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President’s Perspective: The MOOCs Shall Inherit the Earth
President’s Perspective: The MOOCs Shall Inherit the Earth

That’s the fear, but online classes could boost alumni relations and fundraising

By John Lippincott

With some reluctance I'm focusing this column on MOOCs (massive open online courses). First of all, you're reading this Perspective at least two months after I wrote it—and the rapidly evolving MOOCs movement has probably experienced at least two major transformations in that time. Moreover, too much has already been written on the topic (and we know too little about it).

Yet much of the MOOCs discussion within the education community has been too narrowly focused. The conversations often center on academic credits, traditional students, and financial returns. These are topics worthy of serious consideration, but they tend to emphasize impediments rather than opportunities and create resistance rather than excitement among faculty and other key players.

Our response to MOOCs is really no different than it is to other technological advances. We apply the new capabilities to existing problems, setting up inevitable comparisons and conflicts with existing solutions. The debate then is framed by questions such as, "Are MOOCs better or worse than the traditional classroom experience?" and "Will MOOCs replace full-time faculty?"

The much more interesting question is, "What can MOOCs do that existing solutions can't?" And I think some intriguing answers can be found in the advancement arena, most notably alumni relations.

A tool for lifelong learning

One of the fundamental promises colleges and universities make to their alumni is the opportunity for lifelong learning, a pledge that dates back to 1874 when Wheaton College in Massachusetts offered the first continuing education courses aimed at graduates (see CASE's alumni relations timeline). Yet during the intervening 139 years, institutions have struggled to fulfill that promise.

With MOOCs, colleges and universities (and, yes, even schools) now have a powerful tool for re-engaging alumni in the intellectual life of the institution. While many institutions have sought ways to integrate the classroom experience into reunions and other traditional alumni activities, these efforts are often more about nostalgia than learning, more about recapturing the past than preparing for the future.

Encouraging alumni participation in MOOCs or, even better, tailoring MOOCs for alumni audiences has the potential to develop new forms and levels of engagement. And this potential cuts across the generations.

For recent graduates, MOOCs may help them hone existing skills or develop new ones to increase their options in a challenging employment marketplace. For midcareer graduates, MOOCs can be the delivery mechanism for continuing education units, whether required or desired. And for those approaching retirement, MOOCs offer the chance to explore new areas of interest and to reconnect with the life of the mind. For baby boomers entering their sixties, MOOCs could not be coming at a better time.

More engagement, more giving

Despite this great potential for MOOCs to serve the alumni body, alumni engagement was one of the least cited reasons for interest in MOOCs in a member survey conducted by EDUCAUSE, an association dedicated to advancing higher education through information technology. In that same survey, however, a significant number of respondents suggested that MOOCs were important for branding and visibility.

Indeed, MOOCs have great potential from a communications and marketing perspective, well beyond enhanced name recognition. MOOCs allow prospective students to participate in the learning process with faculty members and let accepted students become part of the community—and get a head start on their academic careers even before they arrive on campus. Just as MOOCs offer alumni a much deeper experience than they get from a seminar at a reunion, they offer prospective students far greater insight than a classroom "pop in" during a campus tour.

Do MOOCs also hold potential for fundraising? Most certainly, for the simple reason that donor engagement correlates highly with propensity to give. Prospective donors—alumni, other benefactors, even corporate and foundation executives—who take advantage of MOOCs will likely develop a greater appreciation for the institution and its faculty and, therefore, a greater willingness to provide philanthropic support. Offering major donors access to MOOCs on subjects of particular interest to them would represent a quantum leap from a faculty member giving a 30-minute talk at a campaign dinner.

It is too early to tell if MOOCs can play a significant role in institutional advancement. But it is also too early to dismiss, overlook, or limit that potential. Fortunately, educational institutions are places that value experimentation; the very existence of MOOCs is clear evidence of that. So let's broaden our thinking about MOOCs to include advancement and let the experiments begin.

About the Author John Lippincott John Lippincott

John Lippincott served as president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education from 2004 through 2015.




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