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Online courses require a large upfront investment from postsecondary institutions. (Feng Yu/iStockphoto)
Online courses require a large upfront investment from postsecondary institutions. (Feng Yu/iStockphoto)

Marilyn M. Lombardi

How much are you spending on that MOOC? Is it worth it? Add to ...

We can thank the University of Manitoba for launching the massive open online course craze.

Back in 2008, Manitoba’s “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” online course was made available for free to online “auditors.” When more than 2,000 people unexpectedly signed up for the experience, an acronym (“MOOC”) and a movement was born. My involvement with MOOCs started in the summer of 2012 when Duke University was approached by Coursera, a Stanford university spin-off company with venture capital in its coffers and a message of global social responsibility to which chief academic officers at elite institutions were quick to respond.

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While an overt elitism was once part of the contract between Coursera and its partner schools – only top-tier schools in North America were said to be welcome – times are certainly changing. This past May, Coursera opened its doors to the extraordinary workhorses of North American higher education. In a major move, one that is likely to have a huge impact on traditional bricks-and-mortar campuses in Canada as well as the U.S, the company has signed on 10 North American public university systems as partners. Combined, these systems serve upward of 1.25 million tuition-paying students.

Coursera, in effect, is reinventing itself as what one reporter calls a “content broker” and host for system-wide exchanges in which partner schools will develop or consume, buy or sell, course material from each other. Speaking directly to cash-strapped colleges and universities, MOOC companies now promise to help higher education break through the so-called “iron triangle” of access, quality, and affordability in order to improve the prospects of disadvantaged high-school students, nontraditional college students, and working adults pursuing career advancement in an era of economic uncertainty.

 A promise of education for all

Canada needs an online education strategy

The best technology is the one you already have

Move along, little is new about what MOOCs have to offer

But there are deep – even existential – concerns for presidents and chancellors leading the charge in Canada and the United States. For those leaders entrusted with finding the best role that MOOCs might play in their school’s diversified portfolio of online education offerings, here are a few basic questions to keep in mind:

Mission: Given that (at least in Duke’s experience), the standard, no-frills MOOC costs upward of $50,000 to develop (not accounting for faculty time), will such a substantial investment in massive online course development and delivery advance your institution’s mission, distinctive strengths and strategic goals?

Strategy: Is your institution in direct competition with for-profit and non-profit purveyors of online courses and degree programs? Do you serve a particular region and are MOOCs part of a larger strategic plan to address educational disparities within that region? Are MOOCs only one component of a broader action plan for online course development and advisement tailored to the needs of nontraditional students?

Revenue Streams: Must revenue be generated by the MOOC courses you develop in order to sustain MOOC initiatives on your campus?

Support Structures: If you intend to develop MOOCs in partnership with one or more than one company in the sector (Coursera, Udacity, edX, et al.), does your institution have the capacity to provision a support structure for MOOC course development, including technical liaisons who will work directly with the company and instructional design consultants with backgrounds in specific disciplines to assist faculty in devising learning objectives and assessments?

Quality: How will the quality of your online offerings be defined and measured and by whom?

Learning Analytics: Will the MOOC platform provider give you easy, unimpeded access, along with the rights to analyze and use, the vast amounts of data its platform can capture with regard to student performance? And if so, what do you intend to do with that data?

Faculty: Last, but by no means least, have institutional leaders consulted with faculty governance councils in a timely fashion, encouraging expressions of concern and taking them into account in framing the institution’s approach to online education?

No doubt, we live in exciting times. Instead of being paralyzed by possibility (a real danger as higher education undergoes a severe identity crisis), the trick will be to move forward with as much forethought as possible. MOOC providers are often asked where they think their companies will be by 2018. Behind that question is another one, freighted with meaning and opportunity: Where do you think our colleges and universities will be in five years’ time, along with the students they serve?

Marilyn M. Lombardi is Associate Professor & Director of Duke University’s Center of Nursing Collaboration, Entrepreneurship & Technology.

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