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Data mining the MOOCs

The massive enrollment in MOOCs is yielding a treasure-trove of information for everything from marketing to course development
University Business, October 2013
Rhe concept of leveraging MOOCs as a data-rich marketing vehicle is new but gaining a foothold
Rhe concept of leveraging MOOCs as a data-rich marketing vehicle is new but gaining a foothold

The exploding popularity of MOOCs is beginning to open up a mother lode of data about prospective students that colleges and universities can use for marketing and recruitment purposes.

MOOCs are still in their infancy stages, and the concept of leveraging their reach as a data-rich marketing vehicle for the institution is even newer. But it’s beginning to gain a foothold.

(Related UBTech presentation: One University's Experience.)

Before using MOOC data to target students who may want to apply to the institution or enroll in tuition-based courses there, administrators naturally need that data. There’s also a desire to capture information on MOOC enrollees to enhance learning outcomes and make decisions on future offerings.

To get started, institutions have begun working with technology vendors to capture data about students who participate in MOOCs. And some have taken the next steps to use that data for marketing and other decision making.

Questions to answer

“Whatever kind of data that can be generated from a MOOC course or courses to help that recruiting or marketing effort is extremely valuable,” says Rick Tomlinson, manager of academic solutions at Jenzabar. Customers are seeking optimal ways to collect that data and then decide how that data gets integrated into their existing databases.

Considering what purposes the MOOCs serve for the institution is an important step to take first. “Is it for access? To give people an opportunity to take a world-class course from a world-class professor?” asks Sam Burgio, Jenzabar’s vice president and general manager. “That’s where it’s evolving from. But the next step is to monetize: Will people get credits? Will people get degrees? Will they pay for them?”

“Showcasing the institution to capture prospective students is a rising reason [for offering MOOCs],” says Katie Blot, president of the education services division at Blackboard. Still, she adds, “There are more people talking about doing it than actually doing it.”

MOOCs give students a chance to interact with an institution and find out about the quality of online education offerings, says Jarl Jonas, director of product management and CourseSites at Blackboard. “As a recruitment and marketing vehicle, the institution is concerned about that. They want to put their best foot forward. Do they offer credit at no cost to attract students? Do they do a certificate that just leads to a professional development credential?”

Many colleges and universities are deciding not to provide credit for a MOOC unless a participant later enrolls in a paid program, says Blot, whose company has worked with Syracuse University (N.Y.), Temple University (Pa.), and Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio) in setting up and tracking data for their MOOCs. Caitlin Garrett, a statistical analyst at Rapid Insight, suggests slicing and dicing the data, breaking it out by course, by student, or by different cohorts, for example.

Data dice

This spring, SAS began working with Wesleyan University in Connecticut on a MOOC course developed through Coursera called “Passion Driven Statistics.” More than 13,000 students signed up and more than 4,000 finished the course, which ran from March through May, says Catherine Gihlstorf, senior academic program manager at SAS.

At the end of the course, students were surveyed about whether they had been familiar with Wesleyan previously, their impression of the school afterward, and whether they were an alum, as well as asked to give other demographic information, she says.

Although SAS has not stayed involved with the university’s data tracking, Gihlstorf has some ideas on what Wesleyan and other schools could do with such information. “How can we market, knowing that this is the group that tends to drop out, this is the group that tends to stay?” she says. “Is there a predictive nature to who they are? And, how would we reach those people? … Would they continue to complete [the course] if there was a cost involved? Would academic credit be an incentive to complete?”

Most schools offering MOOCs haven’t worked out questions like whether to target students who are degree-seeking, or certificate students, or noncredit, Gihlstorf says. “It’s an interesting area. It’s still developing. I’m surprised it got this far without a solid business plan.”

Clients of Campus Management have been watching MOOC developments closely and trying to figure out how these courses will work, as well as how and when to offer credit or monetize their offerings, says Rebecca Whitehead, product manager of academics.

“Some people aren’t willing to set their foot in the pool yet. Some people are seeing where it’s going. Some people are like, sign me up, and either joining the big collaboratives or looking to build their own,” she says. Some campus administrators have been tracking MOOC data such as what assignments and discussions students have participated in, while others are looking at when students stopped participating—and why.

Certainly not everyone who participates in a MOOC has any inkling they might want to continue to paid offerings, Whitehead says. “I suspect your conversion rate is going to be relatively small, depending on the topic you’re providing and how you’ve put that MOOC into the field, depending on how you’ve advertised it and made people aware of it.”

Constituent relationship management programs are needed for MOOCs even more than they are needed for traditional online programs, since participants often have a limited or no previous relationship with the school, says Lawrence Levy, CEO of Enrollment Rx.

Someone who has completed an online course has a valuable relationship with the school, compared with someone who inquired or enrolled but didn’t complete, he says. “Then you have different strategies of engagement around those different pools of people. We speak to a lot of schools that simply don’t have that capability; they like the idea [of using data on MOOC students], but they don’t have the systems in place.”

What’s next for MOOCs

How much MOOCs can influence data-driven decision making will depend on what happens as the trend develops.

But unlike many developments in higher education, MOOCs potentially represent more of a revolutionary than evolutionary change, Burgio says. “It will be interesting to see how this is going to shape higher education in the future,” he says. “Especially with the cost restraints that are going to be pushed by the federal government, how they will figure into the scorecards the Obama administration is pushing.”

Tomlinson, of Jenzabar, says he wonders how accrediting agencies and state licensing bodies will react to MOOCs as they continue to become more popular, and whether there will be standards developed.

“As long as MOOC courses are still dabbling in the credit process, accrediting bodies don’t feel the need to get into the mix,” he says. “But I think that will change significantly once this whole process becomes more disruptive and we get into that credit-bearing mode.”

Emily Baranello, senior director of the education practice at SAS, says she is curious to see how colleges and universities are tracking data for MOOCs five or six years from now. “Are we looking at the same quality of students? How did the universities determine what the standards are?” she says. “There are a lot of folks watching to see what will be the best model, to see what will be profitable for the university, and what will be profitable for the student experience.”

The way Whitehead of Campus Management sees it, MOOCs aren’t “an absolute game-changer. They’re a piece of the solution.”

Ed Finkel is an Evanston, Ill.-based writer.