A Corporate Appraisal of MOOCs

In June, Moody’s released a report on the likely impact of MOOCs on the credit ratings of American colleges and universities. The headline in the relatively brief article on the report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Moody’s Says MOOCs Could Raise a University’s Credit Rating,” was, I think, rather misleading. For I think that it suggests to a casual reader that all of the hand-wringing over the unthinking adoption of MOOCs as an alternative to conventional classroom instruction, and even to pedagogically more complex online instruction, is largely unwarranted—that adopting MOOCs will likely, if not unequivocally, have a positive impact on a college’s or university’s financial condition.

But, as anyone who has actually bothered to read beyond the title and first paragraph of the article has likely grasped, it turns out that even Moody’s recognizes the truth about MOOCs.

What the Moody’s report very clearly indicates is that MOOCs will very likely widen the gap between elite institutions and less prestigious colleges and universities—and especially smaller institutions, many of which are already facing considerable fiscal challenges.

The elite institutions that have aligned themselves with the MOOC developers—Coursera, edX, and Udacity—will produce substantial additional revenues from those partnerships and will reinforce the perception of their academic superiority, in part because they themselves will continue to refuse to accept MOOCs for credit. They will be the clear winners as MOOCs proliferate.

Large state universities that adopt MOOCs that have been developed externally will most likely produce substantial, additional revenue from offering the MOOCs to student populations well beyond their currently substantial enrollments. In fact, in most instances, those new revenue streams should be substantial enough to offset some losses in their conventional enrollment due to some erosion in their prestige caused by their offering the MOOCs. In sum, their size will insure that they have the technical resources and the name recognition and reach to profit from MOOCs, as well as broad enough curricular offerings to absorb an erosion in the rankings of some of their programs.

In pointed contrast, smaller colleges and universities, both public and private, will be damaged fiscally by the spread of MOOCs, regardless of whether or not they try to adopt them. Most will have neither the technical resources nor the reputational reach to make their own adoption of MOOCs feasible. And even if their adoption of MOOCs is feasible, it will be very damaging to their prospects since most of these institutions attract students by emphasizing the elements of their physical settings, their histories and cultural milieus, their faculties, instructional innovations, and curricular offerings, and/or the opportunities for extracurricular personal development that make them atypical, if not unique. The mass sameness of MOOCs would surely undermine such a pitch to prospective students, and yet the decreased cost and convenience of education by MOOC will just as surely make it very difficult for many of these smaller institutions to survive. (There is a ready and apt parallel in the impact of Walmarts on the downtown business districts of most small towns.)

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