Thursday, August 09, 2012

MOOCs -- Demand and Supply

A. Demand
Scenarios about the possible uses of free, non-credit, massive open online courses, i.e., MOOCs, produced by some of the world's most elite colleges and universities have recently been repeated so often in higher education news media, websites, and blogs that they have begun to have the familiar ring of old news accounts of things that have actually happened instead of plausible hypotheticals. Indeed, I myself have posted my own versions of these fanciful tales in the last couple of months on this blog. So just for the record, let's go one more round as to the roles that our current conventional wisdom expects free elite MOOCs to play before considering what now seems to me to be the more likely alternative non-elite sources of these revolutionary tools ... tools that won't be free ... and won't be as open
  • Elite free MOOCs as platforms for research about learning
    This was the highest justification that M.I.T. and Harvard gave for "mooking." Developing MOOCs would ultimately enhance the quality of their traditional campus programs. Why?  Because a properly constructed learning management system for MOOCs would convert the demographic and performance data from the 100,000 plus students enrolled in each MOOC every time that MOOC was offered into a collection of massive data sets that would support large scale research projects that would greatly expand our understanding of the human learning process. This greater understanding would not only enable Harvard and M.I.T. to design better MOOCs for non-traditional students; it would  also enable them to design better courses and other learning experiences for their full-time, on-campus students.
  • Elite free MOOCs as proof of competency
    In this scenario students who pass elite MOOCs could submit their non-credit MOOC certificates to competency-based degree or certificate programs run by non-elite colleges and universities as proof of their competency in order to obtain credits in those programs, thereby reducing their total tuition and shortening the time they have to be enrolled in those programs. In other words, free non-credit MOOCs offered by elite universities like Harvard, M.I.T., and Stanford will make high quality, higher education more accessible and more affordable for non-traditional students.
  • Elite free MOOCs as the out-of-class/homework materials for flipped courses
    Instead of instructors at non-elite institutions creating their own recorded lectures, drills, and test materials that students would work with at home, they could have their students enroll in free MOOCs offered by elite institutions on the same subjects. Then, as usual with flipped or inverted courses, the instructors would use their face-to-face class time for Q&A, demonstrations, team projects, experiments, discussions, etc, etc, etc.

B. Elite Suppliers
  • Questions: How many MOOCs will the elite institutions produce? And on how many subjects?
  • My Answers: Not many and not many. 
To be sure, the elites will produce more than enough MOOCs to satisfy their most ambitious research goals, but only a small fraction of the full range of courses needed to satisfy the national and global demand for MOOCs (a) as proof of competency or (b) as the out-of-class materials for flipped courses. Given the disdain that elite colleges and universities have shown for online courses in years past, they don't have extensive catalogs of online courses they could mook; so for most courses they will be starting from scratch.

Take the edX partnership of Harvard and M.I.T.  (that recently admitted UC Berkeley). The demographic and performance data they will collect from 100,000 plus students enrolled in just one MOOC will support thousands of man-years of careful analysis and sustain hundreds of research hypotheses. So why would the edX partners be motivated to develop MOOCs for all of the departmental courses normally included in a Bachelors or Masters degree program for any particular subject, or all of the general studies and outside electives recommended for Bachelors degrees --  given that none of the partners intends to offer Masters or Bachelors degrees via their MOOCS? Of course they won't. They are far more likely to cherry pick courses here and there across a wide range of disciplines that strike the fancy of some of their most creative and energetic professors.

Furthermore, elite institutions, being jealous of their vaunted reputations, will tend to put their best MOOCs forward, especially after independent ratings services arise that provide comparative assessments of the quality of free MOOCs. Low rated MOOCs will be withdrawn. Each elite institution will only  sustain the few MOOCs that enhance their reputations.

All of which suggests that when the fanfare subsides, it will be clear that the combined course catalogs of MOOCs from all elite institutions will never contain more than a couple of hundred courses, not the thousands of courses that are currently offered by most universities to support the hundreds of degrees and certificates sought by today's students.

Bottom line #1: An ambitious student seeking a degree in any particular subject will only find a small fraction of the courses he or she needs in the elite MOOC catalogs to satisfy all of the course requirements for a degree degree at any non-elite college or university in the world, no matter how flexible that idnstitution's policies for converting MOOCs to competency-based credits.

