MOOCs have introduced a greater level of transparency in online higher education. They offer students a chance to evaluate and compare institutions to a degree previously unheard of in higher ed. The focus of the evaluations is, primarily, instructional content and related activities. This focus may create new opportunities for less prestigious institutions to compete.


Technology’s Unintended Consequences (Strike Again)

Before the concept of MOOCs was adopted by elite universities and became “a thing” in 2012, it had  an anti-establishment posture.  MOOCs were do-it-yourself efforts, created and run by people excited by the possibilities of forming ad hoc online communities of learners that could use the Net to learn what and how they wanted. By design, MOOCs operated outside of the constraints of traditional higher education.

Today, of course, MOOCs are associated with institutions like Stanford, Harvard, McGill and other institutions which see an opportunity to combine their international brand recognition with open courseware in order to stake out a large slice of the future of digital higher education.

This may not be exactly what the people who started experimenting with MOOCs had in mind. But innovations have a tendency to lead to unintended, even contradictory consequences. Indeed, the flip from DIY to “upmarket” may not be the most interesting unintended consequence; MOOCs may have also inadvertently ushered in a new degree of transparency in online higher education (see Post-Script, below).

By providing free and public access to courses and faculty – MOOCs and other “open” initiatives, such as OER – enable learners and other stakeholders to review, evaluate and compare an institution’s core “product” without ever being admitted to the institution. Comments by students are beginning to appear across the Web on the relative merits of different MOOC courses and platforms. And new portals have been created that allow students to select and rate courses from different institutions, much as they would a Hollywood film (see here and here).  The degree of this change can’t be overstated. A MOOC can be witnessed by 100,000+ people and discussed in the New York Times. On the other hand, faculty have often been hesitant to have a colleague sit in on their lectures. Night and day.

Transparency & Evaluation of Quality

Transparency of this type and quality is new territory for higher education. We’ve not been subject to the transparency and “perfect information” that many sectors of the economy have faced. Customers seeking to purchase products at the local mega-appliance store now come armed with more information on-hand than the salespeople. Vacation resorts can’t stop tourists from sharing their bad experiences in online forums. Students, on the other hand, are still forced to make decisions about which institution to attend with virtually no direct exposure to the quality of teaching.

If the MOOC phenomenon continues to pick up steam, and more institutions see value in making one or more of their courses available through these public platforms, then MOOCs may become a key platform by which the value and differences of institutions of higher education are evaluated. This, in turn, could change the basis upon which institutions compete.

But on what basis are institutions competing?  To answer this we need, first, to recognise that MOOCs expose only certain parts of the participating universities. MOOCs place certain qualities and features of the universities on display, while others remain hidden. As it has throughout history, technology changes what we pay attention; what “matters” and doesn’t. (For example, the advent of television changed what kinds of people were “electable” in our political systems.)

Greater Focus on Instructional Content

The feature that is privileged in MOOCs is instructional content – the material that is presented to the students in the course.

Instructional content is privileged for a couple of reasons. First, because MOOCs are stripped of many of the other common elements and experiences that usually come packaged with being a university student: loans, registration processes, socialising, and concern about grades. (Because of how students are currently using MOOCs, the vast majority of MOOC students are less concerned with grades than in their college or university courses.). Consequently, instructional content is proportionally a larger part of the overall experience. Second, instructional content is a relatively tangible part of the learning experience. While learning is as much a “process” than artefact, evaluating a process is relatively difficult. Instructional content, on the other hand, is tangible and can be compared with relative ease to content in other courses.

On some level, participating institutions already recognise that these courses are being used to showcase the institution and its faculty. Universities are putting more effort into their MOOCs than is typical of online courses. Duke University recently provided a recap of the process they went through creating and launching a MOOC. They reported a total of 620 hours of labour for the development stage – well above sector norms. That included over 11 hours of video (12 individual videos per week) and more than 1000 files for an eight hour course.

But the effort at Duke will likely pale in comparison to the type we will see in future course developments. Once it becomes obvious to university leadership that these courses are serving as a calling card/front door/flagship for the institution we may see what amounts to another variety of the university “arms race” – this time focussed on instructional content in publicly available courses. I think it’s safe to assume that the President of one Ivy League school won’t be thrilled if the courses offered by their institution look shoddy and home-made in comparison to what’s coming out of another Ivy League school.

The significant impact that MOOCs can have on a university’s reputation was nicely illustrated earlier this month when Georgia Tech decided to pull the plug on its Coursera MOOC after only a few weeks, due to challenges with its design and execution. Those that work daily with online courses in traditional colleges and universities can vouch for the fact that many, many bad courses are designed and offered each semester, many of them incomplete at the start of term – no different from campus-based courses, in this respect. But these courses are not pulled from the shelves mid-stream. The difference, of course, is that the Georgia Tech course was part a high-profile initiative. An institution’s reputation was on the line.

