MOOCs, Instructional Content and Competition

“Microwave ovens were a clever idea, but their inventor could hardly have realized that their effect would ultimately be to take the preparation of food out of the home and into the, increasingly automated, factory; to make cooking as it used to be into a matter of choice, not of necessity; to alter the habits of our homes, making the dining table outmoded for many, as each member of the family individually heats up his or her own meal as and when they require it.”   Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason

Handy’s microwave example illustrates the point that technological innovations often have repercussions well beyond the original and intended purpose. As each innovation is launched, it inevitably interacts with a range of social, economic and cultural forces, leading to often surprising results.

Massive open online courses —MOOCs — are no different. The primary intention of MOOCs was to provide free online access to anyone via the web; not to create a radically more transparent form of higher education. But this aspect may prove to be MOOC’s greatest impact.

Transparency and Instructional Quality

Instructional resources and activities have historically been kept behind closed doors, available to only registered students. But, of course, MOOCs make instructional courses and their contents available to people outside of the institution; this is the format’s fundamental value.  As a result, universities and individual instructors find one of their core activities on display in ways not seen before.

University leaders soon came to recognize the tremendous attention these courses were generating. Always concerned with reputation (the currency of greatest import in higher ed), universities began to see MOOCs as a new platform for competition; another means to establish and extend their brand, while fulfilling the institution’s social mission.

But on what basis will institutions and academics compete through MOOCs? At this stage, it appears that the competition will be fought primarily through instructional content; the materials developed for students, such as video, illustrations, audio and text.

During the past 18 months, the attention paid to the quality and production value of instructional content of high-profile MOOCs (e.g., Coursera, edX) has increased significantly. Video lectures and presentations are better written. Production values – such as professional lighting and sound – have improved. We are seeing less traditional lectures and more “performances.”

  • An instructor teaching a Udacity course begins by interviewing passersby in a style lifted straight out of late night TV comedy.
  • The three-part edX course,” Fundamentals of Neuroscience,” features 5 to 10 minute NOVA-like episodes.
  • In a recent article, edX CEO Anant Agarwal said, “From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” and floated the idea that using actors in the future was a possibility.

And I know of at least one digital higher education publisher that has turned to actors, rather than academics, to “star” in the company’s video lectures. While the vast majority of online courses in North American universities are made for $20K to $25K, I’ve been told (privately) that investment in MOOCs has reached 10 times that amount, due to the cost of higher production value.

How Context Influences Value

It’s important to emphasize that this heightened attention to the quality of instructional content is not the result of changing ideas of best practices for pedagogy or even demands by students for better quality content.  At least not directly.

Rather, it’s the result of the new context in which the course is experienced. Typically, a university-level course is evaluated as part of a larger set of experiences that constitute the traditional university experience: a credential system, being part of a program of study and living on campus.

Pulled out of this traditional context, the MOOC is evaluated on the basis of other criteria. Now what matters most to the student is what can be learned, full stop. So, what determines value for the learner depends more on factors such as the clarity of exposition, whether the course inspires interest in the learner (and maintains that interest), and how quickly and easily learning occurs.

While these factors are certainly important in the traditional university context, they are less important, and are often outweighed by other factors, such as obtaining a degree. Using instructional content as the basis of competition for public recognition between institutions will likely increase the quality of instructional content in online higher education.

To date, instructional content in online higher education has received remarkably little attention. At many institutions, the process of developing digital instructional materials still operates in a cottage-industry fashion. Individual instructors with limited funds, incomplete skill sets and insufficient incentives bear most of the burden for course design and development. While service departments provide technical support and instructional guidance, they’ve made only a small dent in the instructional model, to date.

Instructional Content and Competition

At the very least, I hope that increased attention given to instructional content in MOOCs will generate more focus on the design of online courses. A more disciplined, team-based approach will improve the quality of learning.

And it’s also encouraging that the basis of this competition between participating institutions is actually directly related to instruction. As any education marketing professional will tell you (if their employer is not within earshot), instructional quality is not, sadly, a potent recruitment strategy.

For institutions, competition based on instructional quality introduces interesting possibilities.  The elite institutions that grabbed the early MOOC headlines (Harvard, MIT, Stanford) are not necessarily better prepared (dollar-to-dollar) to offer high quality instructional content than less prestigious institutions. In fact, it could be argued − although difficult to quantify − that the focus of elite institutions on research, rather than teaching, makes these early MOOC adopters less prepared to compete on this new basis.

Share you ideas in the comments section or contact me directly at or @keithhampson on Twitter.

Keith Hampson

Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovations at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU's long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. In addition to adaptive "intelligent" courseware and learning analytics, we offer a range of consulting and professional development services for colleges and universities that increase the quality of their digital programs.