MOOCs are here. How should state universities respond?


Here is a short essay on MOOCs that Drs. Steve Vardeman and Max Morris, Statistics faculty at Iowa State University, gave me permission to share. Their essential premises? That MOOCs are going to rock state (and other) universities’ worlds, that most institutions should immediately institute moratoriums on hiring new faculty and building new facilities, and that universities need to focus on clarifying their value proposition in a world of ‘commodity [higher] education.’

The full essay is below. What do you think?

The Inevitable Coming Impact of Online Education on State Universities and Rational Response to What is Coming
Stephen B. Vardeman and Max D. Morris

The recent appearance and publicity of organizations created to provide “massively open online courses” (MOOCs) is a truly revolutionary development in higher education. The free-for-anyone web-based courses offered by professors at select universities, and produced by Coursera, EdEX, and Udacity, were initially offered without traditional college credit. But this is already changing; participating universities are already offering credit for courses delivered through these outlets, at prices (split between the university and the MOOC provider) well below standard tuition levels. It seems clear that in relatively short order, there will be MOOC versions of many of the large-enrollment freshman- and sophomore-level courses taught at most major universities, and that students will be able to acquire transferable credits for these courses at the accredited schools for substantially less money than the tuition now charged for similar on-campus courses. In 21st century America, where many new college students reach graduation only by acquiring a mountain of personal debt, this can be regarded as welcome news. But for the nation’s educational institutions, the changes (which we believe will unfold very quickly) will present massive challenges.

In the following, we outline what we see as the “realities” and “consequences” of this revolution, and “options” that should be considered now for university administrators and faculty. Our particular perspective is in the context of the generic “Well Respected State University” (WRSU), which represents an enormous proportion of the traditional American college system.


The coming impact of MOOCs is begin made possible by a number of factors. First among these is clearly the technical capability, via the evolving internet, to physically produce courses that can be viewed at little or no expense by a huge proportion of the world’s population. But there are other factors involved as well, including the public perception of the nature and value of higher education, and economic forces. In particular,

  1. The American public now views most of “higher” education (extending through masters level) as a “commodity,” something thought of primarily in business terms, that will be sold primarily on the basis of price and convenience, subject to meeting of a minimum standard of quality (for the given species of product). University administrators have generally adopted this viewpoint as well, often using terms such as “customer,” “stake holder,” and “marketing” to describe how the school relates to students, their parents, and others.
  2. Technology is now enabling mass production and mass distribution of increasingly low cost coursework of acceptable (and increasing) quality. The organizations that produce MOOCs are well-funded and have selectively associated themselves with universities that have the capability of meeting any “quality” challenge that could arise.
  3. The economics of commodity education (as with all other commodities) will always be driven by competition toward increasing efficiency, lower cost, and improved quality. The innovation of combining high-quality on-line education with traditional college credit at a reduced cost can be compared to the innovation of the Model T Ford. Just as mechanization forever changed agriculture and mass production forever changed the making of hard goods, these innovations will change commodity education forever.
  4. Specialty/niche markets can exist where “hand crafting” with relatively high “profit” margins carries on, while commodity prices decline drastically. Highly respected liberal arts colleges will continue to attract the small minority of students for whom the element of personal involvement is important … and who can afford to pay the required fees. The majority of state universities, however, will not be able to continue operating as they have in the past.
  5. To be absolutely clear, in almost every case, WRSU is not positioned to be at all successful competing for commodity sales. The well-funded start-ups and consortia already have huge professional production staffs working with the best academic institutions on delivering very carefully made courses. In contrast, most university “Distance Ed” programs could be carried out as effectively by arming every faculty member with a tablet PC and capture software. Existing (or even improved) on-line courses, produced by most educational institutions, offered at present rates of tuition, cannot hope to compete with the coming alternatives. And there will be no incentive for any of the current MOOC providers to affiliate with more schools than are really needed to support the new system. The inevitable fate of most state universities is that more and more of their future graduates will be taking (and paying for) fewer and fewer of their courses at their alma mater.


