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The challenge of developing effective MOOCs


Ashridge's Tony Sheehan turns his attention to MOOCs and gives us some vital pointers for success.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer both potential and pitfalls to those institutions seeking to deliver them. They have reached a point where considerable volumes of students across the world are now actively learning from many significant institutions. At the same time, however, experiences are inconsistent and the benefits to institutions do not always merit the levels of preparation or commercial investment required for success.

Reflecting on both current and emerging practices to date, there are five challenges that institutions will have to face in order to deliver effective MOOCs moving forward.


In a world where expectations are set by the latest smartphone announcement, the first challenge is to provide a credible offer within the intensely competitive digital learning market. 15 years ago it was possible to deliver a one-size-fits-all digital content solution to support learning with little or no awareness of technology. Times have changed. The classroom is now flipped, with knowledge delivery demanded in advance in order to allow time for analysis, exploration and interaction. The classroom is also connected, with learners both aware of technology due to the consumerisation of IT, but also more demanding of quality insights, gamification and of heavily customised and personalised experiences. Any players in this field need to commit sufficient time and resource to focus on quality in all aspects of delivery or run the risk of their credibility being ruthlessly challenged in social media channels.


Despite the current thirst for MOOCs, a recent survey of L&D professionals by Ashridge found that MOOCs were regarded as one of the least likely technology-based learning solutions to have an impact in the learning space over the next five years. Why? More detailed interviews revealed those responsible for longer term digital learning strategy had both reputations and investments linked to other solutions. Four distinct stakeholder groups exist in most institutions:

  • Enterprise technology departments

  • Learning technology departments

  • New technology advocates

  • Technology providers and consultants

For an effective MOOC implementation it is essential to cultivate strategic conversations that coordinate these different stakeholder groups towards the best learning experience rather than just the one each group believes in.


Few of us would see any barriers in rating a hotel or a travel experience in today’s world of social collaboration. When such technologies translate to more formal academic spaces, however, the rules of engagement change, multiple generations must be bridged and behaviours need to be monitored. There are problems at both extremes – low levels of participation and over-active participation – but poor behaviours (the dominant participant, the ‘bully’) can kill the enthusiasm in a course for the less vocal but observant majority.

The key response to this challenge is to agree conventions that can be adhered to within online spaces. It is also essential to commit to collaboration, ensuring that online collaboration spaces are monitored; course leaders need to be available at clear times to answer questions, facilitators to encourage the right behaviours and technology as appropriate to cope with the scale of engaged participants that have been predicted.


Ownership of the intellectual property (IP) of materials created for MOOCs is an emerging issue, with

  • In some institutions, faculty own the IP of materials they create.

  • In others the institution claiming it owns the IP as it pays the wages of faculty as employees.

  • Publishers and those that own copyright protected materials used in some MOOCs point to laws of fair use in the application of their materials around the world.

  • Some MOOC providers now ask users to sign over IP in exchange for use of their free software.

  • Participants on MOOCs can argue that any social activities or social knowledge generated could result in their IP.

MOOC designers must be conscious and cautious of content ownership. There is little consistency and so transparency in advance will beat the risk of litigation later.


With the maturing of the MOOC, commercialisation models have inevitably started to emerge. How and when will this deliver benefit? Is the purpose altruistic? Many see the MOOC as a route to increased brand awareness, with spinoff commercial opportunities in more established business streams as a result. Others, such as Harvard Business School have developed paid streams as a feeder and parallel stream to their wider Business School courses. Certificates of achievement, credits and badges are components in many MOOC providers, and connecting this to the emerging field of Learning Record Stores it is easy to see that new forms of assessment are starting to emerge. However, there is also a growing realisation that delivering MOOCs well requires considerable investment and effort. Inevitably with such costs, someone somewhere has to pay. Those providing MOOCs must, therefore, be clear of any need to commercialise and the path toward that over time.

One of the few certainties of the current MOOC market is that it will continue to evolve. Aside from the wondrous commitment and creativity of those individuals that run them, a blend of clarity, commitment, convention, content and commercial focus would also seem to be essential ingredients for success.

Tony Sheehan is the Learning Services Director at Ashridge, where he is responsible for providing the business school and external clients with knowledge solutions including Virtual Ashridge and Ashridge Psychometrics. He also explores the impact of new technologies on learning, and contributes to knowledge management campaigns. Before joining Ashridge, Tony was Group Knowledge Manager of Arup, where he led the development and delivery of knowledge management strategy. You can learn more about Virtual Ashridge here



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