I don’t really know what to make of MOOCs (massive open online courses). On one hand, MOOCs appear to be all the rage. Some very elite universities (Stanford, Harvard, UVa) have gotten on the MOOC bandwagon and begun offering these free online courses. Noted authors such as Thomas Friedman in The New York Times have led the media hype about MOOCs, declaring a revolution in the university. He quoted M.I.T. President L. Rafael Reif as saying of universities, “There’s a whole new world unfolding. Everyone will have to adapt.”
As an administrator who has to deal with fiscal realities and think about strategic investments, I have to wonder what the budget model is for MOOCs. How does the university that invests in MOOCs recoup its investment when students pay no tuition to take the courses? A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported results of the “largest-ever survey of professors who have taught MOOCs” (March 18, 2013). Not surprisingly, these professors reported that they spent a lot of time developing and teaching a MOOC, with 55% indicating that teaching a MOOC caused them to divert time from other assigned duties. Most enjoyed the experience and felt that their regular classroom duties should be reduced to allow them sufficient time to teach MOOCs.
For public institutions at least, therein lies the problem. Our budgets are predicated on the student credit hours that we generate. Since MOOCs don’t generate any, allowing professors to teach them means paying the faculty to do something that will not result in any revenue for the university. Bear in mind that faculty members do other things that do not result in direct revenue to the university, such as unfunded research and service to the university or profession. But these things presumably yield other kinds of benefits, such as enhancing the reputation of the university and contributing to the betterment of society by solving problems through research.
Kevin Carey (CHE, March 25, 2013) argued that MOOCs offer a brand exploitation strategy, allowing elite colleges to enhance their brand through technology. “Elite colleges are willing to run [MOOCs] at a loss forever, because of the good will – and thus status – they create. Free online courses…could ultimately become as important to institutional status as the traditional markers of exclusivity and scholarly prestige.” So a question for us could be, will investing faculty resources into teaching MOOCs enhance our brand as a technology-savvy College of Education? Will it return dividends such as attracting degree-seeking students and cementing our reputation as a technology leader on campus?