In previous postings we have identified the potential and risk of schools responding to disruptive technological change in higher education by building their own online courses or by giving their students credit for MOOCs. We have shown that both responses have significant costs and risks that outweigh benefits, so that neither course of action can be recommended.
Because of the significant concerns addressed in previous postings, it is an error for most colleges and universities to urge or require professors to put courses online. Schools shouldn’t try to build online courses themselves. Schools lack the IT capability; and professors have no idea how to build good online courses. To train them would be very expensive for the schools. The result of trying to build courses at home will be a menagerie of courses of different quality and characteristics, to which students will object.
Similarly, because of the risks involved in giving students credit for MOOCs on any but a very limited basis, this course of action cannot be recommended either.
The alternative, which we have mentioned in a previous posting, involves the use of MOCs – professionally prepared online courses which may be off-the-shelf or designed for a particular school.
Instead of trying to have their faculty created online courses, schools should use good professionally prepared courses. This is a far less radical course than insisting that the faculty of institutions should build courses. It is less radical because using professionally built online courses is the exact analogue to having used professionally prepared textbooks, which is what most instructors and institutions have done for more than a century. Faculty members are used to this approach; students are used to this approach. Quality of content and presentation and interaction will all be higher than if institutions try to build online courses themselves.
Professionally built online courses are the direct descendants of the traditional textbook, to which they are a considerable improvement. Institutions should be moving to online courses in lieu of traditional textbooks to take advantage of these improvements. But institutions should realize that to try to produce good online courses themselves would be equivalent to have tried to become a textbook publisher themselves during the print age. Few took this course, recognizing its likely pitfalls. In exactly the same manner, few institutions should now attempt to become software publishers, which is what they are trying to do if they decide to make online courses themselves.
There is an exception to this general rule. Schools should want to build their own courses (or hire a professional course provider to do so for them) ONLY when they have a unique value proposition to offer to prospective students involving those courses. Thus, when a school has a distinct program that sets the school apart, then the expense and effort is likely to be worth it.
An astute college president, for example, would obtain generally offered online courses off the shelf from professional course providers. She or he would not ask the school’s faculty members to spend time and money building courses offered everywhere in much the same form– Economics 101, for example. But, if a school’s reputation rested on its interdisciplinary marketing program, for example, the astute president would make sure that the school owned the online content lock, stock, and barrel. In this special situation the school might assign to its own faculty the development of the key courses, or might contract for their construction by a professional course provider. The school would then own the intellectual content of the courses.
Professionally built online courses are becoming increasingly available and successful schools are now using them. The best option for schools is to offer off-the-shelf professionally built online courses, replacing textbooks with these in courses which are not central to the special mission of the school. A school should acquire good online courses – those meeting the thirteen criteria we have previously listed — built by expert firms. Such online courses can be made available to students less expensively than traditional printed textbooks. Many, if not most, schools will wish to let students purchase MOCs directly, as they did textbooks.
MOCs will be the way to go for many schools because of expertise and intellectual property issues. This is why schools supported professors in using textbooks in the first place. Textbooks were built by professional content providers and publishers. Similarly, third-party provided online courses are built by professional content providers and software firms. The educational system worked well for two hundred years with textbooks and will work well for many more years with professionally built online courses.