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Trusteeship Magazine

Mission, MOOCs, & Money

By Kenneth C. Green

MOOCs are just one point—although a large and visible one—on the continuum of online education, which is, in fact, expanding on campuses around the country. The number of students who have taken one or more online courses has risen significantly in recent years.

The main policy issue confronting most institutions regarding MOOCs will be to accept or not accept their certificates for course credit.

Rather than rushing to MOOCs, colleges and universities, and their boards, should engage in thoughtful discussions about the current or future role of online education in the context of their institutional missions.

Forget basketball and March Madness. Aside from always pressing financial issues, it is “MOOC madness” that has emerged as the topic du jour at a growing number of American colleges and universities. Indeed, in boardrooms all across the country, people are grappling with what the advent of MOOCs—massive open online courses—means to their institutions.

How should they be thinking about—and perhaps rethinking—the delivery of their educational programs? What kind of investments should they be making in online learning? How might various approaches to MOOCS and online learning support the mission of their institutions?

Since their explosive “arrival” in fall 2011, MOOCs have been the subject of more than 100 articles and blog posts at the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. MOOCs have also benefitted from a steady stream of generally favorable reporting in the New York Times. In addition, in May 2012, the influential Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas L. Friedman each “blessed” MOOCs as a good thing for American higher education, noting that MOOCs are free and can reach thousands—and possibly even millions—of potential learners around the world. Friedman places MOOCs in the context of the convergence of college costs and new technologies: “Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary. The costs of getting a college degree have been rising faster than those of health care, so the need to provide low-cost, quality higher education is more acute than ever…a generation that has grown up on [new] technologies is increasingly comfortable learning and interacting with professors through online platforms.”

Although Brooks expresses concern that “if a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?” he states that there are “more reasons to feel optimistic. In the first place, online learning will give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers… Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world….Research into online learning suggests that it is roughly as effective as classroom learning.”

Some of the nation’s elite institutions have aligned themselves with various MOOC providers such as Coursera (, edX (, or Udacity (, among others. Alternatively, in November 2012, a consortium of elites—Duke University, Northwestern University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Washington University in St. Louis, and others—announced they would be working with the for-profit firm 2U ( on what might be seen as a counter-MOOC strategy, one more focused on “traditional” online education initiatives. In this model, academically qualified students at each institution can take certain courses online at any institution in the consortium for a fee and for credit. The courses will be open to about 15 to 20 students.

Yet for all the buzz about MOOCs, it is likely that a fair number of presidents, provosts, board members, and others in and around higher education who retain some memory of the era also have a sense of what Yogi Berra once described as “déjà vu all over again”: We’ve been here before, and not all that long ago.

What is a MOOC?

The acronym helps to explain the basics: MOOCs are massive (very large enrollment), open (no admissions standards, no prerequisites), online courses. Enrollments that exceed 20,000, 50,000 or even 100,000 students for a single course are not unusual. MOOCs are also, for the moment, typically free: Students pay no fees to register for or participate in the course. Also, MOOCs currently do not offer official college credit; just because you have completed a MOOC on artificial intelligence, entrepreneurship, or another topic taught by a professor from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, or Stanford University does not mean you can take your certificate of completion, if available, to those institutions (or others) to receive course credit.

In addition, MOOCs are generally offered and managed by third-party organizations such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity, which may or may not have formal institutional relationships with specific postsecondary institutions. For example, the University of Virginia has a formal institutional relationship with Coursera, but an individual UVA professor also leads a MOOC at Udacity. Finally, course completion rates for MOOCs are, to date, extremely low. Frequently, no more than 5 or 10 percent of the students who register go on to finish the course.

YouTube Videos:

What is a MOOC?

Points on a Continuum

For many people, the current discussions about MOOCs—and by extension, the accompanying formal and informal conversations about mission, money, and online education—will recall similar conversations more than a decade ago when the emergence of the Internet was a catalyst for campus discussions about “going online.” In the era, and perhaps again now, the expectation among some observers is that going online has the potential to be highly profitable and “only” requires a syllabus, servers, and students willing to sit in front of screens (“eyeballs” in the lexicon of the era). Then, as perhaps now, administrators and board members at smaller or less-well-known institutions were concerned that by going online, elite institutions (“brands”) would disrupt the market for higher education and threaten their enrollments.

Alas, neither the anticipated easy money nor the threatened market disruptions materialized. While some of the campus and corporate ventures from the era survived and thrived, others—such as UNext’s Cardean University, the British Open University efforts to launch in the United States, Fathom (launched by Columbia University), and AllLearn (a collaborative online venture involving Yale, Princeton, and Stanford Universities)—crashed and burned.

So given both notable successes and also some seemingly spectacular (and expensive) failures, what has changed over the past dozen years to sustain—indeed refuel—the interest in online learning? In other words, why MOOCs, and why now? How do they fit into the overall move toward online education? And, are things really different this time?

