Will MOOC’s take down branch campuses? We don’t think so

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In a recent blog on University World News, Rahul Choudaha argues that MOOC’s (massive open online courses) could lead to the decline of international branch campuses. There is some logic to this argument. Access to online learning is available just about anywhere, and economies of scale as represented by the MOOC’s can make education incredibly inexpensive. Branch campuses, on the other hand, double down on geography and are often more expensive than other local options. But does that make MOOC’s and branch campuses mutually exclusive options and interchangeable entities for the provision of higher education? We don’t think so.

Choudaha relies heavily on the notion that international branch campuses are currently unstable. Yes, there have been grand collapses such as George Mason University in the U.A.E. and Australia’s RMIT University in Malaysia. But we have no evidence that failures are increasing, or that interest in branch campuses from host countries is waning. High-profile efforts from places like New York University and Duke, or the alternative partnering approach that Yale is using in Singapore, demonstrate significant interest from elite universities—the very ones that would probably be the first to pull the plug if stability of the model were questionable. Rather, the evidence suggests that the branch-campus population is maturing, the number of campuses continues to grow, and the enrollment numbers continue to rise. Even Michigan State University in Dubai, an oft-cited example of failure, has recently been revived and is adding new programs and students.

So, the branch-campus model is not fading. But is it vulnerable to MOOC invasion? Choudaha suggests that the “glocal” students—those that are interested in a global educational experience but unable or unwilling to leave home—will take MOOC’s over branches. Of course some will, but we don’t see how that changes the underlying factors that make branch campuses viable as foreign education outposts. Specifically, branches have regulatory status in the host country and often form a key part of the country’s national plan for economic development. Branch credentials are recognized as legitimate because they have been vetted by local quality assurance, sponsored by the government, or both. Simply because the Internet easily slips across borders doesn’t mean that valid education credentials can as well. Without local endorsement of MOOC initiatives, it is doubtful that students will see them as a superior option to the branch campus.

Additionally, MOOC’s still have a number of obstacles to overcome before being viewed as a legitimate form of competition for any type of higher education. First, students need to be able to complete an entire course of study via a MOOC. It is one thing for a student to pursue a course or two in an area of personal interest. But this is much different than taking the dozens of different courses required for a degree.

Plus, we lack a global infrastructure for awarding degrees outside of a national and institutional framework. In other words, how will a MOOC degree be awarded and from whom? Despite their engagement in the MOOC experience, institutions such as Stanford or MIT have been unwilling to dilute their core brand by awarding MOOC students the same degree as those who complete the more traditional course of study online. It seems more likely that local institutions and structures will emerge to validate the learning, thus diluting the value of the elite international MOOC brands that presumably attract “glocal” students in the first place.

To be clear, we are not dismissing the potential of MOOC’s to be a transformative influence on higher education. And don’t take our discussion of the roadblocks that MOOC’s will face as they try to move into the mainstream as an endorsement of outdated educational bureaucracies. We simply think that it is premature to sound the death knell of branch campuses and herald MOOC’s as the silver bullet for increasing global access to education. MOOC’s are an important innovation. But even if they live up to their potential, and break through the barriers to global provision of higher education that currently exist, there is still little reason to think they will cause international branch campuses to decline. They serve different purposes and different clientele. And they are grounded in different assumptions about the educational value of internationalization. There are good reasons to invest in foreign education outposts for international expansion, and we will explore these in our next blog.

For now, we wonder what readers believe will be the impact of MOOC’s on internationalization strategies? Will they be just another strategic tool, or will they transform the entire toolbox?

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