Behind MOOCs: What are They Worth to Higher Education and Students?

JeffPomerantz2Headshot-20130218.jpgAfter offering the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Metadata: Organizing and Discovering Information on Coursera in 2013, University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Library and Information Science, Associate Professor Jeffrey Pomerantz '97LS has taught more students in one MOOC than he has throughout his twelve-year career in academia. With random strangers approaching him in airports and at conferences since he offered the class, Pomerantz has achieved YouTube-quality celebrity.

Although faculty may enjoy their star status and ability to connect with students worldwide, are MOOCs a worthwhile investment for academic institutions? 

"Since higher education institutions have different priorities, it is difficult to say what the return on investment of MOOCs will be," says Pomerantz. Some schools may use them as a marketing tool to enhance their reputation as an innovator, while others may have philanthropic intentions. Yet he believes that higher education has not yet tapped the recruiting potential offered by MOOCs. First, colleges can attract the best students worldwide by offering scholarships to those who score the highest on assessments but lack the resources to attend college. For example, Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence course, which was the first MOOC offered, discovered that the class's top performers were not Stanford students. Although most students participating in MOOCs are from the United States, Europe, and India, Coursera co-founder and Stanford University Professor Daphne Koller said at a Duke University talk that students have registered in every part of the world, except North Korea. In addition, introductory courses in a variety of topics can be taught via MOOC, which can cut costs for college students, if they are able to receive credit.   

Yet creating a MOOC is not cheap. The cost to develop, implement, and launch a MOOC from scratch is about $20,000, which includes staff and technical resources. As Pomerantz says, "you cannot do improv as you can in a classroom" -- the MOOC experience caused him to re-configure the instruction, design, and pedagogy of the course. Although companies such as Coursera, edx, and Udacity provide the online platform, they each have different requirements from their partner institutions. For example, Coursera's platform allows instructors to embed quizzes in videos to assess student performance. The partner institution is responsible for the course content and technical production, including video shooting, editing, post-production, and uploading of the completed video files. In addition to collaborating with UNC's teaching and learning division department, Pomerantz hired library students to assist with developing quiz and homework questions, to moderate message boards, and to handle post-production. However, edX is known for providing more instructional design support than do the other MOOC platforms.

With these costs in mind, are the skills and knowledge gained from MOOCs worth students' time and effort? I participated in Pomerantz's eight-week course, interviewed him about it over the phone, and met him in person at DPLAfest, where he co-presented with Professor Robin Peek. In full disclosure, I signed up for Pomerantz's MOOC with minimum expectations about the time I could invest in it. Although the "advanced undergraduate" MOOC course mentioned that about six to eight hours a week could be expected to complete the coursework, I initially planned to spend about one to two hours a week on the course. Yet I wound up investing more time in the free MOOC than I anticipated. The easy user interface, engaging delivery, and thoughtful course content -- which included interviews with a variety of experts, including Pandora's Manager of Music Operations -- compelled me to invest the six to eight hours a week in the course. I was able to directly apply the course teachings to my GSLIS LIS 488 Technology for Information Professionals class and a consulting job for a clinical documentation and analytics company.

In addition, the chance to develop an international network of people with diverse talents, backgrounds, and similar interests was like discovering a clandestine group to rival an Ivy League social circle. Within days of the MOOC's launch, proactive classmates established a Facebook page and LinkedIn group, which are still in use months later despite the course's completion. Students formed weekly online study groups to discuss various topics. One student shared her comprehensive weekly notes with the entire class. Information scientists, librarians, web and metadata specialists, and researchers in a variety of disciplines from all over the world thoughtfully and constructively led and contributed to discussions. Students were able to solicit advice from hundreds of experts in the field. Although Pomerantz did not sponsor or run any of the course's social media sites, the MOOC networking experience was unparalleled to anything I had experienced in a virtual or physical classroom before.