Let’s first acknowledge that the enabling technologies have improved dramatically—both the network infrastructure, such as consumer broadband and wireless access, and also the software applications that support online teaching and learning. Second, enrollment in online courses has grown significantly over the past decade, as reflected in data from the Babson Survey Research Group. The number of American college students who have taken one or more online courses has risen from 1.6 million in 2002 to 6.7 million students in 2011. Roughly one-third of all students have taken at least one online course, and, as I noted in a January/February 2011 article in Trusteeship, the search for new skills and credentials in a changing economy has been a major catalyst for the rise in online enrollments over the past decade. Now, according to the Babson study, almost 70 percent of academic leaders say that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy. (Please click here for examples of the different approaches to online education that various colleges are taking.)

Moreover, the pipeline for undergraduates who have had prior experience with online learning looks promising, as a small but growing number of states now require high-school students to complete an online course as part of their curricula. Alabama, Florida, and Michigan now mandate at least one online course for high-school students; an online course requirement is also under discussion in Georgia, Idaho, and elsewhere.

However, lest we be consumed by MOOCs as the truly “new new,” it would be useful to recall that there is a long history of “technology enabled” free or low-cost courses from a variety of colleges and universities that dates back some eight decades, to the early days of both radio and television. Indeed, in their respective keynote addresses at an October 2012 Sloan-C conference, both Jack M. Wilson, president emeritus of the University of Massachusetts System who directed the launch of UMass Online, and Stanford professor and Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun each confirmed the placement of MOOCs as another point on the continuum of online education.

For example, during the 1920s and 1930s, several land-grant universities offered extension courses and home-study courses over the radio airwaves. During the explosive growth of television in the 1950s, CBS, in partnership with New York University, broadcast full college courses at 6 a.m. in its Sunrise Semester series. The first class, a comparative literature course, enrolled 177 for-credit students; another 120,000 people took it without credit. (CBS cancelled Sunrise Semester in 1982, replacing it with a morning news program.)

In 1976, Bernard J. Luskin, the founding president of Coastline Community College in California, led the development of the first “campus-less” community college, broadcasting college courses and leveraging local learning centers for student support and assessment services. (See article here for Coastline’s most recent online initiative.) Some observers, myself included, view Luskin as the father of MOOCs for his work at Coastline and later for his role as the chief academic operating officer of the accredited, for-profit Mind Extension University, which broadcast college courses over cable networks.

And now that MOOCs have emerged? As of this writing, MOOC-provider Coursera, founded by two Stanford professors, has 33 institutional (primarily American) partners, and offers some 209 courses. Udacity, led by another Stanford prof, is promoting 19 courses, while edX, a collaborative initiative between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lists nine courses from six institutional partners. In contrast (and in response to my recent email queries), Google (which owns YouTube) reports that some 400 colleges and universities are currently posting “lectures and/or full courses online” on YouTube, while more than 1,000 institutions worldwide are posting courses to Apple’s iTunesU; over half of those courses are publically available.

Mission and Money

At this point, and in the context of emerging new online approaches like MOOCs, what do we know about how university presidents view “going online”?

The “Presidential Perspectives” survey of 956 campus and system presidents and chancellors that I conducted for Inside Higher Ed in winter 2011 reveals the following:

  • Across all segments and sectors, a very solid majority of presidents believe that online education supports the mission of their institution and also provides an important opportunity for their institution to increase net tuition revenues.
  • More than three-fourths (or 78 percent) of the surveyed presidents agreed/strongly agreed that “launching/expanding online education courses and programs provides a way for my institution to serve more learners.”
  • More than two-thirds (69 percent) also agreed/strongly agreed that “launching/expanding online education courses and programs provides a way for my institution to increase (net) tuition revenues.”
  • The percentage of presidents who viewed online education as being good for both enrollment and revenue was consistently high across all sectors, although slightly higher among public institutions than independent institutions and highest in community colleges.

While strong majorities of presidents agree that going online should be good for both enrollments and revenue, there is less evidence about just how much new net revenue online education actually produces—if any. For example, in a small 2010 survey conducted by Campus Computing and WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) of some 200 campus officials who were the operating officers for their institution’s online efforts, 45 percent were uncertain if their institution’s online efforts were profitable.

Of course, a major problem in determining the “profitability” of online initiatives is the institutional tendency to “borrow” essential infrastructure resources, coupled with the absence of tight accounting controls that identify true course and program development costs as well as real revenues. The instructional costs of the faculty members who teach and the administrative costs of the people who manage online courses and programs may be part of the balance sheet for departmental and institutional online initiatives. But too often the other direct costs of the instructional support staff (people who help move syllabi into online formats and who provide additional assistance to students and faculty members) and the technology infrastructure required to support online courses are not fully charged against the revenues for online education programs.

