Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Serpentine Procession in MOOCville?

David Riesman, in Constraint and Variety in Higher Education (1956), once described the development of American Higher Education as a "serpentine procession" with Harvard at the head and all other colleges crawling behind Harvard's lead. 

So it goes with MOOCs. The Harvard MIT EdX partnership - along with Coursera, out of Stanford and partnered with Princeton and other elite universities - created the first wave of excitement. Now a host of other MOOC platforms are following in the procession - and a multitude of colleges at all levels are crawling into MOOCville.  

The newcomers will not be able to compete on reputation. And given that MOOCs are free and open, no one will be able to compete on price. As a result, the newcomers will have to find specific niches to gain attention.  

Here is a useful example. The Eco-Tech Institute of Aurora Colorado brands itself as the first and only college in the country entirely devoted to preparing graduates for careers in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The institute offers associates degrees in  such fields as solar technology, wind technology, green facilities management, and business administration/sustainability. 

This two-year school has just completed its first MOOC- on Sustainability - offered on Instructure's Canvas Network platform.   The course aims to develop critical thinking about environmental sustainability at all levels from the corporate and governmental to the personal. 

From an article in The Ground Report:

"Students came from “all walks of life and from around the globe,” according to Kyle Crider, Ecotech Institute’s Program Chair and Manager of Environmental Operations, who led the course. There was a diverse mix of men and women in the class, ranging in educational background from high school to Ph.D., about half of whom had never taken an online course before. Many participants were so engaged that they actually requested that the class continue beyond the ten weeks.”  

This is a good example of a niche school using a MOOC as a tool to spread awareness and brand itself as niche leader. The well-publicized MOOC is an attempt to capture the attention of Ph.D. scientists, industry leaders, and concerned publics. It will be interesting to see whether this marketing through MOOCs increases Eco-Tech's global recognition, student enrollment, and its own institutional sustainability.

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