Hardly a day goes by without reading an article about some aspect of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the potential for this educational paradigm to transform higher education. Some of the information is positive. Other articles stress the negatives associated with this new delivery model. Several authorities write about the disruptive nature of MOOCs, the need for a new business model to replace the current one, and the inevitability of some combination of online and classroom instruction in the future. Other authorities voice objections based on fear of change.
There are some facts that few can dispute:
All of us, including students in the earliest stages of their education, are connected most of the time. We live in a 24/7 world. Young people, beginning in elementary school, have begun to relate to “devices” easier than to books or lecture-style instruction. Those are the students who will be sitting in college and university classrooms in the future.
The current business model of many schools around the world is to increase tuition annually, ramp up fundraising activities and send representatives around the world in search of full paying students. Most chief financial officers would agree that this is not a sustainable way to operate an educational enterprise. Most families would agree that student debt is a problem.
Despite valiant efforts, graduation rates remain stubbornly stuck at around 51% in the U.S. Colleges and universities spend a great deal of money admitting and enrolling students and graduating far fewer than admitted. Most enrollment and retention managers would agree that this is not a recipe for enrollment or retention success.
The academic year is, at many institutions of higher learning, based on a fall and spring semester. This translates into students essentially attending class half a year. Buildings remain vacant for the rest of the time and potential revenue is lost.
Current MOOCs facts
What is written today on this subject will soon change, perhaps be outdated by the end of the week. But the following are some of the facts we know about MOOCs in March, 2013:
Approximately 2.6% of colleges and universities currently offer a MOOC and about 10% are considering offering a MOOC in the future.
The majority of academics believe that the learning outcomes in online education is the same or better than classroom instruction.
The majority of academic leaders and financial administrators believe that online learning is essential if their school is to survive in the future.
It is impossible to give the number of students who have enrolled in a MOOC, completed the course, and were granted a certificate of completion. The number changes daily. Coursera statistics alone indicate that more than 2 million students from more than 200 countries and 1,400 cities have signed up for courses. It is also foolish to produce the names of participating institutions. The list changes daily.
The American Council on Education has initiated awarding transfer credit for five MOOCs offered by Coursera. Worldwide, there are several schools planning to accept MOOCs for transfer credit.
While there are many articles and debates about the potential academic implications of MOOCs, there is little discussion of how MOOCs will change current higher education administrative structures and the college and university staff who manage enrollment, admissions, including international admissions, retention and career counseling. That is the focus of this article.
Many enrollment managers are tasked with meeting enrollment goals based on their school’s financial needs. This has become, in recent years, more and more difficult, especially at private, high priced schools, with little or no brand name recognition. Teams of admission counselors are assigned “territories” and the ROI (Return on Investment) is carefully evaluated. But what are these administrators “selling” and how are they reaching their target audiences? Are admission counselors informed of the potential changes that online courses and MOOCs could bring to the way they market their schools?
In most schools admission counselors can only “sell” two semesters. How much more powerful is the college or university admission counselors’ presentation if they can offer students the option of taking classes in three semesters or taking an online or MOOC class in addition to regularly scheduled classes? How would this new paradigm change the strategic marketing plans of enrollment managers and directors of admission? How will this change the way articulation agreements are crafted and college and university partnerships drafted?
MOOCs are likely to change the way international students are recruited. The National University of Mongolia recently announced that will award ten students credit for the edX course they completed on circuits. Coursera will be offering courses in French, Chinese, Italian and Spanish. Those course offerings will open up millions of potential online students in Europe, Asia and Africa. Coursera’s current enrollment is 34% from the United States and 66% from other countries.
International students, who for a variety of reasons, cannot travel abroad to take classes, will have the opportunity to study and learn while at home and in the company of students from all over of the world. Offering transferable MOOCs to an international audience has the potential to grow the international piece of a school’s overall enrollment goals.
How will the acceptance of MOOCS affect the international strategic plans and current recruitment practices of colleges and universities? Will this herald the beginning of fewer on-site international visits and more digital, social media outreach marketing?
Several colleges and universities worldwide have agreed to accept MOOCs for transfer credit. And the American College on Education has designated five Coursera courses appropriate for transfer credit. ACE course recommendations could potentially mean that the approved courses could be accepted for transfer credit in up to 2,000 schools. The Gates Foundation has granted funding to ACE to assess how online courses could be used to improve college access and completion. California is investigating how MOOCs could help the nearly 400,000 California residents waiting to enroll in college.
Does online education have the potential of increasing progression to the second year and increasing graduation rates? How will MOOCs affect the role of academic advising and the methods retention managers use to keep more of their students in their schools? What will an academic transcript look like in the future? Do MOOCs have the potential to influence who awards credit and how many credits are needed for graduation?
Governments and policy makers around the world clamor for the need for skilled workers. Employers complain that college graduates do not have the technical skills needed for today’s workforce. Is it possible that one day employers may come to recognize MOOCs as an alternative credential to the traditional three or four year degree? Will employers scan college transcripts looking for courses relevant to their workforce needs?
Coursera has an employee matching service, called Coursera Career Services. Facebook and Twitter, among other high-profile companies, have signed up. Udacity, another MOOC provider, has a similar service. Job placement is part of Udacity’s package. Some of its courses are designed with input from Google and Microsoft.
How many career counselors are preparing for the opportunity to market accepted MOOCs to potential employers? Do student career counseling sessions include information on how an online course could positively impact future employment? MOOCs have the potential to dramatically change the current functions of the “traditional” career counseling office and elevate its functions in the higher administration hierarchy.
The jury is still out on the future of online education in general and MOOCs in particular. If successful, MOOCS have the potential to change the current business model in many colleges and universities, lower the cost of a college education, increase graduation rates, and enhance a graduate’s chances for securing a suitable job after graduation. In essence, there is the potential to change the way higher education is delivered. The new model unbundles learning from credentialing and focuses not on how many students are rejected for admission but how many complete an online course. MOOCs have the potential ability to unite students worldwide and make college courses affordable to students in remote parts of the world.
The line between online learning and classroom instruction is blurring, making the development of new administrative structures necessary. Enrollment managers, admission counselors, retention managers, academic advisors, registrars and career counselors will need to develop a new skill set to match the changing higher education landscape. Integrating administrative functions with the academic changes MOOCs would create, needs to take place if online courses and hybrid programs, are to succeed.
College and university administrators should get ahead of the potential disruption and begin to consider how to best accommodate students now and in the future. The time has come for administrators, not only academics, to consider the impact of MOOCs on the future of higher education.
Marguerite J. Dennis has been a higher education administrator for more than 30 years, first at St. John’s University, then at Georgetown University and finally at Suffolk University. She is currently a private higher education consultant.