The realities described above carry with them consequences which will constitute a massive change in the environment in which WRSU must operate. Our belief is that these will evolve more quickly than most people expect, but whether the time-frame is 1 year, 2 years, or 5 years, these consequences are very predictable:

  1. For most state universities, tuition income will drop precipitously, as students do more and more of their courses at their kitchen tables. In addition, the state revenue reductions of the last few decades will surely continue, especially as on-campus enrollments drop and legislators are even more tempted to spend public money elsewhere. Together, these two trends will force dramatic decreases in funding available to state universities. Except at the very best research institutions (and despite the self-images that may exist on campus, very few WRSU’s can claim to be these exceptions), funded research cannot begin to cover these losses.
  2. It will be increasingly hard to justify the expense required to maintain the faculty and physical plants of most state universities. In the worst case, draconian measures will be necessary to reduce faculty head counts, some institutions will simply close down, and university assets, no longer needed to physically educate so many on-campus students, will be sold. In general, pressure on faculty and departments will increase dramatically as the issue becomes one of institutional survival.
  3. Especially for large departments that have, in the past, justified faculty lines with large-enrollment service courses, there will be increased pressure to justify their relatively large departmental budgets.


As outlined above, the rapidly changing environment of higher education will impose severe constraints on most public universities. However, there are choices that can be made. While many of them will be unpleasant (at least in the minds of those invested in the traditional system of higher education), they should be addressed by WRSU administrators and faculty now, because delay will only reduce the number of alternatives available. First of all, current strategic plans, based primarily on pre-MOOC logic, should be immediately reviewed, and much in them modified. In particular:

  1. For most state universities, a hiring freeze should be seriously considered immediately. Even if enrollments have seen recent increases, the evidence that this cannot continue is overwhelming.
  2. For most state universities, serious consideration should be given to radically changed building plans immediately. In place of big lecture halls, testing centers should be built. Physical inefficiencies should be addressed, and the overall strategy of physical plant development should be reoriented toward the idea that less, rather than more, facilities will be needed.

But simple reduction without a strategy for what comes next is not sufficient. WRSU will need to develop a clear value proposition, and put full energy into delivering it:

  1. Institutions and departments must immediately face up to the value proposition required in commodity education. Most state institutions cannot participate in the MOOC movement and do not have the capability to justify themselves by shifting from “education” to “research.” The question that must be answered by WRSU is: What do we have, or can we quickly develop, that is of real value and can be delivered at a price the new market will bear and will support us going forward? And the first step in answering this question must be an honest reflection on the “ground truth” of the institution; these decisions cannot be made with a “Lake Woebegone” mentality that insists on an “above average” self-image.
  2. Each institution will need to come to terms with what its role can be in commodity education. In nearly all cases, it will at best be a user of MOOCs, NOT a provider. One of its major roles will be in offering the kind of assistance that can only be provided personally (e.g. tutoring), and testing/providing credit for what is learned from externally provided course material. It is likely that courses that contain hands-on experience in laboratory facilities (e.g. chemistry), require one-on-one interaction (e.g. music), or rely on group experiences (e.g. engineering design) will be difficult to adapt to the MOOC model – How can WRSU make the most of its ability to continue this kind of education? Specific strategies will vary by institution, but they will all require huge changes.
  3. All WRSU units, both administrative and academic, need to immediately focus on efficiency and activities that deliver unique value to the institution and students. Administrators must become much more responsive to the new, real challenges that face their institutions, focus on what roles their institutions can realistically play, and become much more willing to make well-reasoned hard choices concerning change. Faculty must understand that former cultures of “entitlement” cannot continue, that the concept of “academic freedom” is likely to be reshaped to focus more on the needs of the institution than the individual faculty member, and that these challenges will require substantial sacrifices from everyone.

Almost inevitably, the advent of large-enrollment, on-line college courses will put many colleges and universities out of business, and dramatically reduce the size of many others. In this new environment, there may also be opportunities for some educational institutions to offer new and valuable components to college education (even if much-reduced in scale relative to plans they have made in the past). But this will not happen without serious and realistic thought and planning – of a qualitatively different nature than has ever been needed before — by administrators and faculty.

Image credit: South Western (sic) University, Dallas, Texas

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

7 Responses to “MOOCs are here. How should state universities respond?”

  1. Interaction is a significant part of education, and MOOCs do not do a good job at this. MOOCs seem to be most successful in providing instruction for procedural subjects, like programming, or for subjects where simply amassing a stock of ‘facts’ is needed.

    Subjects with labs or other ‘hands on’ requirements: chemistry, biology, physics, art, music, etc., cannot be taught using MOOCs.

    Having said this, the fundamental issue is what is meant by education. If it is ‘training’, which seems to be the way most people think of it, then the race to the bottom is inevitable. If it is to be education (in the classical sense), where you learn how to learn, and learn how to change one’s viewpoint and assumptions, then MOOCs are a useful, but minor component in the process.

