In 2012, during a rare moment of clarity, I wondered aloud about the possible impact on the institutional reputation of academics choosing to post their instructional materials online, including lecture videos, for all the world to see. While the efforts by MIT (starting in 2001) and others in the “Open Movement” served as strong social statements about the importance of access to education, they also put the university on display in new ways and to an unprecedented degree. University brass were not typically aware of the practice, despite its potential significance.

Soon after, MOOCs (a la Coursera and Udacity) arrived and took the potential impact of freely distributed instructional content on reputation to a whole new level, quickly establishing these online courses as a very public platform for inter-institutional competition. As anticipated, the investment in MOOCs by universities climbed quickly, some reaching the $400,000 mark – roughly 2000 percent more than your typical online course. Production value leapt; lighting and sound quality improved, and lectures were no longer freestyle.

Taking Course Design Seriously

We can interpret the rise in production value of MOOCs as a sign of what’s to come for all of online higher education, or as merely an aberration – a by-product of the one-upmanship that characterized the response by elite institutions to the onset of MOOC-mania. I would argue that it’s the former – for two reasons.

First, higher production value and, more generally, a thoughtful, deliberate, and rigorous approach to course design, remains an untapped opportunity in higher education. Most institutions continue to approach online course design as they have classroom education: the responsibility for course design and development falls largely on the shoulders of lone instructors with limited time, insufficient resources and incentives. Budgets are laughably small. Consequently, most institutions have been unable to truly leverage the possibilities of the medium. Too many courses still rely on repurposed static classroom materials and an incoherent pastiche of free content pulled from a variety of sources.

But this won’t last. Enough institutions are beginning to recognize the limitations of what now constitutes the “traditional online course” and are beginning to take course design more seriously – improved production value is part and parcel of this change. Better course designs that incorporate real-time feedback, learning analytics, instructional games and other techniques will generate better outcomes, improve retention and from a purely market-perspective, enable the to create a meaningful difference in increasingly competitive, but homogeneous market of learning opportunities.

From Providing Access to Knowledge to Designing Learning

The inevitability of higher production value also stems from long-term changes in access to instructional materials.

The ability of individuals to learn when and how they want independently of educational institutions continues to grow. Resources for learning outside of universities are increasingly easy to find, curate, and of better quality. In light of this broad trend, the institution of higher education will necessarily need to place greater emphasis on its capacity to design and deliver high-quality learning experiences. The historical emphasis on serving as knowledge creators will need to be complemented by an equal commitment toward providing the highest and most productive form of learning, as well.

Changes to access to instructional experiences and materials have been migrating away from single institutions since the first printing press, of course, but the growth of the Internet has sent it into overdrive. The trend is not restricted to education. Family physicians, for instance, have had to become accustomed during the past decade to patients arriving for their appointments with medical information in-hand, detailing possible medical interventions – pulled freely from the Internet. Growing consciousness of these changes is one of the factors behind the now common “is college worth it” debate currently making the rounds in North America.

Son of MOOC. Or Meets People Magazine

Masterclass is a VC-backed start-up in (surprise) San Francisco that offers short online courses on popular topics like acting, photography, and creative writing. (Apparently, there’s a shortage of qualified actors, photographers and creative writers.) Each course costs $90 USD and includes video, interactive assignments and social learning opportunities – both online and face-to-face.

While Masterclass seems far removed from the concerns of higher education, its’ similarities to MOOCs offers us a unique vantage point for thinking through changes in production value as well as how instructional resources are typically evaluated.

Production Value +

The first and most obvious similarity is the emphasis on production value, which Masterclass takes to a whole new level. The current crop of Masterclass courses are directed by professional film-makers: Jay Roach (“Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents”) and two-time Academy Award-winning documentarian, Bill Guttentag. The course materials are predictably beautiful.

Screenshot 2015-07-29 18.11.18

Privileging the Source in Lieu of Evidence of Learning

The second and less obvious similarity is the way in which both MOOCs and Masterclass rely on the status of the source of instruction to define the perception of instructional value.

The affiliation with elite institutions is fundamental to the appeal and newsworthiness of MOOCs, as was the choice to present these courses as more or less equivalent to the “real courses” taught within the institution (minus tuition). News services and pundits took notice because MOOCs appeared to offer a desirable, expensive, and scarce resource for free – “Elite Education for the Masses“, Washington Post, 2012. Had these MOOCs come from, for example, a consortium of community colleges in South Dakota, or not been understood as consistent with the actual courses taught at these institutions, they would have generated far less attention.

Likewise, Masterclass leverages the brand names of its instructors – in this case, celebrities from the world of film, sports, and the arts. The first crop of Masterclass courses are taught by Dustin Hoffman (actor), Serena Williams (tennis pro), James Patterson (author), and Annie Liebowitz (photographer).  (While it’s highly unlikely that the celebrities had anything to do with the design of the instruction, this is how the courses are marketed.)

In both MOOCs and Masterclass, then, the value of the courses is based to a considerable degree on the source of the instruction. And in presenting themselves in this fashion, these two examples inadvertently underline the unsophisticated way in which instructional quality is commonly evaluated in and outside of higher education. MOOCs were received well because of the status of the institutions with which they were affiliated. But this status is not typically the result of instructional quality, but exclusivity (admissions and tuition levels) and the research productivity of the faculty. These institutions enrol the most academically gifted students and, as Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen has noted, his home institution spends far less on improving instruction each year than does the University of Phoenix. Similarly, the status of celebrities leading the Masterclass courses is not the result of their success as educators or coaches. They are practitioners and each one studies under leading coaches, trainers and educators.

In each of these two examples, consumers are making evaluations of instructional quality on the basis of factors only indirectly related to instructional quality. This isn’t because consumers of education are daft, rather, it’s because, in the absence of easy access to relevant information about instructional value, we tend to turn to proxies of quality to guide our decisions, what Lloyd Armstrong, Provost Emeritus at USC described as “surrogates of quality“.

Consumers need to become more adept at identifying instructional value. But this will require institutions to learn how to measure the impact of different instructional strategies on learning outcomes and to use this information to inform to guide the development of better strategies. Yes, educational quality is harder to measure than most, but not impossible – particularly in the online environment. Intelligently designed learning analytics, for example, can now provide us with accurate and relevant information to enable better assessments of true quality in learning.


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 maximising value.