Why Should Colleges Be Doing MOOCs? Relationships

min read

Key Takeaways

  • Institutions do not currently maintain relationships with MOOC-taking students, instead outsourcing the relationship-building process to MOOC providers rather than owning it themselves.
  • Managing relationships with students will be even more crucial as the pool of traditional undergraduate students continues to dip and nontraditional learners become lifelong learners.
  • To succeed, educational institutions need to control lead generation and conversion of MOOC students to paying customers.

Shaul Kuper is president and CEO of Destiny Solutions.

I speak with dozens of provosts and presidents annually about online education, nontraditional students, and their institution's goals for bringing the former to the latter. In almost all of these conversations, the acronym "MOOC" surfaces somewhere.

Massive open online courses embody an interesting dynamic because they represent the new digital destiny of higher education. The Internet has revolutionized so many industries and now — partly due to spiraling costs of a college degree — it's coming to higher ed. What happens when the academy is no longer the gatekeeper of information? First, you get a mindset shift away from the once-in-a-lifetime degree to a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. And, second, you get a model that goes from a "student" to a "consumer" market. Both shifts are instrumental in making MOOCs a useful venture for institutions.

But why should a college or university get into the MOOC business?

MOOCs have a number of potential uses, but the most lucrative is lead generation. This business term, just starting to be applied in higher education, is an important means to succeeding in today's highly competitive market. While it is simple in theory, colleges and universities have done a very poor job of actually making lead generation work in practice.

The idea is to give students a compelling reason to reach out to the school, and then to provide them with immediate value. In return, the students share their information and reveal their preferences, making it easier to "upsell" them with a course or program that generates revenue for the school.

The problem is that institutions do not currently maintain relationships with MOOC-taking students. A lack of administrative infrastructure or coordination means that schools end up outsourcing the relationship-building process to MOOC providers, rather than owning it themselves.

Currently, if a student registers for a MOOC through a specific institution, most of the time the registration takes place directly through the MOOC provider, and the institution holds no record of the registration and has no touch point with the student. While administratively easy to operate, this process eliminates any opportunities for the college or university to communicate with and market courses to specific students. Failing to create this relationship — or worse yet, failing to nurture it — means that institutions essentially give lead generation to an outside company that may or may not be a competitor.

Although popular in business, the "freemium" model is only useful if executed properly. The concept is to give a product or service away, with the intention of nurturing the lead and later upselling. The caveat is that you must have a plan in place to turn these freemium customers into paying customers. Otherwise, you are spending money providing a service without any hope of recouping costs or generating revenue. Institutions already offering the freemium service (the MOOC) must now leverage it by putting mechanisms in place to manage student relationships.

Managing these relationships will be even more crucial as the pool of traditional undergraduate students continues to dip. Based on the count of people between the ages of 25 and 64 with no postsecondary credentials, the American Council on Education (ACE) estimates a pool of 80 million potential domestic nontraditional students. Currently there are 9 million adult students enrolled in accredited postsecondary institutions in the United States. As enrollment of traditional-aged students declines, nontraditional markets become even more important for the 6,900 accredited postsecondary institutions across the country.

People often ask if MOOCs can lead to an increase in a college's bottom line. Much like any other marketing or lead generation activity, they can, but only if managed properly. When colleges and universities give away appetizers, some students will want to stay for the full-priced entrée. However, whether that entrée will come from the institution, the MOOC provider, or another savvy education institution depends on who best capitalizes on the relationship in order to cater to those students' needs.

Some say MOOCs are a passing trend; others say they are here to stay. In either case, the same thing is clear: MOOCs present an opportunity. Streamlined business processes and well thought out administrative practices will allow colleges and universities to capitalize on this opportunity and on opportunities still to come.