Researchers, MOOCs, and online programs

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Whatever you think of MOOCs or online learning programs (they are different things!), one great benefit of all the focus on both of these trends is a renewed focus on teaching. Suddenly, everyone is talking about learning. They are talking about learning at CES, in the press, and at provost and presidential meetings. As an edtech guy, someone who hangs out with learning designers and spends his days (and nights) as part of an online/blended learning program team, I am overjoyed with all the focus on teaching and learning.

One aspect of the entire online learning and MOOC discussion that is not getting enough attention is research.

I don’t mean “research on MOOCs” or “research on online programs” (although both are needed), but research in the more traditional sense. I’m talking about the professor as knowledge creator. The person who contributes to the world’s knowledge storehouse. The academic whom is evaluated both on her research and teaching (as well as service) for promotion and tenure decisions.

The excitement around MOOCs, and the expansion of online programs (again – very different things), will result in an increase in the value of the knowledge creator.

Our best researchers and thought leaders are distributed throughout higher ed. We have a limited number of school’s with the most well known brands, but a much larger set of top quality researchers (within specific disciplines) spread throughout higher ed. Blended/online programs and MOOCS are an opportunity to leverage these thought leaders and knowledge creators to create value, and for these folks to develop new professional opportunities.

Why should a research focused faculty be the the best person to build an online course or MOOC around? Wouldn’t we want those faculty for online programs and MOOCs who build their professional identity and intellectual orientation around teaching? If the incentives for promotion and tenure are around research production won’t the best online program and MOOC instructors be those whose incentives are around teaching? All good questions.

The answer is that the most successful online program and MOOCs will combine knowledge creating faculty and best of breed teaching methods. You will need to have both.

The reasons that a blended/online program or MOOC value largely depends on the degree to which the instructor is a knowledge creator within the discipline include:

  • Knowledge creators will be teaching at the frontiers of the course materials – teaching about what comes next. That excitement for building knowledge in the discipline translates into the culture of the course.
  • Active researchers in the course materials will be embedded in networks and communities of practice. These networks can be called upon to contribute to the course experience, through guest lectures and discussions and by connecting the learners to the larger conversations on the topics being studied.
  • Authentic learning requires a pivot from consuming to creating knowledge. This does not mean that all the insights that students create are valuable to the larger community. There is a long road between creating something, and creating something for which there is a market. But learners need to start somewhere. They need to produce, and produce, and produce. A course that is built around the co-creation of knowledge will invite students into this process of becoming knowledge producers.
  • The practical implications of this argument are two-fold.

    First, demand for both online programs and MOOCs will be strongest for those programs and courses that are associated with academics that are well-known in the field. This reputational currency might center around the individual faculty member or on the department that she teaches. Develop online programs and MOOCs around your strongest departments and faculty. Where does your institution have an area of expertise and leadership?

    Second, we will see an increasing premium on success and visibility in knowledge creation. This trend will add fuel to the “superstar” faculty phenomenon. More positively, the premium on knowledge producers in online programs and MOOCs offer opportunities across the higher ed ecosystem to highlight areas of excellence. Blended/online programs and MOOCs can aggregate demand across geography. There does not need to be an enormous local demand for your institution’s are of specialty, as online learning allows learners from anywhere to participate. Online learning also expands the definition of who can be a student, as full online programs (and MOOCs) can work very well for people who are also juggling full-time work and family commitments.

    Directing resources towards faculty within your school’s area of excellence will generate strong downstream returns as your institution contemplates new opportunities in degree granting (online/blended) programs and open online courses.

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