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Further Evolution of MOOCs with Academic Partnerships and MOOC2Degree Launch

This article was originally posted at e-Literate

One of the fastest growing educational delivery models over the past year is the school-as-a-service concept, where companies like Pearson, 2U, Academic Partnerships and Deltak provide the services needed for a traditional institution to create an online program at scale. As I have often pointed out, traditional institutions have a organizational designs and cultures that often prevent them from successfully creating self-sustaining online programs, which is the reason for the barrier in the landscape diagram. School-as-a-service model provides a bridge over that barrier.

Of course, the model that has grown even faster are MOOCs. Yesterday Academic Partnerships launched a new concept called MOOC2Degree that attempts to combine these two models, thus giving working adults (the sweet spot of their market) a lower cost, easier method to get credits in an online program.

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The most obvious aspect of MOOC2Degree is highlighted in the name – providing a pathway for MOOCs to help lead to a degree. From the press release:

Through this new initiative, the initial course in select online degree programs will be converted into a MOOC. Each MOOC will be the same course with the same academic content, taught by the same instructors, as currently offered degree programs at participating universities. Students who successfully complete a MOOC2Degree course earn academic credits toward a degree, based upon criteria established by participating universities.

Some of the early participants in Academic Partnerships’ MOOC2Degree initiative include: Arizona State University, Cleveland State University, Florida International University, Lamar University, University of Arkansas System, University of Cincinnati, University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing, University of West Florida and Utah State University. Additional universities are joining the initiative in the months ahead as they work through their processes for providing MOOCs.

This announcement is somewhat similar to the Semester Online program announced by 2U (how long do we need to point out this is formerly 2tor?) in November. In that program 10 partner institutions offer open online courses for credit, although they don’t consider the courses technically to be MOOCs. One significant difference is that 2U targets elite universities for specific domains, whereas Academic Partnerships has a broader focus, primarily targeting public colleges and universities, regardless of status.

Here are some initial thoughts on MOOC2Degree:

Betting on a megatrend

In an phone interview, Randy Best, founder and chairman of Academic Partnerships, said that the real megatrend is not the emergence of MOOCs, but rather the move to universal, affordable access to education. This populist view runs contrary to 2U, Coursera, Udacity and edX, all of which target elite universities, betting that their brands and faculty are important to attract large numbers of students.

I, for one, am sympathetic to this view, as I indicated to Josh Kim in his recent set of prediction interviews:

Despite xMOOCs targeting ‘elite’ higher ed, it will be non-elite institutions that aggressively adopt the model and define the 2nd generation of MOOCs.

Converting courses to MOOCs

How will the partner institutions convert their courses to MOOC courses? The first issue is that each school chooses how to offer their MOOC, and many will offer them on the same LMS already in use. While this vendor-neutral approach has its benefits, I could see a problem if the school’s LMS is not set up to be a MOOC platform.  The platform has to scale quickly if the courses grow in size to thousands of students. Many self-hosted LMS solutions are not capable of scaling in this way, nor are simple managed hosting solutions that have dedicated hardware per institution.

The second issue is that MOOCs need to be designed to be easy to get into the course content and interactions as easily as possible. A clunky course design as well as a clunky LMS design will run counter to this need.

The third issue is instructional design, as any interactions and activities need to be able to handle large numbers of students with unpredictable participation. Who is providing the expertise and instructional design advice to ensure that each course is truly ready to be a MOOC? I assume that Academic Partnerships is playing this role, but I am not sure.

Randy Best indicated that two methods to be used by the partner institutions is to alter the start dates as necessary, allowing the course to begin a month early to work out logistics, for example. The institutions could also throttle enrollment and keep to a manageable size. Another approach to handling this issue can be seen in another recent Academic Partnerships announcement referenced in the press release.

Due to the partnership between Academic Partnerships and Canvas, universities can use the Canvas Open Network System at no cost to offer MOOC2Degree courses.

Convincing partner institutions

I asked Randy Best if he had to strong-arm any schools to get them to try out the concept. After all, many traditionalists view MOOCs as a competitive threat that might harm institutional brands or revenue potential. The answer was interesting, as Randy said that all of the initial schools were already considering how to explore MOOCs, and the MOOC2Degree really provided a workable concept that made sense. This concept potentially gives schools a sustainable model combining the free, open nature of MOOCs with the potential for credit-bearing, tuition-generating online programs. In other words, schools want to get into MOOCs, but were much more eager to do so when the concept made sense.

In my mind, this is another key milestone in the rapid transformation of MOOCs into the next generation – in combination with Instructure’s launch of the Canvas Network, Udacity’s move to MOOC 2.0, and the American Council on Education’s moves to recommend credits for MOOCs.

Update 1/24: For additional coverage:

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