Content: “It’s a Good Thing”

Instructional content has received very little attention in digital higher ed, to date. Some equate concern with the quality of instructional content with passive, one-way learning. They see interaction as the primary basis of learning.

While interaction is fundamental, so is content; the importance of one feature does not mean that the other is irrelevant. No matter what the subject matter, high quality, thoughtfully presented instructional content – whether it is illustrations, videos or well designed activities – is an absolutely powerful component of learning.  In fact, I expect the role of content to grow more important as the two currently distinct spheres of content and software merge (e.g. adaptive software, simulations), and as higher education moves beyond the current “cottage model” of content development in which much of the burden for content development falls to lone instructors without the time, incentives or necessary skill sets. I find dismissals of content’s importance quite simplistic, frankly, and when these arguments are put in the form of high quality content, humorous.

The changing status of instructional content can be seen in the trajectory of open educational resources (OER). When individual academics began in the late 90s to make components of their courses available on repositories like Merlot, it was of little significance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that academic leadership were rarely aware of the faculty’s involvement in these initiatives. They reasoned that the intellectual property resided with the faculty member, and if they wanted to dedicate the time to participating in these initiatives, this was the faculty’s concern. Today, decisions about participating in Coursera and other open content/course platforms involves the University Board, investigations by General Counsel, and planning from the VP of Marketing.

The extent to which an institution will seek to use MOOCs as a showcase for their online courses will be influenced by the degree to which the course is affiliated with the institution. Some MOOCs are presented clearly as output of the institution. The most direct path to communicating this direct affiliation is to (a) give the MOOC course the same title as the course within the university, (b) have it taught by an academic of the university, (c ) have the academic identified as a member of the faculty at the university. For illustrative purposes, consider the particular way that Udacity defines the origins of its courses (Figure A).

Figure A. URL:

Compare Udacity’s approach approach to labelling the origins of the courses to Coursera’s, which links the MOOC directly and fully to the institution. Both models rely on the credentials of the instructors (s) behind the course, but Coursera aims to define the course more closely with the partnering institution (Figure B).

Figure B. URL:

The difference stance in relation to universities taken by these two platforms is significant as the closeness of the affiliation to prestigious institutions was the basis of the original excitement about MOOCs in 2012. Private vendors had been doing MOOCs since the 1990s, after all, but to little excitement. Nor would we have read about MOOCs in the New York Times or The Guardian had they come to us via Pocatello Junior College.

The excitement about MOOCs was a by-product and reinforcement of the logic long used to evaluate and rank higher education institutions: the more exclusive, the better. The assumption is that the instructional content made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions. That exclusivity and research productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with instructional quality is well . . . interesting. And herein lies an opportunity (read on).

A Different Basis for Competition

There is very little stopping less prestigious institutions from producing higher quality courses than the elite institutions. Because the basis of competition has changed, and instructional content is now a key driver of value for learners, other colleges and universities that have made a significant investment in online education could produce high quality courses – as good or better than today’s MOOCs. In fact, as I suggested in a post last spring, the elite institutions may be less well suited to producing high-end instructional media. These institutions established their strong brands through research. Less prestigious institutions have generally focussed more on teaching and dedicated more of their resources to online learning, on average, than the elite institutions that currently dominate the MOOC space.

Technology has the power to change the basis upon which institutions compete. The oil crisis of the 1970s changed what mattered to car buyers; they wanted fuel efficiency. Honda and other then marginal players in the auto industry seized the opportunity and offered fuel efficient cars. Honda and Nissan (then Datsun) likely couldn’t compete head to head with the major US auto manufacturers, but when the way in which cars were evaluated changed, they took full advantage.

Similarly, technology is starting to change how value is defined in higher education. By deciding to take advantage of the technology’s capacity to distribute their courses, elite institutions have provided a previously unheard level of exposure to their core “product” – courses. But in doing this, the participating institutions also provide the means for learners and other stakeholders to determine quality for themselves. In turn, this creates opportunities for ambitious institutions of higher education, just as it has in other sectors, to compete in new ways.

Post-Script: A couple of months after I wrote this article, I noticed a post by one of the people involved in the early days of MOOCS which speaks to the collective horror of some people in this space about how MOOCs went “upscale”: Stephen Downes writes: “MOOCs were not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities. They were designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete.”

By Keith Hampson, PhD. Analyst and Consultant to the Digital Higher Education Industry


  1. Very nicely done! Another way that MOOCs can be a disruptive technology is by challenging the “more exclusive, the better” misnomer. This could turn higher education up side down, where institutions can no longer rely on their reputation but now would have to demonstrate quality. Great thinking, Keith, as always.


  2. Dr. Howe: Thanks for the input. I agree. I see “the more exclusive, the better” logic as one of the obstacles in improving the quality of higher education. At the same time, I don’t have much faith that we’ll drop the logic altogether. It’s an approach to defining value that permeates all aspects of society. But I do think we can do a better job of evaluating quality in higher ed.


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