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"I Took a MOOC" - Inside the Year's Biggest Trend in Higher Ed

Every university faces one common marketing challenge: attracting and keeping the best possible students.

But this year, on top of the usual recruitment push, there’s a fresh burr in the saddle of our Higher Ed clients: the blow up of Massive Open Online Courses—now commonly known as MOOCs

Schools all over the world have started offering these free web-based courses—and they’re a far cry from the buy-your-own-degree-style programs we typically associate with online learning. Stanford, Princeton and UPenn were the first to offer them—joined shortly after by Harvard, MIT and Georgetown (to name a few).

When top tier colleges make premium content available to anyone, anywhere, it makes higher ed marketers understandably nervous. The impact of MOOCs—both on the schools that offer them and the ones that don’t—remains to be seen but competitors are certainly scrambling.

This past fall, four of our own D7 team members enrolled in a MOOC. It’s telling that, in my hunt for an insider perspective, I had to go through 3 of the four before I found someone who has actually followed through with the course material.

I sat down with our own Pres, Shawn Neumann, to learn the goods, the bads, and his predictions for the future of MOOCs.

ALS: What course are you taking and why did you sign up?

SN:I’m enrolled in “Design-thinking for Business Innovation” offered by the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. I’m interested in problem articulation—how we engage the wicked problems of our clients. Innovative solutions start with understanding the human struggle we’re trying to address. Design thinking is the place to begin. I wasn’t looking for a credential but I wanted to do more than read a blog post or pick up a book,

ALS: So, tell me about the MOOC format.

SN: It’s a series of video lectures—there are 5 weeks of lectures with 4-8 videos per week. Each one is about 5-20 mins. I spend a couple hours a week watching those; then there’s some reflective homework. There are no assignments, but there is a forum, which I didn’t engage with at all. It looks like plenty of people do, however.

The video format was perfect: I could download them and watch a week’s worth of videos on a flight. Other than signing up, they didn’t impress any limitation on the use of the videos, so I’ve passed some useful ones along to the team.

ALS: MOOCs are totally free. So how was the depth of the content? I assume you just get a taster to lure you into enrolling in actual classes?

SN: Not at all. The lecture/content quality was top notch. I didn’t feel like I was being taught by some grad student who was learning as they go. The professor was clearly an expert who’s living and breathing the subject matter. There were guest lectures from people working in the field, talking through perspectives on design thinking when it comes to business innovation. It was quality content.

ALS: What’s the commitment level like?

SN: You do treat it differently than a typical university course. There’s very little accountability. It’s clear that many people don’t follow through—of the four of us who signed up from Domain7, only James and I tracked along fairly steadily.

Many people in my cohort were asking for some kind of accreditation, and it didn’t seem like Darden had pursued that yet. Midstream, they developed a final project assignment and final exam—successful completion gets you a certificate from Darden. When my course ended 760 others had completed the coursework and the exam.

ALS: What did you get out of it?

There was plenty of insight into processes and tools and how each can be applied to our long term business plans.

But, not surprisingly, having someone else on our team taking the course simultaneously really increased the value. James and I could discuss material so we benefitted from the informal learning that normally takes place at a university. If you’re taking a MOOC on your own, it’s just information consumption. You might do some reflecting, but it’s hard to be collaboratively sharpened.

ALS: What do you think Darden is getting out of it?

SN: They made a big impression on me: it’s clear they have quality faculty that are addressing relevant and timely topics. If the breadth of people that signed up are any indication, the subject matter is in high demand.

It came at a minimal cost to Darden: a prof did five hours’ worth of videos, probably in a few sittings. There’s planning and preparation, but it’s probably material she already had developed.

Do I know Darden more? Yes. If this is indicative of the quality of instruction, they’ve made a positive impression. Is it worth the spend to have a couple thousand people interact with you? I think so.

ALS: So what does it mean for higher-ed and the future of real, in-person courses? And what’s next?

If schools want to start putting their name behind students, then they need a more contained way of doing that. Harvard and a few others are starting to offer “SPOCs” (Small Private Online Courses) to a limited number of students—up to about 100. There’s more accountability, and some kind of assessment to earn accreditation. You spend deliberate time in discussion with the professor and peers. It’s still an accessible product that can be delivered cheaply, but there’s a higher bar that students near to reach.

That said, there’s no reason I’d choose a SPOC over a MOOC—I’m interested in absorbing the ideas, but I’m not looking for a credential.

ALS: So what does it mean for higher ed marketers?

SN: There’s talk about the decline of MOOCs—and it’s true that a lot of the initial hype has slowed down. At this point, who knows if they’ll pose a threat to traditional enrolment patterns, or if they’ll even last as a learning format? That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been value exchanged and good learning outcomes for myself and few thousand people taking the course.

This value exchange is the key‚ and there’s a certain level of value and experience that a MOOC will never replace. If information alone is no longer your competitive advantage, celebrate the distinctions and don’t shy away from embodying those real-life quirks on the web. An immersive, human experience will never be replaceable. My colleague Kevan Gilbert wrote a great post outlining 5 things universities should emphasize on the web if they want to stand out in this new digital learning landscape. 

In terms of trends, the shifting definition of learning format will undoubtedly shape what universities offer. But as long as they offer something effectively and demonstrate the benefit—whether it’s free and online, or paid and in person—people will keep enrolling.

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