Bottom line #2: An  innovative chair of a department at a non-elite institution will only find a small fraction of the MOOCs required for flipping all of his or her department's required courses and electives in the elite catalogs.

C. State Suppliers
  • Question: So who will supply the full array of MOOCs we need?
  • My Answer: The same good folk who developed most of the non-MOOC online courses since the beginning of online ==> our state colleges and universities ... but state MOOCs won't be as massive as elite MOOCs ... and they won't be as open ... and they won't be free
According to annual surveys conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2007, public colleges and universities consistently offered 80 percent of the online courses offered by all colleges and universities, and private for-profit and nonprofit institutions divided the remaining 20 percent more or less evenly. 

At this point our public institutions have amassed large catalogs that contain all of the courses students need to complete a wide range of online degree programs. Like the Hollywood studios at the dawn of television in the 1950s and 60s who supplied old movies from their extensive film libraries to satisfy the TV networks' insatiable demand for 7 by 24 content, so too the nation's public colleges and universities will satisfy comparable demand for MOOCs from their voluminous online catalogs ... and, given the relentless downward pressures of the Great Recession on state budgets, for the same reason ==> money.  

The analogy with movie studies is instructive, but misleading if taken too literally:
  • The studios kept their newest and best movies off television for as long as possible, hoping to generate higher revenues by showing their newest films in theaters and by re-releasing old blockbusters like "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" from time to time.

    By contrast, state colleges and universities will probably try to establish their brand names in the national & global markets by publishing their best courses that costs the least to operate as soon as possible.
  • The studios licensed their films to the networks who broadcast them to television viewers for free, while charging substantial fees to advertisers

    By contrast, public institutions will have multiple distribution channels:

    -- Some states will make their online courses directly available to non-credit students who are not currently enrolled in any degree programs within the state system, just as the elite institutions are doing now. However, I anticipate that states will charge a modest fee and/or earn revenue from ads placed on the pages of the course materials in order to ensure that enough revenue is generated to cover the costs of offering the courses, including salaries for instructors and fees for teaching assistants to grade the assignments, etc. To this end, states will tend to mook the courses that have the lowest operating costs, i.e., courses that can be graded automatically. And they probably won't be as open as elite MOOCs. Screening course applicants with online pre-tests will weed out unqualified students who would otherwise make costly demands for assistance once a course began.

    Non-degree students will treat state MOOCs like elite MOOCs, i.e., they will use the certificates they earn from passing state MOOCs to gain credit in competency-based programs, especially programs offered by colleges and universities within the same state system. 

    -- Considering what some state university systems are already doing, I expect that the primary distribution channel for a state's MOOCs will be internal, i.e., sharing online courses developed by colleges and universities within the state system with each other. Sharing shifts the focus of "build or buy" decisions towards that the "buy" end of the spectrum, thereby providing a way for members of state systems to share the costs of developing high quality online courses ... States will probably extract modest fees from members to use courses developed by other members of the state's postsecondary system. These courses will gain the most leverage when offered in purely online formats, i.e., as MOOCs' whereas lower revenues per course enrollment will be derived if the courses are used as out-of-class/homework materials for flipped classrooms.

    -- Additional distribution channels will be developed when states form consortia for sharing online courses with each other. Each consortium will establish articulation agreements that identify which courses offered by its members are equivalent to each other. This will make it easier for non-degree students to convert their state MOOC certificates to credits via competency-based programs if they enroll in programs run by colleges and universities whose states are members of the same consortium.

    -- Finally, states can be expected to license their courses to colleges and universities that are not members of their consortium. Non-members can use the courses as MOOCs and/or as out-of-class/homework materials for flipped classrooms.
Bottom line #3: When the current fanfare subsides, elite MOOCS are likely to be seen (a) as the ongoing products of major research centers that make substantial contributions to our understanding of the human learning process, thereby enabling all colleges and universities to substantially enhance the quality of their course offerings; and (b) as historic catalysts that greatly accelerated the diffusion of two important pre-existing innovations throughout our system of higher education, innovations that might not have been adopted as quickly without the extraordinary energy and attention generated by the sudden commitment of so many elite institutions. Elite MOOCs made it legitimate for colleges and universities to consider using online courses developed elsewhere in flipped courses and provided more impetus for the development of competency-based programs.

Related Notes: