Do Moocs generate return on investment?

Ang Davies looks at the pros and cons of the University of Manchester’s recent clinical bioinformatics Mooc

November 25, 2017

Genomics, the study of people's genetic make-up, is revolutionising healthcare. Expanding far beyond the field of clinical genetics, it is now being used to diagnose disease, make disease prognoses and also predict potential adverse outcomes to treatments and tailor an individual’s treatment.

Clinical bioinformaticians are designing the IT infrastructure, data governance and analysis pipelines to allow the analysis of huge genomic data sets but, as a profession, clinical bioinformatics is still in its infancy (and is something of a mystery to some healthcare professionals). Because of this, we decided to create a Futurelearn massive open online course (Mooc) to raise awareness of this important new profession. 

One year on (and five runs of our Mooc later), I wonder what value our course has added to the healthcare professional community, to The University of Manchester, and also to us as academics. 

At what cost?

The development costs of producing a Mooc should not be underestimated. In 2015, a Times Higher Education study that looked at the real costs of developing Moocs found figures varied from £10,000 to £50,000, with an average of £29,356. Our development costs were  £26,000, and running costs probably ran into the hundreds of pounds each time (although with genomics changing so rapidly it’s likely that the need for redevelopment will come quickly).

Early rhetoric suggested that Moocs might threaten traditional university face-to-face provision. But the tide has turned, and the focus of many Moocs has moved from widening participation in education to income generation. For some institutions they generate significant revenue, earning an estimated $100 million (£75 million) in 2016 according to a recent report.

FutureLearn’s financial model has recently changed, and while learners can still access the courses for free, there is now the option of a paid upgrade allowing continued access for the life of the course.  

What value have Moocs brought to us as academics?

As with any rapidly developing field, the lifetime of the material created is finite – long-term sustainability will require significant academic and learning technologist support – a cost that we will need to factor in to any future courses. The time, commitment and effort that Moocs demand should not be trivialised – I would estimate an average of 20 hours of academic or facilitator time to respond to the discussions and write end-of-week summary emails.

Within our course, case studies and articles are interspersed with quizzes, polls and discussion topics to encourage debate and discussion among learners. Educator engagement and participation is certainly important to the learners and our experience has been that Mooc learners engage better in discussions when educators and facilitator presence is high, which of course adds to the academic pressure of running a course.

This demand from the learners does also bring advantages to us as educators, ensuring we keep up to speed with updates in the field and simultaneously developing our public engagement skills. The Mooc has provided a good forum to explore how our science interacts with the wider community – for example, learners who are carers for people with rare genetic conditions. 

Value of data

From a data analytics perspective, Moocs generate data in abundance. We can use this to discern patterns of learning in relation to the learner demographic and predict those more likely to complete a Mooc, but we can also look for the peak content that generates the most discussion. From a course-design perspective this enables an educator to test content that might be useful for the development of any further distance learning. 

Comments posted within FutureLearn courses provide a rich source of data to explore public views on issues related to the content. We have used these to explore perceptions of genomic data sharing. 

A useful marketing tool?

MOOCs offer an attractive opportunity to market an institution’s educational portfolio in related subjects. Following our March 2017 course we tracked visits to our MSc genomic Medicine page, included as a link in the post-course survey. Those following this link spent four minutes longer on our website than other visitors, illustrating its power as a marketing tool. Translating this to enquiries, applications and confirmed students, though, is a lot more challenging. 

Value for money? Yes. Hard work? Definitely!

Investment in the development and delivery of a Mooc is significant, though the opportunities it presents for pedagogic exploration, subject specific research and promotional activity are extensive. The value we have seen come from intangibles, the ability to reuse material, engage with a wider audience and raise the profile of our discipline. We have also seen that it works well as a marketing tool.

However, other tangible benefits, such as a significant increase in extra students to existing courses or direct income from the Mooc, have not been as forthcoming. I have no doubt that our Mooc’s future will demand creativity and innovation but will continue to stimulate our development as educators. 

Ang Davies is a senior lecturer in clinical bioinformatics and genomics at the University of Manchester

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