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MOOCs – BlackBerry’s lesson for higher education

In 2007, BlackBerry was at the forefront of the smartphones industry with over 40% of the market share in the United States. However, the iPhone offered a new choice to consumers and redefined their expectations of a smartphone.

Now Blackberry is arguably on its deathbed, with its market share slipping to less than 4% in the US. The Wall Street Journal notes that “it was a blinding confidence in the basic BlackBerry product that was at the root of RIM's [parent company of Blackberry] current troubles”.

In the same vein, MOOCs are beginning to offer a new choice to students, and are not only changing the financial equation of foreign branch campuses but also the way education is delivered as a result of technological advances.

The MOOCs debate

In my previous blog, I argued that branch campuses are infrastructure-intensive efforts with high financial and reputational risk. In contrast, MOOCs offer a low-cost, flexible alternative for ‘glocal’ students to potentially earn a foreign credential. Yet some branch campuses may be turning a blind eye to this alternative choice, which may lead them into the BlackBerry fallacy.

In response to my blog post, Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser argued that the “branch campus model is not fading” and “MOOCs still have a number of obstacles to overcome before being viewed as a legitimate form of competition for any type of higher education”.

Also, a recent report by William Lawton and Alex Katsomitros of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education echoed that "it might be better to think of MOOCs and international branch campuses as independent internationalisation strategy options".

While I recognised some of the obstacles concerning their revenue model and credentials system as “the MOOCs unknowns” in my previous post, there are admittedly additional challenges of plagiarism and employer acceptance.

I still believe that, despite these challenges, in the next few years MOOCs will mature from irrational exuberance to a more sustainable model that fundamentally changes the form and character of foreign branch campuses.

MOOCs are not new as a delivery channel since online learning has existed and grown over time. However, what is new is the unique confluence of content, delivery, quality and cost, which can potentially transform internationalisation strategies.

This means that ignoring MOOCs as a competitive alternative could harm institutions' internationalisation strategies.

MOOCs evolving fast

Many institutions may be caught off-guard due to the pace of MOOCs' evolution. Since my blog post two months back, Coursera has signed up 17 more institutions, including Brown University and Columbia University, to offer courses to its 1.35 million students.

edX has also announced a partnership with Pearson’s testing centres to allow its students to take proctored exams, which in turn would provide a pathway for earning credit.

And Colorado State University’s Global Campus announced it would give transfer credits to Udacity students who have taken a proctored test.

The early adopters of MOOCs are likely to be career-oriented, self-motivated students who are comfortable with technology. Evidently, with the lack of a clear pathway for earning foreign qualifications, there is little direct competition for branch campuses at this time since ‘legitimacy’ remains a concern.

However, as qualifications pathways emerge, the dynamics will change and legitimacy will be redefined.

For instance, most branch campuses rely on career-oriented degrees in business and engineering where buy-in from employers in terms of perception of quality of credentials is very important. But if, say, an IT company believes that MOOCs taught by MIT professors are more ‘credible’ than an average quality branch campus, then the financial foundations of physical campuses could be shaken.

Existing branch campuses, especially those supported by government funding or having reputable brand names attached to them, are less likely to be impacted by MOOCs.

However, newer branch campuses will face unexpected competition from MOOCs and existing campuses could become more attractive to students seeking a campus experience because there are fewer new branch campuses.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous by offering a business analogy for what could happen to branch campuses, I encourage higher education institutions not to get in a state of ‘blinding confidence’ about foreign branch campuses, which are becoming increasingly unsustainable.

Institutions should monitor, understand and adapt to the brave new world of MOOCs and their influence on internationalisation strategies and international students. As The New Yorker summed up the fate of Blackberry: “The real problem is that the technology world changed, and RIM didn’t.”

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and http://interEDGE.org. He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at info@DrEducation.com and @DrEducationBlog.

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