The Cash-Certification-Credit Conundrum

The emergence of MOOCs has been and will continue to be a catalyst for more discussions among presidents, provosts, trustees, deans, accrediting agency officials, and others about the quality of MOOC courses, the value of MOOC certificates, and the potential threat that MOOCs offered by elite institutions and their partners like Coursera and Udacity might pose to other segments and sectors. These new conversations are likely to focus on several questions:

  • Should we MOOC?
  • Could we MOOC?
  • If we build a MOOC, who would come? (Would anyone come?)
  • How would offering MOOCs serve the institutional mission?
  • Would offering MOOCs generate any new net revenue for the institution?
  • How would offering MOOCs complement, supplement, or compete with our current (or the absence of a current) institutional strategy for online education?

Yet for the vast majority of American colleges and universities, questions about offering MOOCs and affiliating with a MOOC provider such as Coursera, edX, or Udacity are, quite frankly, moot. Comparatively few of the nation’s more than 4,000 degree-granting American colleges or universities (or even the 525-plus institutions that enroll over 10,000 students and that, in aggregate, account for more than 50 percent of total headcount) have the personnel, instructional and technological infrastructure, reputation (brand), and available cash to invest in launching their own MOOCs—even if the institution aligns with a supporting entity such as Coursera, edX, or Udacity. Moreover, because MOOCs are, at present, free to students and generate no revenue for the institution, offering MOOCS will not provide a short- or mid-term path to significant new tuition revenues.

Consequently, the key questions that board members, presidents, and provosts confront in the conversation about MOOCs really involve certification and credit:

  • How do/should we assess “prior learning” for students who come to us with a certificate of completion from a MOOC provider such as Coursera, edX, or Udacity?
  • Assuming we can assess prior learning, should we give course credit to students who have completed a MOOC? And if so, for what courses and from which MOOCs?

In fact, over the short term and midterm, the main policy issue confronting most institutions regarding MOOCs will be to accept or not accept their certificates for course credit. (Similar issues will soon confront employers, who will no doubt be perplexed when job applicants present their MOOC certificates and college transcripts as part of their educational credentials.) And a big question about MOOC credit is if the course inventory of MOOCs complements, supplements, or competes with the current (on-campus and online) course catalog. For most institutions, MOOC courses—currently focused on higher-end science, engineering, and entrepreneurship—might supplement the course catalog. In this context, many colleges and universities may find policy precedents for MOOC credit in the way they assess AP courses, summer courses taken at another institution, or transfer courses.

But other issues loom large. For example, what happens when one or more of the MOOC providers begin to serve as a clearinghouse for core (typically large enrollment) undergraduate courses in introductory accounting, biology, economics, sociology, or other disciplines? What if, for example, Princeton University professor, Nobel economics laureate, New York Times columnist, and textbook author Paul Krugman were to offer an introductory economics MOOC hosted by Coursera? Let’s assume that Krugman’s MOOC included reasonably rigorous assessments leading to a certificate of completion that was affirmed by Krugman. Would or could Acme College deny its students an opportunity to enroll in Krugman’s MOOC in lieu of the introductory economics course offered by its own faculty?

The MOOCs also present multi-campus institutions and state systems with another “what if” issue regarding online vs. on-campus course development. At present, most multi-campus systems grant significant autonomy to individual institutions and departments to develop their own courses, both online and campus-based. In other words, multi-campus systems typically exercise little if any central control over the content or the assessment of the introductory anthropology, economics, or psychology courses taught at any of their campuses.

However, the emergence of MOOCs may be a catalyst for multi-campus systems to assert greater authority over the development of multiple online courses for the same subject. Rather than have each campus develop its own online widgets course, the system office may decide to invest in the development of a single, “MOOC-like” online widgets course for all the campuses. Individual institutions and departments might retain autonomy over traditional, campus-based courses, but the system would mandate the content and assessment of that single online widgets course.

Issues for Trustees

So what’s the appropriate role for board members in the current (or coming) institutional discussions about MOOCs?

Perhaps most important, trustees must understand that MOOCs really are just one point—if an admittedly large and very visible one—on the continuum of online education. The current publicity about large initial enrollments notwithstanding, MOOCs do not, at present, offer a quick and easy path to new revenues. Consequently, board members would do well to discuss the impact of MOOCs at their institutions in the context of their strategic goals and the current or future role of online education. The fundamental questions boards should be asking include:

  • Why are we online? Is the movement to or expansion of online education consistent with the institutional mission? Does and will it serve and advance the institutional mission? Or is the key issue in the discussion about online education—including any conversations about MOOCs—money?
  • How do we assess quality—that of our own online offerings and those of others, including the MOOCs?
  • What will it take to achieve our objectives in terms of online learning—including human and financial capital, content expertise, the political will to change, and many other concerns?

Campus officials and board members who want to develop or expand online education efforts would do well to take a long-term, strategic view of issues and opportunities. Rather than rushing to MOOCs, they should have pragmatic discussions about market opportunities and anchor their conversations about online education in their institution’s fundamental mission.