April 3, 2019 mgoudz

Ramps, Bridges, and Retreats

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend whom I first met through working on MOOCs at our respective institutions. We realized that both of our institutions have reached a decision point about our MOOC projects: Do we pivot to other learning projects, or persevere with our MOOC-making? And if we persist, what should our strategies be in this next wave of MOOC-making? I wanted to put my thoughts out there in the form this open letter. 


Dear MOOC colleague, 

We met back in the dawn of the MOOC-craze around 2014. Our institutions both made the crazy leap to join a major MOOC platform, even though our strengths were (and still are) face-to-face, residential learning. We had lofty and well-articulated reasons to join: to support open education, extend our reach beyond our campuses, and foster educational experimentation and research. We also knew that we didn’t want to be left behind in what seemed like the place to go for learning innovation.

It was a whirlwind of excitement, risk-taking, and start-up fever. We were all just trying to figure this out this MOOC business – business agreements, legal agreements, project management, forming learning teams – in order to create good learning experiences online for learners we didn’t know. We set out to share our institutions’ teaching with the world, and what we did along the way was establish a sharing economy among those who make MOOCs.

The MOOC-honeymoon is way over now and we’re both wondering what’s next. Do we pivot or persevere? If we stop MOOCing, what does that mean about our commitments to those original reasons for joining…open, global reach, research….? If we persevere, how might we refocus MOOCs on one of three experiences: ramps, bridges, and retreats?


At our historically face-to-face colleges, online learning allows future students, global partners, and even current students to begin a learning journey even before the course starts or they have enrolled at the institution. My institution has partnered with another university to offer a seven-course series in C programming (C Programming with Linux). Unlike many MOOCs, this series has almost no video lectures. Instead, it has interactive coding lessons and real coding challenges. 

One learner in the series wrote recently to say that, although he wasn’t allowed to work due to his refugee status, he could learn a new skill in anticipation and preparation for the day he can work again. That doesn’t happen routinely on our campuses, but it should happen at our institutions. 

Closer to campus, our own students report, “I’m not a code person, but I wanted to take this engineering class. Having a head-start made me realize I am a coder!” 

These MOOCs are ramps to both formal, credit-bearing learning experiences as well as future jobs. There is absolutely no threat to our business models and much to gain by extending our reach while supporting our own matriculated students. 

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash


At my institution, students are very busy taking multiple classes, working, finding internships, traveling, socializing, and studying away from campus. There are many starts and stops to the learning cycle, and students report that they tend to compartmentalize their learning into one term at a time. 

Our renewed online learning efforts can provide a bridge between and across learning cycles. Let’s say a student is studying music, and has just completed a residential class in opera. In that 10-week quarter, they had to share their focus with many other things, and and want to continue their opera journey over the holiday break. An online course (like Italian or German opera) could bridge the learning experience until the next on-campus class.


In higher ed, we organize the learner’s path in discrete segments. First students encounter admissions, then our faculty, and finally alumni affairs. All of these offices bring a different approach and culture to working with future, current, and former students. Before they step on campus, and as they step off campus, we encourage our students to be life-long learners. We invite them back to campus occasionally to reconnect (and give back), but why not work together to create knowledge, learn from each other, and reconnect more than every five years?

Our next online learning efforts should focus on alumni in strategic ways. We admitted them once, and now it’s time to welcome them back to a learning journey that began before they matriculated and continues beyond graduation.

Let’s see if we pivot or persevere. If we persevere, let’s consider building ramps, bridges, and retreats.

With all best (MOOC) wishes,