    What we will end up with — and already have to a large extent — are a large number of people who are trained, but cannot adapt to new circumstances, and a small minority who are educated, and who can and do.

  2. Looking at the information that is given universities and especially smaller universities are destined for disaster! All faculty and staff should begin to prepare now for the changes technology is creating. I am in the field of education and I am disturbed by this information because once it is introduced to the world it will become a virus that no one will be able to stop. If this happens to universities who’s to say it will not trickle down to public education? This only makes more questions for educators.
    I for one believe that the education given to students within the classroom is essential. The hands on experience give the students more knowledge of what is to happen in the real world instead of the facts that would be given in an online course. Anyone that has been in the real world knows that things don’t happen how they are presented in a textbook. So the teachers at the small universities need to keep in mind what is needed and what to offer the students that MOOC can’t offer. I believe the introduction of MOOC will easily eliminate the students who appreciate learning versus the students who simply memorize. This will leave a greater appreciation for the minority of us who value in class involvement.

  3. What they seem to be discounting is the massive number of people who start a MOOC and fail to finish. Or fail to actually learn anything. I think many of these universities will find a productive source of income by creating learning, study, and tutoring centers for students taking a MOOC. Students might find a discounted cost because they sign up for a learning resource instead of say three freshman level classes. Universities save money because the learning centers are staffed by TA’s and not full professors. Professors find they have more time to devote to publishing and preparing for upper level courses.

    The majority of people, at least currently enrolled in our school system, have learned to be passive learners. To be successful with a MOOC requires a more active role in learning. I think help for students will become a larger need. While much of this help can and probably will be created organically universities might require a tougher review and entrance exam or similar before accepting a MOOC certificate for credit, while students who choose to sign up at a university learning session would be accepted more readily.

  4. Like other industries disrupted by digital technology, I believe it is inevitable now for the university system. They have stayed fairly constant for many years while watching the cost of education go through the roof. To have prevented this … they would have had to ‘change before they had to’ as the saying goes. This is a good article by Vardeman and Morris. I believe university leaders should listen but will not, to a large degree.

  5. It is sad to see the impact that this is having on the university system. I am a lecturer at an Australian university, and we are certainly feeling the pressure. Post-GFC my specific area, education, saw a jump in enrolments (as folks lost their jobs in other sectors and came to retrain), but now that surge is over and reversing.

    The truth is though, while ‘good’ or ‘best case’ learning may require an element of face-to-face interaction, there are a good proportion of students who don’t come to class at uni anyway! Quite frankly, they may as well not attend the cheaper course, right? They’ll still either pass or fail the assessment – and if they still do well, then what were we offering that student, really?

    Personally, I’m using this as motivation to reflect on how I can become more indispensable 😉 After all, if we can’t justify why we are needed in a learning context, we may just deserve what’s coming our way.

  6. Tear down the lecture halls! Raise up the testing centers? Now!

    Whoa, fellas! MOOCs represent a new, untested experiment within higher ed. In fact, so far, the MOOC is a microscopic actual presence within institutions of higher education. It seems a bit early to raze the science building and hire the tele-test-graders.

    What Vardeman and Morris seem to be responding to is less the reality of MOOCs than the hype-storm that has surrounded them. That hype-storm is largely the result of some high-status U.S. universities entering into the MOOC-space along with the usual Silicon Valley venture-capitalized players, and (at least in California) some state governments. Perhaps as the fossilized remains of, NYUOnline, or Virtual Temple demonstrate, it’s better to relax and evaluate and weigh (as Yale’s Committee on Online Education recently proposed) before riding the hype.

    In any case, Vardeman and Morris’s major premise is wrong, at least in meatspace. Higher ed is not treated by students or the public as a commodity, sold primarily on the basis of “price and convenience.” Besides grossly simplifying the meaning and value of higher ed, this assumption hardly explains the rising demand for campus-based higher education and the enduring demand for private universities and colleges. For plenty of good reasons, parents, students and the public don’t see higher education the same way they see flat screen t.v.’s or new cars.

  7. I’ve been through the business world and I have observed that the most productive teams were small teams – 2 -3 participants. In fact, the smaller the team the better the outcome seems to be. I don’t have any scientific evidence for this but it was the reality. A large part of learning a new skill is a solitary experience. At some point you have to get information into your brain. Studying in groups can be fun and exciting but at the end of the day you have got to be able to execute a certain skill. Having someone else do it for you will not work. MOOCs allow students to spend as long or as little time on problems they wish to master without penalty or embarrassment. This is an opportunity you don’t get within four walls.

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