“Microwave ovens were a clever idea, but their inventor could hardly have realized that their effect would ultimately be to take the preparation of food out of the home and into the, increasingly automated, factory; to make cooking as it used to be into a matter of choice, not of necessity; to alter the habits of our homes, making the dining table outmoded for many, as each member of the family individually heats up his or her own meal as and when they require it.”
Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason

Handy’s point, illustrated through the example of microwaves, is that technological innovations often have repercussions well beyond the original and intended purpose. As each innovation is launched, it inevitably interacts with a range of social, economic and cultural forces, leading to often surprising results. MOOCs are no different. Although the primary intention of MOOCs was not to create a radically more transparent form of higher education, this may ultimately prove to be the innovation’s greatest impact.


Instructional resources and activities have historically been kept behind closed doors; only students registered in courses had access. But, of course, MOOCs make instructional courses and their contents available to people outside of the institution, not just registered students – this is the format’s fundamental value.  As a result, universities and individual faculty find one of their core activities on display in ways we’ve not seen previously.

University leaders soon came to recognize the tremendous attention these courses were generating. Always concerned with reputation (the currency of greatest import in higher ed), university’s began to see MOOCs as a new platform for competition; another means of establishing and extending their brand, while fulfilling the institution’s social mission.

But on what basis, specifically, will institutions and academics compete through MOOCs? At this stage, it appears that the competition will be fought primarily through instructional content; the materials developed for students, such as video, illustrations, audio, text.

During the past 18 months the investment made in the instructional quality of high-profile MOOCs (e.g. Coursera, Edx) has increased significantly. Video lectures and presentations are better written. Production values – such as professional lighting and sound – have improved. We are seeing less traditional lectures and more “performances”. In a recent Udacity course, the instructor begins by interviewing passersby – a style lifted straight out of late night, comedy television. “Fundamentals of Neuroscience” creates “5 to 10 minute NOVA-like episodes. The CEO of EdX recently stated that “really good actors can actually teach really well,” and floated the idea that using actors in the future was a possibility. And I know of at least one digital higher education publisher that has turned to actors, rather than the academics, to “star” in the company’s video lectures. While the vast majority of online courses in North American universities are made for 20k-25k, investment in MOOCs has reached 10 times that amount.

It’s important to emphasize that this heightened attention to the quality of instructional content is not the result of changing ideas of best practices for pedagogy or even demands by students for better quality content, at least not directly. Rather, it’s the result of the new context in which the course is experienced. Typically, a university-level course is experienced and evaluated as part of a larger set of experiences and resources that constitute the traditional university experience: a credential system, residential experiences, a program of study, and so forth. Pulled out of this traditional context, the MOOC is evaluated on the basis of other criteria. What matters most to the student in this new context is what can be learnt, full-stop. So, the determinants of value for the learner fall more heavily on factors such as the clarity of exposition, the degree to which the course inspires interest in the learner (and maintains that interest), and how quickly and easily learning occurs. While these factors are certainly important in the traditional university context, they are less important and are often outweighed by other factors, such as obtaining a degree.

The role of instructional content in inter-institutional competition will likely increase the attention paid to the quality of instructional content in online higher education, generally. To date, instructional content in online higher education has received remarkably little attention. At many institutions, the process of developing digital instructional materials still operates in a cottage-industry fashion; individual instructors with limited funds, incomplete skill sets, and insufficient incentives, bare most of the burden for course design and development. While service departments provide technical support and instructional guidance, they’ve made only a small dent in the instructional model, to date.

Note: In Spring 2012, I asked if the attention paid to MOOCs would lead to an arms race, of sorts, between participating institutions.  (The Prestige Factor, May 2012).

At the very least, I hope that greater attention to instructional content in MOOCS will generate more attention to the design of online courses. A more disciplined, team-based approach will improve the quality of learning. And it’s also nice that the basis of this competition is directly related to instruction. Education marketing professional will tell you (if their employers are not within earshot), that instructional quality is not, sadly, a potent recruitment strategy.

For institutions, competition based on instructional quality introduces interesting possibilities. Although the initial attention paid to MOOCs was largely a result of the types of institutions that were first involved: “Free” courses from the “world’s best” (read: exclusive and expensive) institutions makes for a good headline. But the elite institutions are not significantly better prepared to offer high quality instructional content than other, less prestigious institutions. In fact, it could be argued – although difficult to quantify – that the focus on research that characterizes elite institutions, rather than teaching, makes these early adopters of MOOCs less well prepared to compete on this new basis.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 


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