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Building an Infrastructure to Effectively Support MOOCs

It’s no secret that universities across the nation are facing more challenges than ever before. Shrinking budgets are contrasted with higher costs and aging facilities. The government is getting more involved from a regulatory standpoint while decreasing its funding support for education. Demand is up, enrollments are all over the map and across the board, and graduation rates are down. It’s a roller coaster of peaks and valleys that leaves schools fighting for ways to cope, retain students, and help them graduate on time.

So it comes as no surprise that schools are looking for a silver bullet to answer their questions and solve their problems. Today, and for the past year or so, that bullet has been MOOCs, massive open online courses offered by companies like Coursera, edX, and Udacity. These online courses are virtually attended by students around the world; some courses even boast attendance in the hundreds of thousands. They’re popular for good reason: they offer access, often at no cost, to top-notch classes previously relegated only to those smart (and privileged) enough to attend the nation’s top schools. They’re a natural extension of traditional teaching that’s enabled by the internet.

And they’re an effective tactic; people are open to learning via high quality content on the Internet, a fact validated by the popularity of sites like Khan Academy and Schools create very high quality content, and so it is natural to want to extend that content to massive audiences. MOOCs provide tremendous scale—a single course can be taught to an unlimited number of online students—and are coming of age at a time when many schools are seeking to address the demand for our schools’ content both domestically and abroad.

But when looking at MOOCs, campus administrators need to ask themselves a number of questions: Are MOOCs a long-term strategic answer for our campus? How do they integrate into our school’s degree program? Are they helping more students graduate? Are students actually learning or is this more about good marketing for our school? Who are they ultimately benefitting, younger full-time students or lifelong learners? What will come after MOOCs?

The Switchboard Solution

MOOCs are, at their heart, a product, and just one of several products that colleges use to deliver education. They aren’t the first and won’t be the last technology that schools need to deploy at scale. Schools are also using adaptive learning applications—liked flipped classrooms and e-textbooks—and the future holds who knows how many additional methods. That leaves schools with the task of developing and delivering potentially hundreds of digital learning tools to thousands of students on hundreds of different devices.

To set themselves up to succeed in this new environment, institutions need to embrace technology at a fundamental level. Administrators and CIOs should be thinking about joining a platform—a holistic software solution—that could enable any product to be integrated into the school’s educational framework.

This platform would act like a switchboard, providing the ability to adopt and integrate many solutions like MOOCs, gamification, adaptive learning, and e-books that make up a holistic and practical approach to solving real issues on campus.

How Schools Can Benefit

Without a scalable infrastructure, institutions currently have difficulties adopting new technologies and new types of learning, scaling to meet growth, and managing all of these separate parts. And it’s not just about capturing data from already-implemented innovations. A solid information system that caters to schools could give campus administrators the flexibility to adopt and deploy new technologies that might not even exist yet and integrate seamlessly into the educational experience. Not only would a platform of this kind allow schools to adopt and deploy technology across multiple academic disciplines, devices and learning populations on and off campus, but it would also give them a common way to view their data holistically.

The type of data that flows into a university from MOOCs is different than that of traditional classes and the data behind a learning tool like a game is different from that of an e-book, or any other product or implementation. Without some sort of framework in place to analyze and assess this data, it’s rendered meaningless.

Look at enterprise technology. Few people now think about how corporations used a framework to deploy wave after wave of technology to their workforces. Without a common framework, organizations could not have taken advantage of advancements like ERP, CRM tools or even simple workplace productivity software like word processing. This infrastructure required the standardization of hardware, operating systems and software frameworks, and the need for a common framework for educational content is just as significant. Without this framework, the experience for the educator and student could be severely fragmented, making it harder to adopt new, innovative tools into the academic framework.

Painting A Picture

What would this infrastructure look like? It’d have to be a cloud-based technology that could support a common identity framework, security, commerce, support, access, and data formats and capture, as well as content licensing, commerce, and delivery. It would be complex at its core, but simple to implement and even more simple for educators and students to use. It should support innovative and potentially experimental new technologies, MOOCs included, by providing a way to adopt and integrate them into the learning environment. It would eliminate the need to do one-off integrations for every new product that comes to market. It would also provide choice to educators, a byproduct of which would be increased competition among providers. In this capacity, it would address the real issues facing education, including affordability, access, shrinking budgets, and increasing demand.

MOOCs might be framed as today’s panacea, and they address some of these problems. But in order to help schools thrive and meet the challenges of today and tomorrow head on, education administrators should invest in an innovation architecture that allows their institutions to embrace all the new products coming their way.


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