It’s hard to keep track of all the “threats” to higher education these days. Just when we think something new has come along that will save it, we find out that it may cause even more problems–sort of like when we discovered that penicillin can actually cause a deadly reaction in some people.
This seems to be the case with regard to massive open online courses (MOOCs), according to a recent report by Moody’s Investor Service. As explained by Alisha Azevedo in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Shifting Ground: Technology Begins to Alter Centuries-Old Business Model for Universities,” argues that prominent universities will benefit from MOOCs because “offering free online courses will help well-known universities bring in new revenue, heighten brand recognition, and reduce operating costs.” Large universities, it seems, may be able to leverage the name recognition they get through MOOCs into higher enrollments, contracts to offer their services to smaller schools, etc.
Will Small Schools Suffer…
Smaller schools that use MOOCs created by the more well-known colleges will suffer, the report claims, because the local student pool from which they have traditionally drawn their student body will shrink, as many of those students who would have chosen to attend may well decide to enroll in online courses and programs offered by the more well-known school. In turn, this will reduce revenue for smaller schools, especially local colleges, and that will lead to painful budget cuts.
The hardest hit, Moody’s argues, will be commuter schools, which includes community colleges and for-profit institutions. Though Moody’s report is only available to subscribers, and involves a hefty fee, the German financial news website Finanzen.net summarized Moody’s conclusions about the impact MOOCs will have on the financial status of higher education institutions:
“Positive credit effects are likely to develop for the higher education sector as elite universities offer more classes for an unlimited number of students through low-cost, open courseware platforms,” said Moody’s VP-Senior Analyst Karen Kedem, author of the report. “However, there will eventually be negative effects on for-profit education companies and some smaller not-for-profit colleges that may be left out of emerging high-reputation online networks.
MOOCs create new revenue opportunities, increase brand recognition, and provide improved operating efficiencies,” said Kedem. “The availability of open platforms enables a university to post content without incurring the cost of developing and maintaining the infrastructure.
Most universities will likely gravitate to a ‘mixed’ model that combines residential learning with the new technology, some will increasingly feature online course delivery, and some colleges may choose to create a niche by remaining focused solely on the traditional residential-classroom experience.
The residential college model will remain viable, says Moody’s, but less-selective, smaller colleges that are unable to join emerging networks or carve out an independent niche will likely experience credit stress driven by declining student demand.”
…Or Can MOOCs Create New Opportunities for Small Schools?
Not everyone has as bleak an outlook as Moody’s. For example, Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, believes that higher instincts will prevail over the more sinister “we’re only in it for the money” way of thinking. He told The Chronicle that the schools that create MOOCs ”are genuinely committed to sharing knowledge widely but also trying to learn something about the pedagogy of teaching online.” Trace A. Urdan of Wells Fargo Securities went on record with The Chronicle as also disagreeing with Moody’s report:
“I think the conclusions of the report are a little silly-there is no business model at the moment for MOOC’s,” he said. “I watch with bated breath to see if someone can build a business around this phenomenon, but at the moment the MOOC’s are basically leveraging the existing brand and existing talent employed by the universities.”
I also can see a different possibility for smaller colleges. From a pedagogical perspective, MOOCs raise significant concerns. To be successful in them, students must rely on independent motivations and develop an ability to guide themselves through the course. This can be difficult for many students. In Dave Cormier’s video “Success in a MOOC,” he highlights the kind of independent work required to get the most from participation in a MOOC. Though they can learn from each other, students will not get feedback from professors. But some students need that to keep them going, to help them sort through all the material, etc. In a course with 1000 students, it is going to be very difficult for externally-motivated students, or students who require more directed study, to stay focused and learn as much as they can.
This is where smaller schools can stake their claim. At a time when college students report that they don’t learn anything in their courses and reformers claim that students need more individualized learning, small colleges such as community colleges offer the best chance of success for students who require more direct contact with faculty. This means that smaller college may actually benefit from the institution of MOOCs, because they can carve out territory as the go-to choice for students who require more support through closer interaction with faculty, tutors, advisors, and others.
There are many ways to learn–MOOCs show us that. But that doesn’t mean that we have to abandon the smaller-scale, more intimate learning environment of a small classroom, because many students learn and function better in such an environment. Rather than spell the end of the smaller college, MOOCs may allow them to focus more on creating the kind of focused, direct engagement learning experiences that students also desire.
Have you enrolled in a MOOC? Or do you prefer smaller classes? Share your experience here!