Saving Universities in the Era of MOOCs: How Service-Oriented Schools can Add Value in the Online Learning Boom

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This past year has brought a massive amount of attention to Massive Open Online Courses, and much speculation about what they mean for traditional institutions of learning. The education and technology blogosphere have been breathlessly predicting the end of the world for traditional, brick-and-mortar universities and colleges as elite institutions like MIT, Stanford, Harvard and the University of California throw their weighty reputations behind low cost online courses from Udacity, Coursera, EdX, and Canvas Network. At the same time, sage edtech watchers like Audrey Watters and Michael Feldstein caution that we may be permanently dismantling much that is good in education as we try to keep up with the VC-funded race to give away high quality instruction for free to the masses. To understand the terrain we’re entering, it helps to talk about the value proposition that traditional schools have provided to students, and discuss how the new economics of online learning might disrupt that.

The Value Proposition of the Traditional University

Traditional universities provide four main functions that have historically made them worth the high price of admission for students:

  1. Access to High Quality Educational Content
  2. Guidance Towards Content Mastery
  3. Certification of Mastery (“Your Diploma”)
  4. Institutional Relationships & Career Placement

Let’s talk about each of these functions in depth….

Access to High Quality Educational Content

Before the Internet, schools and universities were the best places to find high quality books and knowledgeable people who could lecture to you about them. If you wanted to join a community of learners who were passionate about ideas, the best place to find them was lingering in the dorm halls of elite schools. The pre-Internet Era was a time of relative information scarcity and institutions of higher learning were the only places where you could freely immerse yourself in the greatest works by the greatest minds. Now in the age of the Internet, access to high quality information is as close as your smartphone, where anyone, anywhere can instantly dial up the greatest works of mankind and find communities of interested people to discuss them with. In short, it’s now an age of information abundance, and colleges no longer hold a monopoly on high quality content.

The Internet’s broad democratization of information means that this first function of the university- to provide high quality content– is growing less unique and less valuable.

Delivering content is one thing that MOOCs can do very well. An online course (or any website really) can be used to organize relevant readings, videos, photos, and experiences into compelling ways to consume educational content. You don’t need to pay a Ph.D $100,000 a year to come repeat their old lectures every Tuesday and Thursday- now you can record those lectures, host them for free on YouTube, and guide students through them in a sequenced online course (running free software, might I add). In this paradigm, consumers (students) can shop for the best lectures available on any given subject rather than being limited to only the content experts who happened to be lecturing in a nearby school. If you think “teaching” means “lecturing”, then yes- it may be the end of the world as you know it. Universities will not be able to sustain their futures by producing only high quality lectures without paying attention to the other more valuable services that universities can offer students.

Guidance Towards Content Mastery

Another critical piece of the value proposal of the traditional university is guidance towards mastery of the materials. This is the next step after giving students access to information- this is the stage where you help them understand it. It’s the difference between plopping a stack of books on the table vs. creating learning experiences that will help students to retain knowledge and think critically about content. If there is a difference between “lecturers” and “educators”, it’s that lecturers create content while educators guide students to mastery of content. Lecturers work mainly with ideas while educators work mainly with people.

The educator in a post-MOOC world does not necessarily need to be a content expert or a great lecturer. (Remember, we can watch great video lectures from the world’s best content experts for free online!) The best Neuropathology lecturer in Oakland is now in direct competition with the best Neuropathology lecturer at Johns Hopkins, MIT, or Stanford. Increasingly, we may turn to content luminaries over mere content experts for our lectures, but we will still need great educators to help students engage with that content and master the concepts.

The post-MOOC educator is someone who can skillfully find and curate the best materials available into coherent, appealing learning experiences that actively engage students. This person facilitates interactions around content between students, and actively engages students in one-on-one or small group interactions. The post-MOOC educator is constantly using data collection tools like the LMS, clickers, and frequent online quizzes to collect information on student mastery of objectives, and using that data to do targeted interventions when students fail to master an outcome. Guidance towards mastery means teachers offering office hours for one-on-one help, setting up labs and projects for students to learn by doing, and offering academic support services for students who need special assistance due to learning disabilities, language barriers, or other challenges. Even peer learners can be a valuable resource in helping college students meet the challenge of consuming and retaining new information.

