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To MOOC or not to MOOC?

By Emma Simmons

Lights, camera, action… teaching notes with a difference Many business schools have yet to decide whether to offer a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course). We explore the issues and touch on using cases in MOOCs with observations from faculty who already run one, and from experts in the MOOC phenomenon and pedagogy.

The phenomenon

In 2008 Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island and Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education coined the term MOOC for a new and ‘open’, electronically offered, course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge run by Stephen Downes of Canada’s National Research Council and George Siemens, then of the University of Manitoba. 100 times more participants signed up than expected. A 2011 MOOC at Stanford University that attracted 160,000 participants is said to have been the event that showed the creators of the acronym that the ‘M’ really meant ‘massive’ - and on a global scale. There was a market for MOOCs.

The defining and distinctive aspects of most MOOCs are that they are free to the student, that no previous academic qualifications are assumed or demanded, that numbers taking part have no limit, and that students, of any age, can be anywhere in the world. Participants just need a computer and a sufficiently up-to-date internet browser and software to view the material and interact with the course. Usually there will be no formal accreditation from the providing school for participation, though students can sometimes apply to receive a certificate of completion. MOOCs are mostly provided via platforms such as the US-based Coursera, EdX, NovoEd and Udacity and the British-based FutureLearn.

MOOCs vs. online learning

Paul Stacey of Creative Commons, which provides support and infrastructure for the digital sharing of knowledge, see the origins of the MOOC spirit of open access in previous educational initiatives such as the Open University (OU), founded in 1969 in the UK as a distance learning and research university. “While not completely ‘free’ to the user, like MOOCs, the OU has always had an open entry policy with previous academic history not taken into account for most undergraduate courses,” he observes.

If the spirit of the MOOC is ‘open’ and ‘free’, its pedagogical roots are in distance learning, much of which is today also done online and which provides learning for schools developing MOOCs. There are still differences in the two forms though: most conventional distance/online courses must be paid for, students need to fulfil certain criteria and be individually accepted onto the programmes, so the size is controlled, and they will usually be formally examined and earn a part or full qualification, accredited by the school.
According to Kip Becker at Boston University Metropolitan College (BU MET), one of the world’s largest providers of online business education, (since long before the MOOC was born,) “studying business has always led the way in this respect, with one-third of the nearly three million online students pursuing business degrees. But,” he warns, “with most MOOC and online-offering institutions building on their years of experience, it will become ever harder for newcomers. Institutions feel that they do not want to be ‘left out’ of the online model in the short term and want to profit from the perceived benefits; the question ‘how do we get involved?’ is now widely heard and it is becoming a real problem for many schools.”

The issues

According to Bertrand Guilloti of Duke University, Fuqua School of Business and Vincent Mangematin of Grenoble École de Management, between 2011 and 2013, “close to 100 leading universities and business schools have launched 450 costly MOOCs and enrolled almost five million students.” They observe that “those elite schools that are launching MOOCs are creating a new standard for business education, in the same way they did with the case study teaching method decades ago.”

The perception of the student audience is also changing, as Kip Becker at BU MET comments: “The whole traditional concept of education is being questioned; perceptions of the value of the instructor are changing. Students will increasingly ask bricks and mortar institutions what they are actually getting for the high cost of face-to-face programmes that they can’t get online for free.”

What’s in it for the school?

So, each business school needs to rigorously assess whether to ‘follow’ the pioneering leaders and join the MOOC movement, if it has not already taken that step. MOOCs have undoubtedly exciting and enticing aspects; the potential for leading faculty to have an impact worldwide with a completely new audience, the possibility, in the competitive global higher education space, to communicate the school’s brand worldwide, the satisfaction gained from the element of ‘corporate social responsibility’ and philanthropy inherent in the MOOC: allowing participants who would never be able to attend – or afford – an on-campus programme to profit from a related educational experience from a reputable institution.

Institutional strategy

Pankaj Ghemawat on CourseraBefore considering the teaching method or delivery, a school needs to consider whether the step into MOOCs fits within the institution’s strategic objectives. Pankaj Ghemawat of IESE Business School, offers Globalization of Business Enterprise, on the Coursera platform. (Ghemawat includes case studies in the course and in the next issue of Connect we will be taking a more in-depth look at using case studies online.) The decision to develop the course was taken with strategic institutional support: “Brand preservation is an important factor in such a decision; we – like others – have to try to figure out the potential of the online educational space, and we can learn about it by doing it,” he says. Here, Ghemawat highlights the inherent risks involved in taking a first step into the MOOC space: a course needs to live up to the school’s brand in content, technology and delivery, the latter two of which, in particular, will usually require special expertise and investment in, often new, resources by the school.

Individual inspiration

Even when an institution is supportive of the idea, creating an online course or MOOC almost always depends on the engagement, vision and commitment of one or more individual(s), not just in developing the content but in assuring and coordinating the appropriate technical and moderating backup before, during, and after it runs. Michael Lenox at the Darden School of Business offers Foundations of Business Strategy on Coursera and also includes cases. He remembers his own curiosity about the idea of creating a MOOC when it was first suggested at the school. On reflection, he quickly realised that he had materials that would adapt well to the online medium. “But,” he warns, “the idea that every university could put every course online is not realistic; schools need to decide exactly why they would choose to offer a MOOC.”

