MOOC Professors' Agency in the Face of Disruption

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Key Takeaways

  • Stanford University used MOOCs as an opportunity to create a supportive environment for faculty to explore, create, and express themselves in new ways through open and digital education.
  • Following its early support for MOOCs, Stanford built "soft infrastructure" to incubate good ideas and allow courses to evolve over time to include different formats, audiences, or goals based on the involved faculty members' interests and motivations.
  • Interviews with faculty revealed that soft infrastructure created a context where a wide diversity of faculty members' values, motivations, and interests could flourish and creative ideas could be affirmed.
  • The soft infrastructure helped more than 280 faculty and instructors across Stanford launch over 200 distinct online, blended, or flipped course offerings in a period of less than three years.

Andrew J. Saltarelli, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives, Stanford University; Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning, Middlebury College; and Chris R. Glass, Assistant Professor, Educational Foundations and Leadership, Old Dominion University

A pervasive rhetoric declares that higher education faces disruption by economic and technological changes, with MOOCs a key bellwether of this trend.1 An oft-cited result of this disruption is the unbundling of the academy — the fragmentation of key products or roles provided by external, often private, suppliers at a lower cost — and, more specifically, the faculty profession.2 Within this narrative, faculty are portrayed either as passive bystanders3 or recalcitrant barriers to change4 as waves of economic, political, and technological forces inevitably transform their profession.

With this focus on the changing faculty profession, MOOCs have been criticized as the "most expensive faculty development in history." MOOCs can be expensive — an expense that hardly seems justified for a multimedia facsimile of didactic face-to-face classes. At the same time, this criticism misses a key opportunity: MOOCs can be a seed investment in a grassroots, faculty-driven approach to open and digital education. We argue that MOOCs can serve as portals — not an end in themselves — that invite faculty to discover the value and varieties of open learning. They provide an entrée to new outlets for faculty to see their academic work impact broader audiences and to feel "empowered and supported in an expanded approach to teaching."5

By building "soft infrastructure" at Stanford, we strive to facilitate a supportive environment for faculty to explore digital teaching and learning. The resulting critical mass of faculty taking advantage of this support leveraged trends in open education to explore and pioneer new instructional spaces that are transforming the institution from the inside out. In this article we give voice to their stories and describe how Stanford has fostered faculty agency and innovation in the digital learning space.

Creating Soft Infrastructure


MOOCs can be a catalyst — instead of an all-consuming disruptive force — for faculty to engage in a wide variety of digital learning activities, but this process requires space for experimentation and exploration instead of prescription. While necessary, building "hard infrastructure" — core IT resources, services, and online platforms, which often come with prescriptive models of use and interaction — isn't enough. As Jim Groom and Brian Lamb noted, hard infrastructure and the IT organizations that build it are "often defined by what's necessary rather than what's possible."6 In contrast, the key component of Stanford's digital learning initiatives has been the development of "soft infrastructure" that gives faculty a space to experiment with new forms of digital and open education. We define soft infrastructure as "the resources, values, and affirmations that support faculty agency in experimenting with digital learning." This soft infrastructure has driven the transformative and creative repurposing of hard infrastructure and associated systems to scale up Stanford's digital learning initiatives.

Soft infrastructure is built by the activities of users and communities that then provide direction for the development of hard infrastructure, not the other way around. Relationship-intensive, soft infrastructure is, as Groom and Lamb articulated, "user-driven innovation" and ultimately about empowering people, specifically faculty, to leverage their ideas, insights, and creativity to drive the development of digital learning experiences.7 At Stanford, a focus on soft infrastructure allowed us to embrace the ambiguities and unknowns of new ideas and then build relationships to bring those ideas to life:

  1. A team of professionals provided responsive support for faculty developing MOOCs and other digital resources.
  2. Seed grants reinforced the values of experimentation.
  3. Communities of practice affirmed faculty work.


Soft infrastructure recognizes the nuanced social and contextual factors currently surrounding faculty work and makes a strategic investment in the "human fabric" of the academy. Accordingly, soft infrastructure enabled us to incubate projects based on an incredibly wide diversity of faculty members' values, motivations, and interests, often straying outside the well-worn ruts of what we designed in the past. Anyone with a reasonable idea got support — we were willing to try almost anything. As much as possible, we did not tell faculty what platform or technology to use or what to build. This created fertile ground where faculty could bring the same curiosity to digital and open education as they do to other forms of academic work. Our experience at Stanford provides a case example for building soft infrastructure for MOOCs.

Stanford's Example

In 2011, three Stanford faculty opened their courses to the public and attracted thousands of participants. This activity sparked faculty interest in MOOCs at Stanford and more broadly captured the attention of the media, policymakers, private industry, and lifelong learners. As the MOOC excitement reverberated across Stanford's campus, President Hennessy called for an advisory committee comprised of faculty and school administrators to discuss how Stanford would move forward.

From this committee emerged a set of recommendations that shaped the landscape for MOOCs at Stanford. The committee called for continued experimentation, noting that:

There are many ways that Stanford may approach online education, both on-campus and off-campus, and indeed it seems likely that different schools within the University may follow different strategies. Regardless of possible future strategic decisions, however, it is evident that we must forge ahead to understand, master, and leverage new educational options. We cannot truly understand the opportunities before us, nor prepare to take advantage of them, unless we experiment with new learning models and the technologies required to support them.

The committee's call for experimentation meant that Stanford would support and even catalyze grassroots initiatives from faculty, departments, and schools rather than mandate a strategic direction for the university's MOOCs. This contrasted with top-down initiatives in the MOOC space that traced a narrow box around the possibilities and did not fit with the advisory group's view of the pedagogical innovation it wanted to foster. The group also wanted to prepare the institution to adapt to and capitalize on rapidly evolving trends in open pedagogy and broader shifts in the role of digital learning in higher education.

Soon after the presidential advisory group released its recommendations to the campus, Stanford's president and provost announced the formation of an Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL). The office added instructional design, production, and platform support for faculty who wanted to develop online resources. These teams formed processes to work with faculty in support of their ideas, while providing needed expertise related to online design and teaching.

A key factor was that faculty could pursue ideas that interested and excited them, rather than following a prescribed design model (e.g., ADDIE). As one professor said,

" guys weren't trying to tell us 'Okay, do you want to do this experiment? Here's the way you should be doing it.' You weren't prescriptive."

Faculty were asked to submit project registration forms in which they detailed their goals and plans for the project. After receiving the forms, VPOL would assemble a team for the project comprised of an instructional designer, course producer, and course operations staff (platform support). This team co-designed the project/course with the professor, providing and responding to ideas that generated enthusiasm in the team.

VPOL also launched a seed grant program in June 2012 to collect and support faculty ideas for digital learning. Faculty responded to calls for proposals with creativity and enthusiasm. Since June 2012, the seed grant program has provided funds for over 85 faculty-led projects across all seven Stanford schools. While at first seed grants supported the development of MOOCs and flipped classrooms, over time we encouraged and moved support toward projects that offered new or underexplored areas of digital teaching and learning. Projects ranged from unique takes on blended classes to field-based experiences using mobile devices and MOOC-like connected courses that leveraged online environments to connect Stanford students to students in countries like Uganda and South Africa.

The soft infrastructure VPOL offered helped more than 280 faculty and instructors across Stanford launch over 200 distinct online, blended, or flipped course offerings for campus or public use in a period of less than three years (fall 2012–winter 2015). Of these courses, half were for on-campus use (with most being flipped or blended), 55 were MOOCs, and 45 were continuing or professional education. Many of these projects evolved over time to include different formats, audiences, or goals based on the interests and motivations of the faculty involved. In figure 1, for example, you can see the evolution of a databases MOOC, one of Stanford's earliest MOOCs, taught by Professor Jennifer Widom, which began as a blended class and evolved into courseware made publicly available as a MOOC. The courseware was then made perpetually available so that instructors at other universities could use the materials for courses at their campus, a model we called distributed flip.8 Further, the course was broken into 14 self-paced mini-courses to support just-in-time learning and continues to attract thousands of public learners each week. Figure 1 shows how Professor Widom's openness to sharing the course materials allowed a variety of reuses and models to emerge on a number of different platforms.

Shared course materials spread to different course formats and platforms

Figure 1. Shared course materials spread to different course formats and platforms

Faculty Perspectives

We conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 16 Stanford faculty who had taught at least one MOOC. We used a purposeful sampling method that involved a two-stage process whereby potential faculty were nominated by campus administrators and then selected to the final participant list based on whether they had enough experience developing and teaching MOOCs to sufficiently answer the interview questions. Faculty in our sample represented four of Stanford's seven schools, and half of them had faculty appointments in the School of Engineering. The final sample included six females and 10 males: six professors, five associate professors, one assistant professor, three consulting professors, and one staff member with a teaching appointment. These faculty represented fields where open education is prevalent, including health and medicine (6), engineering (6), computer science (2), and education (2). In total, these 16 faculty created 24 MOOCs (with 49 subsequent iterations or reruns), 26 private on-campus online or blended courses (with 42 subsequent iterations or reruns), and four professional education courses. Eleven of these faculty received VPOL seed grants to support the development of their courses; five did not.

We used an interpretivist framework to gather an in-depth understanding of the experiences and social contexts and ways in which faculty made meaning while engaging in digital teaching and learning. We conducted semi-structured interviews with each faculty member that lasted 30–60 minutes, asking questions about their interests in, motivation for, and lived experience of creating open online courses or resources. Faculty described a context that encouraged

  • Intellectual and professional generosity
  • Experimentation and risk-taking
  • Personal expression
  • Healthy skepticism

Intellectual and Professional Generosity

Longstanding institutional values and the associated soft infrastructure created at Stanford helped cultivate a context where faculty saw MOOCs as a natural progression of their academic work. For many faculty, MOOCs tapped into their desire to open their instructional materials to a wider audience and provide greater access to high-quality educational content. MOOCs also offered an opportunity to share their own research in a more accessible way; one professor described her course as the "public dissemination of the research that I care about." Another professor described how this context made it almost impossible for her not to engage in open and digital learning:

"One real exciting thing about being part of the Stanford community is the intellectual generosity that exists here.... If we can open these learning opportunities to as many people as possible, why not? ... We're so fortunate to have such amazing resources...resources that it's just like, it feels like, you have to do it."

A number of faculty also mentioned that having the freedom to explore in the MOOC space gave them new ways to connect with and influence professional and practitioner-focused communities. While MOOCs gained notoriety due to their vast size, many faculty were more interested in organizing networks of people, no matter how large or small. Faculty described themselves as "advocates," "catalysts," and part of a "cause" focused on a shared set of concerns, not confined to a single course instantiation. One School of Medicine faculty member summed it up best, describing how VPOL helped support his ideas around using MOOCs as a broader platform for public health outreach:

"We're very good at taking care of patients, but we also have to reach out to other people. And by using this platform, we could really network with other people.... We had a strong mutual interest with the Vice Provost's Office for Online Learning with our course. They gave us a grant, and that's how I got involved with this."

Experimentation and Risk-Taking

We cultivated a context where faculty felt safe to test ideas that were — in their own words — "crazy," "weird," or "nuts." Our open-ended, collaborative process provided a safe place for professors to bring the same curiosity to open education as they bring to their research labs and other academic pursuits. One faculty member described this by highlighting how a key VPOL staff member provided the relational context that allowed her to engage in this process despite significant risks:

"There was always a risk that people would look at you and think, 'Oh! She's just not that smart, you know?' ...I feel like some of [the VPOL staff] really understand what I do — it's what [one VPOL staff member] does well — she draws that out that in someone. It's like you are on a journey, and this is something that you could try, and we will try to back you up as much as possible…. She drew out some ideas on a piece of paper and was like, 'This is what we could do with it.' And, that was so empowering! ...She redefined it in that way, and that was definitely something that took it to another level. I wouldn't have thought of it in that way if she hadn't given me that courage."

This entrepreneurial spirit also reinvigorated professors' approach to teaching. It framed open education as an intellectual endeavor. Faculty described the process as an "adventure," "breaking new ground," and "stimulating." One faculty member said that experimenting with MOOC designs reinvigorated her Stanford courses because the open course provided her with broader feedback on her teaching:

"I truly believe that doing this improves the Stanford education. So, there is that feedback — getting different perspectives and reinvigorating my teaching.... I have been teaching the same material for a long time and, you know, I change it every year like everybody else, but it has been in basically the same format for a decade. And suddenly the entire class has changed, and it's all because I was sort of given an opportunity to really think about what I'm doing and get excited about a different element."

Personal Expression

We cultivated a context where professors could express individual differences of style and teaching philosophies. Proponents of open and online education often emphasize the utility of new technologies for learning and reaching a broader audience, but new technologies also create new forms of personal expression. Courses are platforms for professors to express unique personalities, styles, and approaches to teaching. Just as artists express themselves through their work, we encouraged professors to express important facets of themselves while creating meaningful learning experiences for students. One faculty member shared that, to her surprise, she "had just put so much more mental and emotional energy into the open class compared to what I had done with my on-campus class; it was…a striking realization." For many, putting this energy into expressing their academic work in new ways and for new audiences was deeply rewarding. One faculty member described how digital tools gave her a new way to draw students into the learning experience:

"I found the best way to get my students enthusiastic about it is to really express my awe, wonder, and excitement about the material.... I think it [the digital medium] allows the visual tools to illustrate that excitement."

Healthy Skepticism

We cultivated a context that tolerated (and sometimes encouraged) a healthy dose of skepticism about MOOCs. A handful of faculty who developed courses counted themselves among the early skeptics of MOOCs ("I'm not...a huge fan of a lot of the MOOCs, this craziness"). Several faculty expressed concerns that the MOOC phenomenon represented a more corporatized vision of academe contrary to basic academic values. Others feared MOOCs could result in more depersonalized interaction among students and faculty. To their surprise, their final courses shattered preconceived notions of what MOOCs "have" to be. For example, one faculty member curated materials for flipped private courses at six institutions around the world, with the MOOC serving as a hub that connected learning communities of students across the globe. In many ways, this effort more closely resembled the Canadian-born, connectivist-based progenitors (i.e., cMOOCs) of the MOOC craze rather than the more didactic, video-based xMOOCs that dominated our campus at time. Thus, success in this effort was based on faculty's ability to create learning experiences that matched their personal feelings about and definitions for "openness," even if those manifestations differed dramatically from anything previously attempted on our campus.

Recommendations for IT Leaders

While this is Stanford's story and we recognize that IT leaders face a great diversity of opportunities and constraints at their own institutions, we believe soft infrastructure can be built affordably and leveraged at any institution looking to foster pedagogical innovation in digital learning. Our key recommendations follow:

  • Hire the right people. Hiring the support personnel for your digital learning projects can make or break the culture of experimentation. We were intentional about hiring staff who were not necessarily entrenched in traditional instructional design or IT services paradigms. We instead broadened our search to recruit staff who could understand and empathize with the complexities of faculty's roles at a research-intensive institution. We also looked for professionals who were already deeply entrenched in the open learning community and could appreciate the ethos of intellectual generosity shared by many of our faculty. This meant hiring part of our staff from within Stanford, people who already had rapport with faculty and knew how to support them in our unique context. We then added PhD-level instructional designers who had significant experience with teaching online and could understand the demands on faculty and the complexities of open learning initiatives.
  • Embrace the pilot (and a little messiness). Embracing the idea of "pilots" rather than large-scale top-down initiatives can free faculty and staff from pressures that suppress creativity and emergence.9 We began our efforts expecting that it would take time for good ideas to emerge, and our research suggests that faculty resonated with this creative, experimental approach. We saw MOOCs as "minimal viable products"10 — in essence, the most basic examples of what could be done with digital and open learning. We embraced an iterative approach where faculty could quickly try different and often untested ideas, get feedback, and then tinker with new approaches. This meant committing staff and other support resources to open-ended and sometimes messy projects that initially might have, on the surface, appeared to have limited impact, but often set the stage for more interesting efforts. This approach resonated with many faculty; one faculty member expressed that, "I think one of the things that was really good, early on, was the willingness of the department and the administration to say, okay, this is just totally experimental, alright?"
  • Advocate for and empower faculty. Much of the unbundling rhetoric implicates faculty as liabilities or laggards (or simply "fretful academics")11 — barriers to progress and the "future" of higher education. Accordingly, many top-down initiatives in "open" and online learning have focused primarily on using technology to increase enrollment, decrease marginal cost, and reach sustainability as quickly as possible. Similarly, many initiatives in the MOOC space have dictated specifically who could teach them (e.g., rock star faculty), how they would be taught (e.g., didactic video lectures), and where they could be hosted (e.g., Coursera). These initiatives often fail because they are neither designed based on learners' actual needs nor do they access the largely untapped potential of empowered faculty who can pioneer creative solutions in digital teaching and learning. This stands in stark contrast to the experience of our faculty, who willingly took significant risks in open education and used the opportunity to express themselves in new ways. Accordingly, soft infrastructure allowed us to focus on outcomes such as faculty engagement, agency, creativity, and motivation instead of traditional metrics for return on investment. Ironically, faculty empowered by soft infrastructure often came up with good ideas to move these projects to sustainable models because they felt invested in continuing the work they had started.
  • Tell the stories and celebrate diversity. One of our key roles is source of institutional memory about the pedagogical innovations emerging around campus. Faculty are busy, and silos between disciplines and even departments can seem fairly impermeable. We created different forums — both face-to-face and online — for faculty to share their stories and hear what others were doing in digital and open learning. We were particularly intentional about inviting diversity into these discussions, as well as highlighting edge cases that might spur more creative and divergent thinking and risk-taking.

