -- although some CIOs who had investigated it as an option complained that it takes too big a cut of the profits. 2U has mostly focused on supporting graduate school programs, although just this week it opened registration on a semester online program it is offering in partnership with Boston College, Brandeis University, Emory University, Northwestern University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis. Modeled on semester-abroad programs, it allows students to take a semester away from the on-campus experience, but not for free.
Justin Sipher, VP of libraries and information technology at St. Lawrence University, said the liberal arts colleges who have so far been lukewarm to the MOOC phenomenon might be making a mistake by "sheltering students from an experience of lifelong learning" that they ought to be exposed to. Even if an institution is concerned about diluting its brand with online offerings, students probably ought to be required to learn how to learn in an online course "just like you must learn a lot of other things as part of a liberal arts education," he said.
At the same time, Sipher said the MOOCs getting all the press now are probably "at the peak of inflated expectations" -- a term from the technology advisor firm Gartner's "hype cycle" model of the technology boom-and-bust cycle. Some of these enthusiasms turn out to be fads, he noted, like the idea of creating learning experiences in the virtual world Second Life, which was popular a few years ago.
Former Massachusetts Institute of Technology CIO Marilyn Smith said there is a bigger issue of meeting the expectations of "students who have been brought up in a different world," accustomed to highly interactive experiences such as gaming that have their own learning value. Universities should embrace the opportunity to discover new ways of learning and measuring learning, both online and off, she said.
"This is also about blended learning and how to enhance the residential experience, not so much just the MOOCs. Capturing data we've never captured before through assessment is a really critical part of this," Smith said. One way or the other, "the undergraduate experience is going to change."