This is a necessarily “high-touch” approach to education, and it is still a weak spot for MOOCs, which tend to sacrifice personalized attention for scalability. Schools that can provide high quality teaching practice and robust support services- especially to struggling students- will be able to compete with MOOCs for the large percentage of students who require a structured environment to learn. In short, schools that differentiate based on the level of support services will have a competitive advantage with students who require those services to succeed.

Certification of Mastery (“Your Diploma”)

The third reason why a higher education has traditionally been worth the high cost of admission was for the diploma. Diplomas are a way for a university to confer their reputation upon a student, saying “this student has met all of our requirements for mastery in this subject”. The reputation of that institution is dependent on the quality of graduates it produces, so they have an incentive to ensure that the students who achieve a diploma are highly qualified to succeed in their field. Similarly, the student has a strong incentive to achieve a degree from a prestigious institution, as it opens up opportunities for employment that would otherwise be unavailable.

For employers, this conferral of status from the institution to the student has traditionally been a “faith-based” endeavor, rather than one based on explicit data. An employer may see from your resume which institution you went to, and which courses you took and your grades (from your transcripts)– they do not see the actual work products you created to earn those grades. They accepted on faith that whatever work you produced was good enough that your teachers gave you passing grades.

As the cost of a university education simultaneously grows more expensive and less likely to lead to a job, people are looking for alternative ways for job seekers to show qualifications to employers. The Mozilla Open Badges project is a way for students in non-traditional educational settings to demonstrate mastery of core concepts. It presupposes a future where learning is decoupled from the traditional institution, where students rather work their way through focused skills-based tutorials (like Mozilla’s own Peer to Peer University) and earn certificates for the specific skills and knowledge they master. Their certification is not a diploma, but a list of badges that correspond to core skills required of a professional in a given industry.

Another option taking hold in schools, portfolio-based assessment aims to connect student assessment with presentable work products that show mastery of course skills and knowledge. In this new paradigm, students collect and display their best work publicly as evidence that they have mastered relevant, marketable skills that employers want. Portfolios are a recommended addition to the traditional resume because they provide rich, tangible evidence of the kind of work products potential applicants are capable of producing.

Overall this trend towards transparency in assessment is a ‘market correction’, where the veil is pulled back from our existing system of mysterious grading and graduation criteria.

Though this is changing, the majority of MOOC courses making headlines today do not lead to a diploma. Even though a student may access lectures and learning materials from the most celebrated minds in academia, those institutions are not conferring the status of their elite brands onto MOOC students. Students may access the course content, but the methods for certifying student achievement do not gracefully scale to classes of several thousand students at a time.

Traditional educational institutions looking to survive a post-MOOC world still have an advantage that they alone provide diplomas as certification, but for how much longer? We have an opportunity to prepare students now for the increasing transparency that comes with ad-hoc, internet based learning activities. Traditional schools should start moving towards assessment practices which show public evidence of students’ best work within the context of the learning outcomes that the institution requires for mastery.

Institutional Relationships & Career Placement

The final reason students pay the high price of tuition at prestigious institutions is for the formalized relationships those schools have with industry groups. Schools that are able to place students in prime internships, host industry conferences, engage in high-profile research projects, and activate their influential alumni networks bring real economic value to their students. Even technical and vocational schools tend to maintain close relationships with industry partners to feed their best graduates directly into the workforce.

It’s surprising, then, that many bricks-and-mortar schools do not even collect job placement rates, and those that do report that there are no agreed-upon standards for calculating such numbers. Pursuing graduates with requests for this type of data is time-intensive, results in extremely low response rates, and pose a self-selection bias in the numbers. Additionally, in these tough economic times, publishing the real statistics may be too embarrassing for universities who want to portray their graduates as successful and desirable.

MOOC providers such as Coursera and Udacity are experimenting with this value proposition by matching potential employers with students who earn high scores in MOOC courses. A participating biotech firm may review an anonymized list of student performance data, express interest in a high-performing student, and the student is given the option to be introduced with the firm. The MOOC provider takes a percentage, the student gets job opportunities, and the firm gets access to high-quality talent for less than a headhunter’s fees.