Production value is debated among MOOC creators. "They don't want the video to look cheap, but they also don't want the look of a corporate video. Some have found personal touches to be effective," says Pomerantz.  Although the Coursera platform was intuitive and the video quality was professional, I later learned that some of Pomerantz's video shooting took place in his children's closet, which was costumed with a black fabric drape purchased from a local crafts store. 

Yet the breadth of how much content can be covered in a MOOC is limited by several factors. MOOCs do not offer resources that can be accessed through the partner institution's library subscriptions. Pomerantz said trying to use a particular text in a MOOC requires negotiating with the publisher. In addition, some students may not be able to access or afford resources based on their location and financial situation. However, in Pomerantz's MOOC, editor Robert Glushko of the suggested book The Discipline of Organizing was able to negotiate a 30% discount with the publisher, MIT Press, for students in the course. "If the purpose for MOOCS is a philanthropic endeavor, open access to resources should be part of the package," says Pomerantz, who is a vocal advocate of open access and a digital libraries specialist. In addition, there are technical limitations: he learned that you cannot direct 30,000 students simultaneously to a proxy server as it can cause the site to crash.

A MOOC is also held for a limited time and offers a condensed overview of a topic. Pomerantz taught a fifteen-week metadata course for UNC library and information science students simultaneously with the MOOC. UNC students were expected to complete the MOOC and all of the exercises, receive a statement of accomplishment, complete two additional intensive assignments, and read assigned texts. "Comparing a paid higher education course and a MOOC is like comparing apples and oranges. I can't require MOOC students to read or do anything," he says. He noted that his UNC students had a higher level of performance than MOOC students because the assignment structure was different. "The UNC students had their hands forced to get a MOOC certificate as it was part of their evaluation for a paid, graded course that would count toward their degree. I did not have the same incentives for MOOC students. They had to be highly self-motivated to complete the course."

"MOOCs cause you to question the value of higher education when we uncouple learning from certification," Pomerantz says. Students are already experimenting with new forms of higher education. For example, the Degree of Freedom blog documents four years of college courses taken in one year via various MOOC platforms. Yet the credits could not be applied toward a degree. Universities have also examined what people are willing to pay for in higher education. In addition to a degree, face time with professors and students has value. While Pomerantz believes topics like metadata lend themselves to MOOC-style teaching better than others, such as user instruction, the content also needs to lend itself well to student performance evaluation.

Although Pomerantz offers comprehensive participation and drop-out rates (90% is average), descriptive data, and statistics about the MOOC on his blog, unanswered questions exist about how MOOCs contribute to student learning.  For example, measuring student achievement in MOOCs requires additional research. "How do students achieve success in a MOOC? What does it mean to complete a MOOC? How do we evaluate what students are getting out of it?" asks Pomerantz.

After completing the individual assessments, I received a 94.7% and a Statement of Accomplishment, which I posted to my LinkedIn profile. Yet what does this mean to anyone? While employers may appreciate that students or employees have participated in MOOCs to gain valuable skills or knowledge, credentials still count. A MOOC Statement of Accomplishment may still not be a substitute for academic credentials for those seeking entrance into a new profession or looking to change a career path.      

Although MOOCs may not be a practicable replacement for six-digit investments in higher education, the courses are valuable resources that allow students to develop skills, enhance their knowledge, and expand their horizons. Pomerantz does not believe MOOCs will be replacing faculty anytime soon. Since "the shelf-life of an information science course is short, it's important to modify courses over time as interpretations change and new developments occur."

MOOCs are an expensive proposition for academic institutions in today's financially constrained climate. Only a few library and information schools have offered them. Pomerantz believes "every information science school should offer a MOOC to stay in touch with the times. MOOCs are perceived as innovative and cutting-edge in higher education. The question is, what can information science schools learn from doing this cutting-edge thing?"

Pomerantz knows that the "honeymoon" with MOOCs will eventually end, and looks forward to seeing how higher education will sustain them. While the different MOOC platforms run on consortium arrangements, revenue-sharing with instructors, or venture capital funding, time will tell which ones will survive.

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer

Alumnae/i News | Feature story | Infolink Newsletter | March 2014