Another Conversation About MOOCs

As an alumnus of the doctoral program in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (GSE), I attended Penn GSE’s recent conference entitled “Innovation in an Era of Disruptive Change.”  Conference attendees and alums of the grad school heard Dr. Jack Wilson, President Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts, discuss his topic “Evolution or Revolution: Everyone Wants Universities to Change but Exactly How is Not so Clear.”  Dr. Wilson discussed his experience with online education in the early days of establishing UMass Online.  He also discussed the online initiatives announced and funded by universities in the late 1990’s to include Columbia’s venture with Cardean, Fathom, Open University’s U.S. venture, etc.  The great majority of those collaborations folded in a few years.  UMass Online and the University of Maryland Global Campus are among a handful that survived because they developed a business model that worked.  Dr. Wilson’s point to the group was that MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) appear to be the rage and there are initiatives with EdX, Coursera, and Udacity to name a few, but none of those companies have developed a long term business model at this point in time.  This, according to Dr. Wilson, makes predicting their ability to survive and thrive more difficult.

Dr. Wilson presented longitudinal data from the annual Sloan Consortium  survey of online learning that showed the relative growth of post secondary students over the past ten years who took at least one course in the year of the survey.  In the most recently released survey (“Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States”), it is estimated that 6.7 million students took an online course and that number represents one-third of all students enrolled in college.  Dr. Wilson pointed out that the vast majority of Chief Academic Officers of the colleges surveyed believe that online education is strategically important to their university or college.  That number has been steadily increasing over the years and was not substantially changed by the hype about MOOCs over the past year.  Dr. Wilson challenged the audience to embrace online education (it’s here to stay) but to not assume that the basis of delivering college courses for all but the elite schools is through the MOOC model.

Following Dr. Wilson’s presentation, a panel of Penn professors who have taught some of the courses that Penn has offered through Coursera discussed some their experiences with the audience.  Dr. John Hogenesch (Professor of Pharmacology who teaches Experimental Genome Science), Dr. Carol Muller (Professor of Music who teaches Listening to World Music), and Dr. Peter Struck (Associate Professor of Classical Studies who teaches Greek and Roman Mythology) participated.  The panel also included four graduate teaching assistants (TA’s) who worked with Dr. Al Filreis’s class on Modern Poetry.  Overall, the professors enjoyed the experience.  Among their findings were:  the global composition of students was vastly more diverse than a typical course at Penn, Greeks (participating in the Mythology class) refer to Greek Literature as Literature, some students formed local study groups and uploaded pictures of their study groups (one was a group studying at a café in Manila, Philippines), and the ages of the students ranged from as young as 11 years old to 70 years old.  Another faculty member commented that of the 22,000 students who enrolled in his course, 2200 completed and passed the course and ten percent of those students (220) did as well as the top 10 percent of Penn students.  He said he was not surprised that there were 220 people around the world capable of performing that well academically, but identifying another 220 people who would clearly be classified in the top 1 percent of all students in the U.S. was a fascinating outcome.  Each of the faculty complimented the responsiveness of the Coursera team and some of the early adopters mentioned how policies were initiated and implemented when a problem (such as abusive comments on a discussion board) surfaced.

After the Penn faculty shared experiences, Dr. Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera and Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, participated via video conference.  Dr. Koller answered questions from the audience and discussed some of the potential business models that were emerging from Coursera.  One of the models discussed was the licensing of content/courses.  In my mind, that’s interesting as it would only work if the current courses that are offered for free would no longer be free.  I also believe that the computer science faculty who run Coursera will create new methods of teaching online courses, particularly those with large enrollments, and that some of that technology may be licensable.

It’s not surprising that the lunch, break, and dinner conversations of the 100 plus participants at the conference related to MOOCs and other forms of disruptive technology.  Many of the conferees (also Penn doctoral alums) continue to work in leadership roles at colleges and universities ranging from community colleges to elite private research universities.  Change occurs at different paces at various institutions depending on their profile and their culture.  Change is inevitable and it will likely impact most of the conferees.  To borrow from Jack Wilson’s presentation, “but exactly how is unclear.”

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence