If MOOCs achieve their wildest dreams--huge enrollments of students taking courses for free that grant college credit, then institutions that charge large tuitions will be hurt. But MOOCs are far from those dreams. While a few courses have massive enrollments, a tiny proportion of students complete them. The quality of the course content is uncertain, and the pedagogical assumptions behind them are flawed, at least if what we think we know about the power of active learning is true. MOOCs offer individual courses, not well thought-through curricula that lead to higher-level learning outcomes. And MOOCs don't have a business model that works for the simple reason that free things don't earn the money required to create them. In this, MOOCs are not unlike shareware and social networks--both things that consumers can use for free but which seek to earn income.
It is here--at the intersection of MOOCs' prominence and their weakness, that small colleges who wish to engage with MOOCs (as opposed to ignoring them or demeaning their popularity) can act. So the question is how small colleges can respond to MOOCs in a way that takes advantage of their prominence and the expertise of small colleges. Here are a few thoughts:
- Provide academic support to students who enroll in MOOCs. Any traditional institution that lost more than 90 percent of the students in a class before it ended would shut down. And so small colleges have figured out how to ensure that students stay enrolled, not just for a single course but through to graduation. They do so by providing academic support--discussions, tutoring, advising, and evaluation to track student learning. MOOC students who are serious about learning would be anxious to have this sort of support.
- Provide feedback, evaluation, and improvements for MOOCs. One of the dangers of using famous faculty to teach MOOCs is that famous faculty get their fame from excellence in research, not (usually) in provoking student learning. MOOC providers (and other edtech entrepreneurs) have not tended to study student learning or to design their work based on measurable outcomes. In other words, online providers of education haven't given attention to quality control. Colleges and universities have spent the better part of the past twenty years building courses to achieve certain educational outcomes. That expertise is sorely needed in the world of MOOCs.
- Use MOOCs to fill gaps in their own curricula. Students at small colleges experience curricular gaps in three ways: the school does not offer a particular course because it lack faculty expertise in that area, courses are offered rarely so students who need to take a course can't get it, or students develop curiosity in an area where there is no course. MOOCs could fill those gaps more easily and less expensively than hiring an adjunct, assigning overload to a faculty member, or hiring a new faculty line. So if a student wants a course in, say, East African history, let her take a MOOC. more broadly, MOOCs could be a way to round out the curriculum for intensely focused schools. If you run a music conservatory, for example, use MOOCs to fill out general education.
- Use MOOCs for remediation. A large proportion of college students need remediation which institutions supply by offering lots of sections of college algebra, for example. The quality of these courses vary among instructors (often adjuncts), and the cost to the institution (faculty lines, classroom space, etc.) and to students (uncertain quality, the need to repeat, slowing the path to graduation) make remediation a big issue. But if an institution selected a MOOC in, say, remedial English (or built a curriculum in math through the Khan Academy's YouTube lessons) consistency of content would improve, students could progress at their own speed, and the cost to the institution would go down.
- Use MOOCs to assure the quality of prior knowledge. Colleges already accept massive amounts of transfer credit. The quality of some of it is very good. But other sources--concurrent enrollment, for example--provide prior learning of uncertain quality. Add to this fact that ever more students will come to traditional colleges with credit from for-profit universities, corporate training, and military service. Many schools deny students credit for that experience. but a school which wanted to welcome students who had learned in those settings might ask prospective students to work through a MOOC for free, and use their success in the MOOC as a rationale for granting credit for prior learning. MOOCs thus become a real tool for access to higher education, not a tool for avoiding the wisdom built into enrolling full-time in a college.