Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

What’s a MOOC? (And why should publishers care?)

Though they sound like they might have been cooked up by Seuss, MOOCs have been a hot topic in academic publishing lately. These “massive open online courses” are jut what they say: giant online-only classes designed for huge numbers of participants to attend… for free.

This video gives a good overview of the concept:

So… why MOOCs? What is the value of this sort of course? In the words of Karen Head on the Higher Education Chronicle’s Wired Campus, “Many people argue that rising technologies could allow us to educate the world more efficiently.” (For more validations for MOOCs from across the web, see this Washington Post blogger’s overview.)

According to her Chronicle post, Head is working on establishing a MOOC for freshman composition. Head’s post, and the comments following, raise a number of good questions about how MOOCs can offer the same level of feedback and a comparable experience to a normal, in-person college course. How can subjective topics, such as composition, be taught to a concievably unlimited number of students? How can quality be assured? What obstacles must be overcome in order to conform with platform requirements?

And while each of those questions is a complex and intricate puzzle unto itself, those looking at MOOCs from a publishing and education perspective are seeking answers to a different set of problems. Are MOOCs sustainable? What will the long-term effects be on educational funding? Where do publishers fit into the MOOC equation—and does this open the door for Open Access to make itself truly be felt in publishers’ bottom lines?

A Scholarly Kitchen post last week looked at the question of financial sustainability for MOOCs: the potential of offering a paid option for students who want to take the course for credit, though free for those taking courses without seeking credit.

But the question of where publishers fit into the equation seems to be more complicated. While these courses can have enrollment numbers of tens of thousands, they also have a steep dropout rate—which, granted, isn’t that unusual for something that’s free. But that means that selling textbooks in the traditional sense isn’t a very logical expectation, especially since MOOC enrollment can include individuals of varying economic backgrounds with various levels of access to English language textbooks. (In the words of a Coursera exec: “We do strongly urge instructors not to require any textbooks that cost money.”) However, publishers aren’t ignoring the value of reaching that many students, as this Chronicle of Higher Education blog from September discusses:

But online courses do have recommended-reading lists, and enrollments in the tens of thousands. If even a small percentage of those online students buy books, the sales could add up to a nice boost for a textbook.

And MOOCs are helping speed along the development of digital-born textbook alternatives—textbook content built outside the page, combining multimedia sources with text, exercises, and other elements to create an interactive experience to deliver lessons to students.

In sum, MOOCs could be a game-changer—at the very least, they’re forcing educators, administrators, publishers, and other key stakeholders in the education game to take a second look at the way they think about teaching, learning, content, and business models. Will MOOCs catch on? In many ways, they can’t replace the person-to-person experience and community engagement of a college campus. However, their role as a vehicle for equality and social change may begin to change the international face of students and learning—and may play a role in increasing the rate of adoption for digital academic texts.


Graphic by Leah Thompson

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

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This entry was posted on February 6, 2013 by in Business, News and tagged , , .

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