04/24/2013 04:27 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Toward Sustainable MOOCs

MOOCS continue to dominate discussions regarding technology, access and cost. The degree to which they can be seen as sustainable appears to be receding as a concern. A variety of applications and business models have started to emerge. From what I have been able to learn, these now include:

• Delivery of state-of-the-art continuing education. This is their highest and best application to date in the eyes of some.

• Providing access to a form of 21st century textbooks, as Nick Anderson of the Washington Post and Joseph Harris, a visiting professor at Duke, have observed. Not only do they provide reputation-enhancing visibility for faculty, they also aggregate more eyeballs than is typical for most printed texts. There is every reason to expect that the publishing industry will soon be using MOOCs as a way to draw attention to their new releases.

• They help institutions market programs that may have difficulty getting noticed otherwise. Boston's Berklee College of Music, for instance, is using a MOOC as the equivalent of a "free sample" for a larger credentialing program that prospective students might not otherwise know about. Once they have "sampled" the nature of the offering, the program that follows will carry full price and be delivered in a more "traditional" online format.

• Institutional branding also benefits from the perception that "name" schools are seeking to share their excellence broadly and for free, especially outside of the U.S. where 60-70% of past MOOC participants reside. Given that over half of the world's population is under the age of 25, the open access of MOOCs is likely to increase in importance.

• As the leadership of edX has publicly stated, their MOOCs are something of an "experiment," conducted primarily to inform research around effective pedagogy and the integration of technology into the learning process. Others have suggested that this form of instruction is providing a remarkable diffusion of innovation. Institutions that were formerly very skeptical about "traditional" forms of online learning have been captivated by the prospect of embracing a model that has been validated by America's best known institutions.

• Finally, and perhaps most controversially, MOOCs may be a way of providing instruction for purposes of degree completion. While few question the quality of the instruction, albeit highly impersonal and woefully lacking in the production of successful completers (now between 3-5 percent), issues of learning outcome assessment and student identification are of concern. When tens to hundreds of thousands of participants are involved (one MOOC has reported over 200,000 participants in a single offering), these issues are magnified. The recent approval by the American Council on Education of five MOOCs for credit recommendations has been greeted with a mixture of anticipation (for those who want to establish a bridge between knowledge, learning and an accepted credential) and skepticism (as some institutions suggest that they will not accept such recommendations without a deeper understanding of how ACE arrived at its conclusions).

As "MOOC mania" completely overshadows the Open Education Resource (OER) initiative of UNESCO and the Hewlett Foundation, a potentially valuable point is being overlooked. The MOOC format, as it exists today, seems especially inappropriate for degree completion by a traditional age student (18-24). It may even be a challenge for the older, post- traditional student as the issue of how learning is to be validated still has most institutions questioning the credit worthiness of such offerings.

On the other hand, OER courses from some of the world's most prestigious institutions reflect more interactive instructional design and have established pathways to credit. They can also be matched with tutorial support and, other like courses, for comparison and "fit." Degree completion can be facilitated by satisfactory completions of assessments that have been "mapped" to the OER content. Excelsior now offers two bachelor's degrees -- business and liberal arts -- using this approach. It's not for everyone, we know. However, if money is a concern, there are few high quality options that are as inexpensive.

At Excelsior, we can probably give Governor Perry money back for his $10,000 degree.