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Last year’s exuberance about the impact of massive open online courses has fizzled. MOOCs have been widely eulogized as “overpromised,” “off course,” and just plain “enough already!” This much ballyhooed and belittled phenomenon is clearly neither the cure for all that ails higher education, nor the end of colleges and universities as we know them.

But in our urge to find the next big thing, we shouldn’t ignore what MOOCs can offer to learners around the world and to institutions of higher education. Our true return on investment for MOOCs may be difficult to quantify — and it may not be monetary. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

“MOOCs have advanced the conversation and sharpened our focus on helping students learn. And that’s the ultimate return on investment.

MOOCs are showing potential to attract applicants and engage alumni. Penn State’s GIS Mapping MOOC, for example, increased traffic to our GIS graduate program website by 400 percent. In addition, MOOCs are creating communities of online learners around the world and in some cases providing critical employment skills.

Students from sub-Saharan Africa took Penn State’s epidemiology MOOC, then formed their own online discussion group to apply its lessons to their own communities. Doctors and public health professionals traded insights about vaccination schedules and the dissemination of public health information in their home countries. High school students interested in careers in medicine and public health sought and received advice from professionals in the field.

Those are all returns on investment.

But there’s more. On the qualitative front, Penn State faculty members are taking components of MOOCs and repurposing them in classrooms for degree students — both on and offline. Freshman engineering students, for example, viewed commentaries by students around the world who took Penn State’s “Creativity, Innovation and Change” MOOC, hearing first-hand accounts of how religion can influence innovation. In addition, many of our faculty are advancing research projects based on what they’re learning from the students in their MOOCs.

Penn State has offered degrees through its online World Campus for 15 years, so we’re no strangers to online learning. But the hue and cry over MOOCs has given new urgency to the conversation about pedagogy and learning. Educators are focused more than ever before on outcomes, competencies, and how to help students.

We are seeing firsthand how MOOCs and online learning are shaping classroom experiences. Professors for our geospatial technology and introduction to art classes say their MOOC teaching experiences have influenced their classroom instruction — leading them to incorporate discussion forums and social media into non-MOOC classes, for example. We are actually encouraging our staff to sign up for MOOCs to check out innovative course design and pedagogical approaches.

The need to keep students engaged who are not captive audiences in a classroom is challenging the traditional face-to-face lecture as the sole pedagogy to engage deep learning.

Some critics fear online learning will make faculty expendable. I believe it makes them more valuable, as lectures are increasingly replaced with helping students analyze data, work in teams, synthesize information, make cogent arguments, and evaluate the quality of knowledge — all of which we see happening already at Penn State.

MOOCs have advanced the conversation and sharpened our focus on helping students learn. And that’s the ultimate return on investment.

Craig D. Weidemann is vice provost for online education at Pennsylvania State University.

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