Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have held the promise for expediential growth of enrollment. Proponents believe this is a game-changing venture that makes higher education readily available for more people.  This is especially true because the registration fees for MOOCs are minimal, the result of funding by private venture capitalists.  Additionally, universities have chased this opportunity by investing in digital development of enhanced functionality on college and course websites.  The undertaking has been massive and also requires highly customize materials different than what’s needed for classrooms or lecture halls: faculty videos, online exams, online audience chats /discussion.

What’s not to like.  Right?  Well, not so fast!  The learning curve is steeper than expected. Here are four questions that are likely to help affect the future state of MOOCs:

  1. Can MOOCs be a viable option to in-class courses?

Conventional wisdom says “not yet”. The up-close and personal faculty interaction with in-class courses is highly effective and nearly impossible to replace with MOOCs.  Teaching videos and chat sessions have yet to prove to be sufficient surrogates. What is possible is that the value of MOOCs resides in being a more interactive alternate to digital textbooks providing 24/7 learning aids such as faculty videos specific to the course materials.

  1. Is the specter of MOOC mass appeal just a pipe dream? While the belief that the appeal is broad and can reach a diverse audience, this simply has not been the case so far.  In fact, the appeal skews strongly towards highly educated, self-starter, highly motivated men. The sometimes-cryptic nature of the MOOCs specialized materials adapted to on-line audiences is another deterrent making it difficult for the less education to connect the dots.
  1. Can MOOCs be effective using modified in-class materials and support?

Not really. MOOCs require customized materials different than in-class offerings and anything short of that has been met with mixed results. The lectures need to be in shorter segments and classroom discussion needs to be scaled back.  Further, support from traditional on-campus, in-class courses is missing and hard to replicate: office hours, tutoring sessions, study groups, etc.  This results in the instructors’ overall concern of the inability to creatively interact with MOOC learners.

  1. Are there any redeeming factors so far?

Yes, given the ability to monitor behavior and actions online, a benefit is to track the learnability of the MOOC course takers.  As academia becomes more proficient with optimally designed online courses, educators are bound to learn more about the thought process of the learners with each keystroke. Research with MOOC data can reveal how online learning behavior could help impact the science of learning.

A glimpse into the future reveals MOOCs have really opened the eyes of academia and have the potential to change the landscape of the science of higher ed learning. However, the future of MOOCS as a viable tool for educators and learners is still in the crystal ball.

At Gatesman, we focus on hacking human behavior to identify best ways to connect evolving technologies to key stakeholders and students.  Our research methodology captures real time learnings and heady insights into audience motivations and behaviors - in this case around MOOC’s.  With the onslaught of offerings in the future, we can help your institution best position MOOC’s to your faculty and student prospects alike to achieve an unfair competitive advantage.

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John Berka is an SVP at Gatesman and has provided fully integrated marketing plans, communication plans, branding and advertising leadership for a range of higher ed institutions across the nation.