    One way we told the story of faculty work was through our VPOL Faculty Forums. These well-attended events usually featured a panel of faculty and highlighted the range of projects faculty undertook. Over time, the format evolved to include time for an Idea Lab, a gallery walk or poster session–style portion of the event during which panelists demoed their projects. This gave faculty more options for sharing their work in creative ways and expressing their unique take on open learning. Events like the Faculty Forum can help spread a wide range of good ideas and give faculty an opportunity to share their stories with colleagues.


Instead of being an unstoppable force disrupting the faculty profession, MOOCs can be an opportunity to empower faculty to explore, create, and express themselves in new ways through open and digital education. To do this requires establishing the proper institutional context, one that allows for experimentation and grassroots, faculty-led initiatives to flourish. We have argued in this article that a focus on soft infrastructure — the resources, values, and affirmations that support faculty agency in experimenting with digital learning — has helped us create this context at Stanford. Our research suggests that this approach has given faculty the opportunity and autonomy to manifest their desires to share intellectual work more broadly, experiment and take pedagogical risks, express their unique teaching philosophies in new ways, and thoughtfully engage in the MOOC phenomenon on their own terms. As a result, a great number and variety of open and digital learning approaches have flourished at our institution.


  1. Clayton M. Christensen and Michelle R. Weise, "MOOCs' Disruption Is Only Beginning," Boston Globe, May 9, 2014.
  2. Kevin Carey, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015).
  3. Neil Selwyn and Scott Bulfin, The Discursive Construction of MOOCs as Educational Opportunity and Educational Threat (Washington, DC: MOOC Research Initiative, 2014).
  4. Lawrence S. Bacow, William G. Bowen, Kevin M. Guthrie, Kelly A. Lack, and Matthew P. Long, "Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education," Ithaka S+R, May 1, 2012; Carl Straumsheim, "Faculty Group Continues Anti-MOOC Offensive," Inside Higher Ed, May 14, 2014.
  5. Randy Bass, "Disrupting Ourselves The Problem of Learning in Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Review 47, no. 2 (March/April 2012): 30.
  6. Jim Groom and Brian Lamb, "Reclaiming Innovation," EDUCAUSE Review 49, no. 3 (May/June 2014).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Michael Caulfield, Amy Collier, and Sherif Halawa, "Rethinking Online Community in Moocs Used for Blended Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, October 7, 2013.
  9. Amy Collier, "Not-yetness, The Red Pincushion (blog), April 9, 2015.
  10. James DeVaney, "In Defense of the Great MOOC Experiment," The Conversation, March 2, 2015.
  11. Andrew P. Kelly and Frederick M. Hess, Beyond Retrofitting: Innovation In Higher Education (Washington, DC: Hudson Institute, 2013).

© 2015 Andrew J. Saltarelli, Amy Collier, and Christopher Glass. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 license.