New Ways to Think About MOOC ROIs

MOOCs have caused higher education stakeholders to rethink a lot of things, from the best way to deliver both online and traditional courses to how best to measure success in a course. (Hint: It isn’t completion rate.) They are also leading to a shift in views regarding return on investment (ROI). Some courses offer paid verified certificates, but only a small portion of students actually pay for them. So, what do universities and MOOC providers actually get from the courses?

In a new article for The Hechinger Report, Pennsylvania State University’s online provost Craig Weidermann outlines some ways to think about the ROI for MOOCs, which he acknowledges “may be difficult to quantify—and it may not be monetary. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

Here are four ROIs he identifies:

•  Attracting applicants and engaging alumni. Penn State’s GIS Mapping MOOC led to a 400% increase in traffic to the GIS program website.
•  Creating communities of learners. In Penn State’s epidemiology MOOC, learners from high school students to doctors and public health professionals connected to discuss vaccinations and public health.
•  Using MOOC components in traditional courses. Penn State professors have been using MOOC lectures and other resources in their traditional face-to-face and online courses.
•  Using MOOCs to advance research. Penn State professors are also using what they learn from MOOC students for their own research projects.

Some other MOOC ROIs that have come out of this blog over the past few weeks include improving educational technologies, like with MIT’s new video platform LectureSpace; helping education respond to rapid changes; and bridging the gap between school and work. Like Weidermann says, these ROIs may not be monetary, but they are still important.

What are some other ways we might look at returns on investment in MOOCs?

MOOCs Help Education Respond to Rapid Growth of Knowledge

In a recent post at The Conversation, Gavin Moodie makes the case that technology has a history of improving learning, not destroying it, and that MOOCs will continue that tradition.

Moodie reviews the history of previous technologies—like the printing press—changed, but didn’t kill, universities. This narrative is familiar to anyone who has kept up with MOOC discussions. In brief, books transformed the idea of the lecture—once students had access to books on their own, it was no longer necessary for instructors to read books to them. Lectures changed from “cursory” to “expository,” which included discussions of questions and problems. Books also made self-directed learning possible on a whole new level.

Printing also changed the role of libraries. Moodie notes that the pedagogical role for libraries emerged in the 18th century, when there were so many books that it became impractical for scholars to have personal copies of all of the ones they used on a regular basis. It’s this last point I want to focus on—during this time, bodies of knowledge became so big that it was impossible (or at least very expensive) for any one person’s collection to contain all of the essential information on a topic.

And that was in the 18th century. Today, bodies of knowledge are so big that it is nearly impossible for one person to even know it all, much less have it stored in a collection (digital or otherwise).

What does this have to do with MOOCs? I suggest that MOOCs can help higher education respond to the rapid growth of knowledge. Not only is there more knowledge than could possibly be contained in a single collection, but there is much more than could be conveyed in a single course or even by an academic department. This certainly isn’t a bad thing! But it does mean that the same course varies widely across institutions and instructors. This is one of the reasons digital badges and other more modular credentials are becoming more popular—they are tied directly to knowledge and skills so that employers and others can know exactly what a student who takes an “Intro to Programming” course, for example, knows how to do.

MOOCs can allow institutions to offer courses that they don’t otherwise. They also allow students not only to take courses that aren’t offered at their school, but also access content that the courses at their school may not cover. Many MOOCs cover the same topics, but from different perspectives (even on Coursera, there are several intro to programming courses, all of which are different). Students can use these courses to their advantage to gain a more complete understanding of a subject area.

Like Moodie said, technology will improve higher learning, not kill it.

MIT Video Technology Will Make MOOCs Better

Though MOOCs make use of many different technologies and formats, video is by far the most common method content is delivered in the courses. And while video just by its nature has some advantages over an in-person lecture (namely, the ability to rewatch), video lectures in and of themselves are not much different from traditional lectures.

At least they didn’t used to be.

Now, as a result of analyzing data from more than 100,000 edX students over nearly 7 million video sessions, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) have developed a technology to make course videos better. If this technology is successful, it could have wide implications not just for MOOCs, but for other forms of online education as well.

As described in an article for MIT News, the researchers at CSAIL used edX big data to identify what factors learners like in course videos. They found that students generally prefer videos that are short (less than 6 minutes, as opposed to the more commonly accepted 10 minutes), informal, and use dynamic visuals like what is found in Khan Academy videos. Learners also prefer instructors who speak quickly, but incorporate plenty of pauses.

