It seems that each new day brings a barrage of articles regarding massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their successful use in education and business. Both large and small educational institutions feel compelled to respond to internal and external stakeholders about MOOC development, and for those institutions unable to partner with an organization such as Coursera or edX, there can be a number of considerations. Here are some useful questions to ask yourself as you consider MOOC development for your institution.
#1: Why are we interested in doing a MOOC?
This may seem simplistic, but the truth is that purpose matters and will drive all your decision making. “Everyone is doing it” is a difficult sell to cash-starved department heads, so looking beyond jumping on the bandwagon will be required if you hope to convince stakeholders on your campus that a MOOC will be a good investment. If your institution can’t afford to give away free education, then you need to consider what reward you hope to gain. Could it be that your MOOC is a marketing initiative? Could it bring attention to a program or your institution in a different way than the institution’s current marketing campaign? Are there particular programs you would like to promote so you can boost enrollment? Do you want to provide a subject primer that simply serves as an introduction to your institution to increase brand awareness beyond your physical location? If you begin to reframe the offering of a MOOC through a marketing lens, you may discover opportunities that you might not have thought about before. But simply reframing won’t be sufficient. Does the development of a MOOC support your institutional mission and goals? If not, then you should avoid it. If so, be prepared to discuss how and why.
Once you’ve settled on the purpose for developing a MOOC, you need to consider what subject areas you want to develop. Develop a list of opportunities because as you consider the next question, you may find that your list narrows rapidly.
#2: Do we have a special niche in the market?
This is an important consideration. If you don’t have something new and different to bring to the MOOC table, it may be difficult to draw attention to your course, as there are a lot of MOOCs already in play. Use a MOOC aggregator, such as Class Central (www.class-central.com/) or MOOC List (www.mooc-list.com/), to do a search of the topic you want to develop. It’s not unusual to find a few hundred similar courses already available, particularly in business and coding. If the topic you want to develop is already in ample supply, consider a subtopic that might help you develop more of a niche following, or consider a different subject altogether. Knowing your purpose (see question #1) will provide the basis for making good decisions as you attempt to establish a niche. Once you’ve identified your niche, you will be able to answer the next question more easily.
#3: Can we leverage partnerships for content development and marketing?
This is critically important if you are working with a limited budget. When thinking about partnerships, consider whether your current learning management system vendor has a MOOC platform you can use. Vendors such as Desire2Learn, Canvas, and Blackboard all have products specifically designed for hosting MOOCs. If you don’t work with a vendor that offers a MOOC platform, consider exploring other free options from edX, Udemy, Moodle, and CourseSites (by Blackboard). You can find a comparison of these tools at www.edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2014/02/comparison-five-free-mooc-platforms-educators.
Once the hosting decision has been made, it’s time to consider options for content development. Is there a way to get help with MOOC development and marketing? Depending on the subject area, you may find that professional organizations or vendors you are currently working with can reduce your development time and costs dramatically by providing either content expertise or ready-made content that you can add to the course. Publishers, technology companies, and training organizations are often willing to partner if they get a share of the credit and attention, so it pays to be generous with references to the partnership in your marketing, placing partner logos on your course and marketing materials.
Professional organizations can also be a great source of marketing help. They are often willing to publish articles related to your endeavors and distribute registration and general information via their distribution lists. The more organizations you can find to do this for you, the broader your reach will be. And don’t forget to use your own internal distribution lists. Development and alumni offices are great sources for contact lists, and current students, faculty, and staff who are interested in your offering can also spread the word for you.
Don’t forget to use social media. Some institutions have had success with inexpensive Facebook ads, but simply getting your story out with a specially designed hashtag can start a discussion that will draw participants to your MOOC. Share your story everywhere and encourage people to share with contacts on LinkedIn and Twitter and in professional groups. The more you can get others to share a compelling story, the faster word-of-mouth excitement will spread.
#4: Should we incentivize the MOOC?
This question should spark a lively debate among your academic and marketing teams. Participants will often look for some type of takeaway from their MOOC experience, even if it is simply proof of participation. Should you award a completion certificate? If so, what criteria will be used to measure student success? Will badges incentivize participants to sign up for and complete the MOOC? What would the badges signify? Are there subject matter competencies worthy of badge consideration? What value would badges have outside of the MOOC experience? Should some type of course credit or entrance requirement waiver be provided to successful MOOC completers if they choose to enroll in a for-credit program of study?
These won’t be easy questions to resolve, but they’re worthy of consideration as you make important decisions about how to make your MOOC a value-added experience for participants and consider channels for marketing the offering.
#5: How will we measure success?
Knowing what the criteria for success are before you start development will make the process much easier. Are you looking to generate marketing leads for your institution’s programs from MOOC enrollments? If so, what is the minimum number of participants required? Do you have a cost-per-lead threshold you’re trying to achieve? Are you targeting new enrollments in your institution’s programs? If so, how many will demonstrate an effective return on investment for your MOOC? Are you interested in tapping new markets or expanding brand recognition? How will your institution gather data during the MOOC to demonstrate this type of expansion? How will you assess the MOOC to get feedback from the participants regarding their experience? Again, many of these answers will stem from your decisions from question #1 about purpose, but the clearer you can be about how you will define your success, the easier it will be to tell your story when the MOOC is over and you’re reporting on results.
In the end, deciding to offer a MOOC requires a good deal of consideration; however, with some well-chosen questions, you will be able to determine whether a MOOC is right for you. You may discover that it’s not, but then you can start a new set of discussions about how to use existing MOOCs from other institutions to support your own purposes.
But these discussions are for another day.
Donna Gardner Liljegren, EdD, is director of the Elmhurst College Online Center and manager of instructional support for the School for Professional Studies of Elmhurst College.
Reprinted from Academic Leader, 31.6 (2015): 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.