This relationship depends on large volumes of granular data about student performance. “With Coursera,… each keystroke, quiz, peer-to-peer discussion and self-graded assignment builds an unprecedented pool of data on how knowledge is processed.” (, 2012). While traditional educational institutions are moving slowly towards transparent, competency-based assessment, MOOC providers are collecting data on every aspect of teaching and learning, and using that data to improve learning outcomes. Interestingly, both Udacity and Coursera report that students with the “softer skills” of thoughtful, frequent, and helpful comments in course discussion postings are “a better predictor of placement success than academic performance” (Chronicle, 2012).

Institutions that want to compete in a post-MOOC world need to have a good answer to the question “how do I know I’ll get a job after I’ve gone to your school?” This may require innovation in the way your school collects data on post-graduation employment, strengthening ties to your alumni and industry partners, and experimenting with MOOC-style employment ‘matchmaking’. Whatever the methods institutions choose, there is an opportunity to provide a significant value proposition over MOOCs if your school can reliably connect graduates with desirable careers upon graduation.


We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to free, high quality learning content on the internet. MOOCS are one way of organizing that content into a coherent learning experience for students, but they suffer from a low level of interaction, support, and quality control. The lack of high-quality interaction between students and instructors means that certifying student mastery of learning outcomes (in the form of course credits or diplomas) is not yet possible. The low level of interaction possible in MOOCs also means that students who require significant support cannot currently compete in these classes. MOOC technology (like the LMS tools already common in higher ed.) provides the tantalizing possibility of generating granular data on student performance, which could help universities pair qualified graduates with interested employers.

The schools that survive the MOOC revolution will not be able to compete with free MOOCs on price, but they will be able to compete on service, support, educational quality, and career counseling.

We can see that the university of the future will be able to spend less time and resources creating and repeating original lectures for in-person students. It can be more efficient by actively curating the best open educational resources, videos, and lesson plans from the millions of open licensed works available. Faculty content experts will be able to lecture on the topics they know best, and use lectures by other luminaries in their fields of expertise.

Instructors can spend less time creating and delivering lectures, and more time collecting and analyzing data on student achievement of educational outcomes. They can collaborate with instructional designers to create authentic learning experiences that promote critical thinking around course concepts, and develop high quality assessments that stimulate critical thinking. They can have frequent, focused consultations with each student to clarify misconceptions and challenge thinking. This “high touch” approach, currently impossible with MOOCs, will result in better educational outcomes than the “listen and regurgitate” method common in free online courses.


Supporting Online Education for the Rest of Us

It’s telling that the leaders of the MOOC movement are made up of the world’s most elite universities- MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley- schools that are able to select only the brightest, most motivated and highly prepared students. These students are able to perform at a high level even when their teachers do not follow best teaching practices. The great majority of students do not fit this profile- many of them require remediation, disability services, and academic support to achieve mastery of content.

Every year in the United States, nearly 60% of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies. –


Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun learned this lesson the hard way when they offered entry level MOOCs at San Jose State University. The courses suffered abysmal completion rates, and even lower pass rates. “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.” (Fast Company, 2013).

These SJSU students represent the new normal in American higher ed– students who are the first in their family to attend college, who require additional academic remediation and support to successfully compete in college. This type of student is less confident in an academic setting and depends on high rates of interpersonal interactions and robust support to do their best work. MOOCs are not well-equipped to meet the needs of these learners, but universities have the personnel and services that can help these students to be successful.


This is not to mention the persistent lack of critical thinking instruction in higher ed. and what it will take to reverse the status quo:

The general consensus is that the educational system has not performed well in consistently producing critical thinkers (Barbuto, 2000Burbach et al., 2004del Bueno, 2005Lizzio & Wilson, 2007Paul, 2005Pithers & Soden, 2000).

The dirty little secret is that too many bricks-and-mortar schools are offering course experiences that could be reproduced by a machine. Too many courses at top universities consist of teachers lecturing, students reading and taking multiple-choice exams. The last way schools can offer greater value than MOOCs is to develop faculty proficiency in recognizing and promoting higher order thinking skills around course content.

Stay tuned for Part II of this post where I will discuss how we can use existing online course tools in the context of face-to-face courses to promote critical thinking.


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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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