Pedagogy and the case method

Paul Stacey at Creative Commons observes that “the drive to make use of the internet and to explore innovations pedagogically is a fundamental motivator for many schools to become engaged in MOOCs.”
Many business programmes are unthinkable without the inclusion of cases, even as part of a rich teaching mix and institutions are often identified as ‘case-teaching schools’. But, the effectiveness of the case method is particularly associated with the face-to-face element of a classroom, and the direct interaction between a facilitating instructor and a group of participants, whose background he/she knows. Faculty can feel hesitant to explore MOOC engagement because they feel it is not possible to adapt a case class to the mass participation, online format. Because the real-time element of a case discussion is often regarded as of central importance, the asynchronous nature of most MOOCs may also deter them and it is certainly a challenge; ie the student, regardless of time zone or life commitments, can do the course work at his/her convenience and not just when it is actually posted, or when the instructor is ‘live’. But through innovative thinking and use of cutting-edge forum technology, this, like other issues can be satisfactorily resolved and something new created.

Indeed, pioneering work and innovation is taking place adapting the case method to the online space and specifically for MOOCs, differentiated mainly by their vast participant numbers. Cases can be made to work – and can represent a new pedagogical opportunity. Considerable input of time, thought and experimentation are required and instructors are constantly learning from their experiences. For IESE’s Pankaj Ghemawat, the lack of instructor ‘control’ is one of the most challenging aspects: “it is not possible to track and respond to everything,” he says, “I have found it important to simplify and shorten case videos and materials, and to enable participating students to be more self-directed than they would be in a conventional class.” He locates some of the problems in the MOOC platforms, which he feels are still not really designed for collaborative learning, though they are improving all the time.

Michael Lenox on CourseraMichael Lenox at Darden concurs: “In online teaching, improvement in production values has been extraordinary over the last 10 years and especially the last two, however” he says, “it remains to be established whether learning actually gets better with higher quality materials.” He also confirms that managing the class discussion on the vast MOOC scale is difficult. “Confidence is required for the instructor to sometimes ‘let go’ of the discussion, as though he/she were going in and out of the classroom, handing it over to the students,” he says. But a pedagogically valuable discussion can still occur, especially with strategic input from moderators. “Clearly,” he says, “it is difficult to replicate in a MOOC what happens in the Darden case classroom. The online experience will never be as rich, and the traditional threat of the ‘cold call’ cannot happen in the same way, for example, with its drama and necessity for students to study the case in advance. But there can still be great value added for online participants.”

According to Mark Fenton-O’Creevy of the OU Business School: “The most common mistake is to try and create an online course by doing the same things you do face-to-face. There is in fact a lot that can be done better online. What is really important is to think carefully about what each medium of communication is good for and to design the learning to take best advantage of the communication media available.”

Cost and return on investment

With all the pedagogical innovation and development required, schools underestimate at their peril the significant financial investment in people and technologies required for a MOOC in order to ensure online quality commensurate with their brand, and an optimal user experience. MOOC-offering schools, like online providers, have created whole media departments to innovate and develop materials, and recruited teams of editors and moderators who monitor the progress of courses, interact with the students as required, and connect back to the instructor. A whole new level of institutional administration and infrastructure is required.

The issue of how the MOOC platforms themselves are financed may become an issue for schools in the future. Most, though ‘backed’ by academic institutions, are, essentially, for-profit organisations, currently funded by venture capital and corporations. At some point, a return on financial investment will be required, which may have implications for the essential ‘open and free’ aspect of the MOOC – questioning the fundamental justification for many schools to be involved in the first place.

Measuring success

Where costs are high, the need for schools to justify expenditure is all the greater. If reaching vast numbers of new people for education is the prime objective, most MOOCs to date will be judged to have succeeded. There is a debate around whether the people MOOCs were theoretically intended for are actually the ones taking the courses; research suggests that a significant percentage already have a degree, for example.

If, however, course completion is selected as the main determinant of success, schools will be largely disappointed. The most frequent critique of MOOCs is the issue of drop-outs; on most courses, the overwhelming majority of course takers fail to complete. Indeed, on some MOOCs, a significant percentage of people simply sign up and never actually look at the course itself. Increasing completion rates is a major concern for those schools already offering courses. Some feel that accreditation from the offering school might help, but this brings with it very fundamental questions and dilemmas for schools including redefining the added value of on-campus education for which a charge is made, and the problem of identifying and authenticating online students. Udacity had recently announced a strategic collaboration that will enable students to be authenticated and completion certificates to be awarded – but no longer for free.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that employers ‘like’ MOOC participation in job applicants, and some corporations are integrating them in staff development. This trend may impact positively on take-up and completion levels, though business school executive education programmes could conceivably become a casualty. Each school must decide whether or not these things matter and to what extent.

What's ahead?

Ultimately the outlook seems positive: most faculty already involved want to repeat the experience and to keep learning from it: “The MOOC is here to stay,” says Creative Commons’ Paul Stacey. “Are MOOCs currently failing here and there? Yes. Can they get better? Definitely.” He delivers a challenge to schools: “It boils down to how you effectively teach thousands of students simultaneously, and to developing real innovation in the pedagogy – not just the technology – discovering how to make the learning rich,” a message that will particularly resonate with faculty and schools wanting to build cases into MOOCs. There is no doubt that an opportunity exists for the widespread use of cases online and we will explore this in more detail in the next issue of Connect.

Share your views

What do you think? Do you have your own views MOOCs and how they will impact on the future of business education? How will approaches to the case method need to evolve accordingly? Have your say!

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