Based on these data, CSAIL developed a video platform called LectureScape, with features including timelines to show what parts of the video are watched the most, searchable interactive transcripts, bookmarks, and automatic summaries. LectureScape allows learners to personalize their video-watching experiences and to navigate through video content more easily.

All along, one of the biggest challenges of MOOCs has been to find ways to really use technology to enhance learning, rather than just replicating traditional courses online. If they are to be successful, MOOCs need to offer learners something new and better. LectureScape is one step toward doing exactly that—by providing tools for learners to interact with and customize course videos, the technology takes online learning beyond what can be achieved in a classroom.

As more big data is collected and analyzed, more opportunities will arise for new educational technologies. What aspects of MOOCs would you like to see these efforts target?

In an article for The Evolllution, Friends University Graduate School Dean David Hofmeister outlines what institutions need to do in order to meet the needs of adult learners, and why they are largely failing at it. In brief, most institutions employ a product-centric model, when what would serve adult learners best is a consumer-centric model. As Hofmeister says: “An institution needs to position itself through innovations that are relevant to adults’ needs at the moment as well as preparing them to traverse their future.”

Hofmeister suggests that although they claim to be “adult-friendly,” many institutions actually “require significant levels of conformity from adult students,” especially in terms of the courses they take. Many adult programs teach content that more reflects the needs of yesterday than of the future, and for learners looking for knowledge and skills to help them in their careers, this simply isn’t enough.

What would help adult education better meet the needs of adult learners? Customization. In Hofmeister’s view, a truly customized education would involve credentials that change in response to the changing job market—in other words, much faster than the normal pace of change in academic programs. He notes this goal cannot be reached the way the current system is configured and that “disruptive innovations will be required” or else new players will steal market share from existing institutions.

What Hofmeister alludes to, but stops short of saying, is that new players are already taking market share from existing adult education programs. MOOCs and other forms of alternative education are already providing a more customer-centric learning experience than traditional programs. They are 100% customizable—learners can choose which courses to take and how to participate in those courses. They are also 100% relevant—new courses come on the scene all of the time, reflecting the changing state of knowledge. Many of the available courses are specifically tailored for the workplace education and professional development. These new educational formats do everything a true “adult-friendly” program should do, except, of course, lead to degrees. But as Hofmeister points out, a degree itself is no longer sufficient.

It’s time to make room system for these new formats so that adult learners can have flexible, adaptable pathways to getting the education they need, for today and for the future.

Two Fresh New Benefits of MOOCs

MOOCs have in many ways proven to be more than meets the eye. Many people—students, educators, employees, employers—have been finding innovative ways to use MOOCs beyond what was originally anticipated. In yesterday’s post, we explored the idea that video-based MOOCs might help students build skills relevant to business videoconferencing. Today, we’ll look at two other ways MOOCs are making a splash beyond the classroom.

Building a community of support for entrepreneurs

In a recent article on Huffington Post, MOOC professor Michael Goldberg discusses how his course “Beyond Silicon Valley: Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies” helped budding entrepreneurs around the world connect with one another. Of the 23,000 students in the course, hailing from 183 countries, more than 85% were from outside of the United States. The MOOC used the Cleveland of the early 2000s to demonstrate how entrepreneurship can contribute to economic revitalization. As a result of taking the courses, students have reported learning about how communities of support can be vital for fostering entrepreneurship in developing areas, and even joining some of those communities themselves.

Motivating personal change

Recently, a Harvard Graduate School of Education core course on personal change was made into MOOC. The course, entitled “Immunity to Change: A New Approach to Personal Improvement,” seeks to change behavior by focusing on the beliefs and assumptions that often make us unwilling to change. More than 80,000 students from 182 countries enrolled, and by the end of the course, about 6,500 were still at it. According to a write-up of the course by James Ryan, participants have reported having made “real and meaningful changes” in their lives, and those reports have been supported by surveys distributed to the participants’ friends.

Ryan writes: “This is an important moment not simply for this course, but for online education. The early success…suggests that online courses can be used not simply to impart information but to change behavior, and that participants in online courses can do this without one-on-one coaching from instructors.”

Do you have any more examples of MOOCs being used for purporses beyond just learnng? If you do, please let us know.

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