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Beyond the Hype, Schools Chart a MOOC-Tinted Future

In a joint report, the Big Ten universities analyze the potential of MOOC platforms to improve instruction across member schools and extend the reach of a powerful brand.

Early this year, it appeared as if MOOCs were going to blast through higher education like a wrecking ball. Pundits issued dire warnings about the competitive threat posed by massive online open courses, and some schools quickly launched MOOC degree programs as part of a first-to-market strategy. While it's too soon to say whether MOOCs will live up to this early hype--there are signs that some of the ardor may already be cooling--even the most conservative institutions of higher education definitely sat up and took notice.

Instead of existential handwringing, though, many schools have taken a studiously methodical approach to studying how MOOCs--or variations thereof--could complement their existing educational offerings. This was one of the motivations behind a seven-page report, entitled Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework, compiled in June by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), an academic consortium of the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago (IL).

In the document, the CIC goes out of its way to downplay some of the very assumptions that have garnered MOOCs so much attention. "The main drivers of innovation in higher education are not simply a function of what is technologically feasible," the overview states. "The ability to project a course online such that hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands can tune in is not, in and of itself, a means for extending educational opportunity to millions of potential students.'"

Instead, the report continues, the focus should rest on "the fundamental academic values and pedagogical principles that need to be infused in these emerging instructional technologies." In short, the emphasis must remain on the message, not the medium. Nevertheless, it does appear that the advent of MOOCs represented something of a V-8 moment for the CIC—a collective head-slap about the potential of technology to remake higher education, albeit in ways yet to be determined.

One of the key questions that the CIC hopes to answer is what the group might attempt on its own, and what "extramural" partners could provide. "I can't imagine that any university would entrust its educational mission to an outside company," said Karen Partlow, CIC's senior associate director. "However, they are not against partnering."
Several of the CIC schools have already forged experimental partnerships with online course providers including Coursera, Udacity, and Pearson. In addition, CIC is engaged in a small online pilot with 2U to deliver instruction in less commonly taught languages to students at members schools. The CIC is planning a December meeting between its member provosts and leaders of these outside vendors to learn more about how these partnerships are working. 

Laying a Foundation
Issues of concern revolve around two primary areas: the platform and content. In identifying possible next steps, the CIC report asks: "Do CIC members need to contract with external partners to provide technology platforms and support, or could a CIC consortium develop and share the costs of technologies and services…?"

While no decisions have been made, Partlow is under no illusions about the difficulty of developing an in-house platform to deliver courses at scale. While traditional learning management systems used to be hosted locally, she noted, today's MOOC platforms are cloud-based services with rapidly evolving feature sets. "Higher education is not set up to be quickly responsive to the marketplace," said Partlow. "Students in higher education are critical consumers. When you've got universities that can't respond quickly, they are not going to be able to develop the whistles and bells that outside companies can develop."

Even if CIC ultimately decides not to develop a new platform from scratch, it does have options for creating a solution customized to its needs. Among the major MOOC players, edX has made its code open source, allowing schools to adopt and adapt the platform as they see fit.

"As a nonprofit, edX…has made its platform available as open source, so developers at any institution who want to use the platform will be able to use it to host their own courses," said Nancy Moss, director of communications at edX. "We have put a lot of engineering resources into developing the edX platform."

The open source aspect of edX is what prompted the University of Texas, which is not a CIC member, to choose it as its online learning platform, according to Steven Mintz, executive director of the school's Institute for Transformational Learning. In his view, building a platform from scratch is a complete nonstarter. "It's an expensive undertaking," he noted. "No single campus, no matter how wealthy, could afford to do it all."

Role of MOOC Content
On the other hand, the courses offered by edX or any of the other providers were simply of no interest to UT. "These are hosting platforms, not course developers—at least not for us," he explained. "The courses are entirely developed by us."

Cognizant of the value of their individual and collective brands, the CIC schools are likewise not in the market to import courses from outside the consortium. Instead, the focus appears to be on how they can leverage their own courses across CIC and globally. The CIC report asks: "Can there be a nationally and globally visible CIC consortium for innovation and excellence in online and blended education—one that collaborates through shared courses that benefit students at member institutions, internally, and which collectively offers, and certifies, a world-class suite of courses and degree options available to students externally?"

The reports goes on to elaborate on the possibilities of cooperation among CIC schools: "How can CIC schools also collaborate through course sharing to support degree programs that are housed within particular schools but draw from course offerings at others? How can this 'best of the best' element enhance the quality and popularity of those programs?"

The CIC report asks as many questions as it answers, but it reflects a growing awareness that the kind of technological advances exemplified by the major MOOC providers have potential utility far beyond the kind of million-man MOOC that whipped up media interest back in 2012. In its summary, the CIC report states: "New technologies and course redesign present higher education, in general, with an opportunity to improve instructional quality, enhance student learning outcomes, and extend the reach of campus instructional offerings."

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