It’s hard to follow higher education news these days without seeing a reference to MOOCs. The online learning platforms from edX, Coursera, Udacity, and others were launched to great fanfare over the last two years. Proponents praise them for their potential to change education, while critics chalk them up as more hype than hope.
To be sure, for all their promise, MOOCs also have their share of problems. For one thing, as has been documented in each of the popular platforms, the attrition rate is high. For the thousands of students that enroll in a MOOC, only a fraction will fulfill the requirements of the course.
Then there is the question of accreditation. Coursera, edX, and Udacity typically provide certificates of achievement rather than college credit, although that will likely change as more courses seek accreditation. Coursera, currently partnered with 70 institutions, announced last fall that it would work with the American Council on Education (ACE) to evaluate credit equivalency for its courses. Georgia Tech announced in May that it would offer the first accredited MOOC-based masters degree in computer science via a partnership with Udacity and AT&T.
Perhaps the biggest issues, however, are revenue and sustainability. MIT and Harvard each pumped $30 million into launching edX. Coursera began with $16 million in venture capital. But, with courses and materials typically provided free to students, the question of how these programs will sustain themselves is a big one.
Anant Agarwal, president of edX, says he anticipates the program will ultimately be self-sustaining. “There are a number of ways you can do this that aren’t rocket science. For example, you can have executive education programs that corporations pay for. Or, you can offer various kinds of placement services to employers,” he says. “Today, employers spend a lot of money with recruiters to find the best candidates. It’s not unusual to see a recruiter earning 20 to 25 percent of the first month’s income for placing an engineer. So, if we can help identify those top-notch learners around the world, there is incredible value in that.”
Agarwal also discussed an offshoot of the MOOC model that may have revenue potential. “It’s a business-to-business concept that Armando Fox at University of California, Berkeley has dubbed SPOC, for small, private online courses. You create a course and license it to a university or an organization or corporation.”
The acronym may be new, but the SPOC concept isn’t. Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University-Global Campus, has been refining the approach for the last five years, and it addresses each of the concerns mentioned above.
“We are pioneers in this area; the nation’s first and, so far, only independent 100 percent online, fully accredited public university,” she says. “We opened our doors in 2008 and we now have nearly 9,000 active students.”
CSU–Global Campus was established using a $12 million loan from the CSU Board of Governors (which has been repaid). “As we are a public university, we have the same governing board as CSU and the brick-and-mortar research universities,” Takeda-Tinker says. “We are specialists in bachelor degree completion, so students with more than 12 credit hours come to us to finish their degrees. We have a whole transfer articulation team in place to make their transition easy.”
Although CSU-Global is a public university, it is not state-funded. Students pay a fixed tuition rate throughout their time with the school, but additional revenue must be found elsewhere.
“Ours is a low-cost model that helps get students to graduation. But because of that we have to look at all opportunities for extending our core competencies in areas that can improve the university with financial stability,” Takeda-Tinker says. “We have found that our expertise in curriculum design and creation is one of our key strengths and is very attractive to businesses and universities.”
Rather than rely on the “build it and they will come” approach that many MOOCs take, CSU-Global’s SPOCs are the result of active marketing and promotion. A CSU-Global team meets with corporate training directors to design curriculum that will meet the goals of the training program. Classes are small—typically 17 to 20 students—and feature a curriculum customized to their needs.
Although confidentiality agreements prevent her from revealing their names, Takeda-Tinker describes the variety of corporate and educational entities with which CSU-Global is partnered, including:
- A multinational construction company that uses a leadership training program for a certificate in leadership and university degree credit. “The company retains us to provide the leadership and management training for its managers and other leaders that work at remote sites,” Takeda-Tinker says. “We customized our standard curriculum for their particular needs by adding information regarding other construction companies and case studies, as well as financial accounting information and leadership teambuilding.”
- One of the nation’s largest producers and marketers of natural gas. CSU-Global provides its standard courses from its bachelor’s of business management program for the company’s off-site employees who can earn certification as well as university credits.
- A large community-based organization. Busy professionals can reference CSU-Global’s library of leadership topics, such as best practices in virtual communication or building teams.
- An international university that uses CSU-Global curriculum in its degree programs. The courses are hosted and taught by CSU-Global faculty. “We actually created the curriculum for a degree program they have under their brand,” Takeda-Tinker says. “At any point they can take that curriculum and port it over to another platform should they decide to teach and control it on their own.”
- A traditional U.S. university. The school has resource constraints that limit its ability to teach increased numbers of students. CSU-Global provides courses for some of the leveling classes students need before they move on to the core program. It’s a true collaborative arrangement, Takeda-Tinker says. “They have control over the faculty we provide. We send them faculty members’ qualifications and CVs for approval, oversee their training, and monitor their performance weekly for the university. We leverage our entire academic curriculum and customize it to their needs.”
CSU-Global faculty are not just academically qualified but also often have work experience in the areas they teach. They can provide coaching and mentoring, as well as the advantage of valuable real-world experience, Takeda-Tinker says. “All our curriculum is geared to that. We believe it helps to have instructors who have worked in industry so they know what they are looking at when they read student papers, and can provide further insight in the discussion board posts for the students.”
An expensive experiment
But why go to the effort of finding clients, customizing curriculum, and hiring specialized faculty? Why not just expand the program to serve more students—why not make it more... massive? Takeda-Tinker says they’ve been there and done that.
“We actually have our own MOOC. It’s a huge online class with hundreds of students, but the demand of student need was such that we ended up breaking it into SPOCs. The reality we experienced is that students needed a lot of support like they do in a standard class,” she says. “The MOOC was an interesting experiment, but it was an expensive one. Although it’s free for the students, it isn’t for us, and we’re a state institution. We have to at least break even.”
Whether MOOCs can be as successful without providing the same level of learner support is still an open question. After MOOC mania subsides, it may be that SPOCs will emerge as the preferred model for specialized learning, taking the online approach to smaller, targeted—and revenue generating—classes.