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UpFront: Let's MOOC it Out!

By John Fernandes, President and CEO, AACSB International

Alright, let's get down to business on the hottest topic in higher education learning, the Massive Open On-Line Course, or more affectionately referred to as the "MOOC." We've all read about them. Some of you may have even tried to take one, or at least you enrolled. So far, not many are finishing the MOOC, with deliverers reporting a 10% completion rate. That is—for the MOOCers that are even trying to keep score. While we are often captivated by the new and exciting, like most things, the market will decide.

MOOCs have hit the mainstream in the past six months, even landing a spot on the venerable U.S. news show, 60 Minutes, a couple of months ago. It is most certainly an exciting concept for lifelong learners. Imagine taking just about any course for free from the very best teachers and scholars. Makes me want to pop an extra Ginkgo biloba and turn on the box.

Many may be unaware that the MOOC made its lexiconic debut back in 2010. AACSB researcher historian, Colin Nelson, says "the first MOOCs were offered by Stanford and the University of Illinois—Springfield, along with BlackBerry. But it wasn't until the past year that MOOCs went gangbuster." The heartwarming saga of the Khan Academy made news, and shortly thereafter, Coursera, Udacity, OpenStudy, edX, and marquis universities such as Harvard, MIT, Purdue, UC Berkley, Rice, and several other institutions began their foray into MOOCerville. With innovative companies leading the development in massive open online courses, giant higher educational institutions, such as the University of Texas System, joined in MOOC development.

Now, the benefits and risks have begun to crystallize. This MOOC thing can be one powerful purveyor of mass education to a starving market of higher education seekers with financial or access constraints. The potential is really big for emerging economies, as well as those in mature economies. Yet, just how far can these MOOCs go in changing higher education so that it can provide global access at marginal cost? How will accredited schools deal with MOOC course credit, authenticity and the MOOC's obligation to the institution's financial well-being? I think MOOCs can be very effective in foundational courses such as financial accounting, microeconomics, calculus and many other entry-type learning experiences. But how will MOOCs succeed in higher level courses requiring effective student-faculty and student–student engagement? Will accreditors draw a line in the sand?

A recent MOOC experience by a major university in the southern United States went haywire. Forty thousand students signed up for their MOOC on online education planning and application. This gargantuan class wasn't made up of 18-year old X-Boxers on break or the lively senior citizen with time to spare. No, these students were the "would be" next generation of online educators, for the most part. So, what happened? The course was discontinued in its first week due to design failure that complicated "engagement." I say, "Bravo for trying." Engagement is the real breakthrough variable in the efficacy of MOOCs, and therefore standing in the way between fad and foundation.

Recently the American Council on Education (ACE) recommended that credit be given by universities for a calculus course taught by University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Ghrist. This is the first ACE CREDIT-approved MOOC to our knowledge, but likely the first of many. The course seems to fit the primary current market for MOOCs, the basic post-high school course. Coursera has designed a validation process that addresses one of the major concerns in credit granting, the authenticity of the student.

While it is highly unlikely that MOOCs will evolve as a significant risk to the traditional higher education model, MOOCs do fit nicely in the smorgasbord of pedagogical alternatives that, at minimum, enhance higher education's flexibility and reach.

Maybe I'll take two!

John Fernandes
President and CEO
AACSB International