Will MOOCs Dilute Brands of Exclusive Colleges?


The explosion of free, online courses from top-notch colleges such as Harvard, Wellesley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology promises to revolutionize higher education.


The brightest professors and the most rigorous courses are no farther than a laptop away, open to all, with spiraling tuitions no longer an enormous barrier.


“We’re witnessing the end of higher education as we know it,” Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun predicted in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe.


But what do these sea changes mean to ivy-draped campuses? How exclusive can they stay if everyone can put Harvard or Stanford on his or her resume?


More important: Will students continue to pay if they can sign online and get the same education for free? In the vocabulary of marketing, can these brands retain their allure?


The three leading providers of online classes for the masses – the so-called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs – have elite pedigrees. Coursera and Udacity are both for-profits with Stanford roots, while edX is a non-profit out of Harvard and M.I.T.


The massive online courses are not meant to replace a university education, says Daphne Koller of Coursera, which she founded with fellow Stanford University professor Andrew Ng.


“We see online education as a chance for universities to extend their brand to reach millions more across the world, who otherwise would never see a classroom at Stanford, University of Edinburgh or Princeton,” she said.


The traditional experience encompasses more than just learning, with opportunities for one-on-one exchanges with professors, social interactions and extracurricular activities, Koller explained.


Elizabeth Scarborough, the CEO of SimpsonScarborough, a market research firm that works exclusively with colleges and universities, doubts the online courses will rival traditional colleges in reputation.


“I will guess that the elite institutions will always reserve their degrees for those who go through the traditional programs or whatever the traditional programs become – because even traditional programs are changing,” she said.


“The unknown is, how will employers react? If someone says, ‘I have this certificate, I took this online course at M.I.T.,’ are they going to be just as likely to hire that person as they are someone who has a full, undergraduate degree? Right now, I would say absolutely not.”


Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., has just joined the edX collaborative, the first women’s liberal arts college to do so.


“Our hope is that WellesleyX classes will attract the intellectually curious regardless of age, geography, or educational background,” said Andrew Shennan, provost and dean of the college.


“We believe there is no surer way of bringing positive change in the world than educating women,” he said. “If a woman has access to the Internet, she will have access to the education she needs to—quite literally—change the world.”


Rita Kirshstein, an expert on higher education financing at the American Institutes of Research, said that the online courses are not necessarily geared toward 18-year-olds coming out of high school, but rather for adults with no degrees or in need of retraining. Whether the reputations of elite schools will suffer, “Time will tell,” she said.


Aoun, of Northeastern University, wrote in his op-ed that massive online courses will ultimately upend higher education.


“Vertically integrated universities will continue to exist, but they’ll be joined by a variety of horizontally integrated competitors with the ability to perform the same core functions for many more people,” he wrote. “In short, the monopoly that colleges and universities have on advanced learning and degree granting will be dismantled.”


Still, it is perhaps not quite time to unleash the bulldozers at exclusive schools. Aoun told The Financialist that for the time being, the elite universities are reserving their brands for the students who pay full fare for the traditional experience.


“You are not getting — at the end of the online courses — any diploma from these institutions,” he said. “You don’t have our brand if you don’t have our diploma.”


Scarborough gives the universities top marks for how embracing online learning has affected the images of the institutions involved so far. With their free classes and an appeal to universal education, Harvard and the others appear for now to have boosted their brands, rather than endangered them.


“From a marketer’s perspective, it’s perfection,” she said. “I think what they’ve done is genius.”


Photo courtesy of: Flickr — :ray