Further Evolution of MOOCs with Academic Partnerships and MOOC2Degree Launch

One of the fastest growing educational delivery models over the past year is the school-as-a-service concept, where companies like Pearson, 2U, Academic Partnerships and Deltak provide the services needed for a traditional institution to create an online program at scale. As I have often pointed out, traditional institutions have a organizational designs and cultures that often prevent them from successfully creating self-sustaining online programs, which is the reason for the barrier in the landscape diagram. School-as-a-service model provides a bridge over that barrier.

Of course, the model that has grown even faster are MOOCs. Yesterday Academic Partnerships launched a new concept called MOOC2Degree that attempts to combine these two models, thus giving working adults (the sweet spot of their market) a lower cost, easier method to get credits in an online program.

AP Graphic 2


The most obvious aspect of MOOC2Degree is highlighted in the name – providing a pathway for MOOCs to help lead to a degree. From the press release:

Through this new initiative, the initial course in select online degree programs will be converted into a MOOC. Each MOOC will be the same course with the same academic content, taught by the same instructors, as currently offered degree programs at participating universities. Students who successfully complete a MOOC2Degree course earn academic credits toward a degree, based upon criteria established by participating universities.

Some of the early participants in Academic Partnerships’ MOOC2Degree initiative include: Arizona State University, Cleveland State University, Florida International University, Lamar University, University of Arkansas System, University of Cincinnati, University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing, University of West Florida and Utah State University. Additional universities are joining the initiative in the months ahead as they work through their processes for providing MOOCs.

This announcement is somewhat similar to the Semester Online program announced by 2U (how long do we need to point out this is formerly 2tor?) in November. In that program 10 partner institutions offer open online courses for credit, although they don’t consider the courses technically to be MOOCs. One significant difference is that 2U targets elite universities for specific domains, whereas Academic Partnerships has a broader focus, primarily targeting public colleges and universities, regardless of status.

Here are some initial thoughts on MOOC2Degree:

Betting on a megatrend

In an phone interview, Randy Best, founder and chairman of Academic Partnerships, said that the real megatrend is not the emergence of MOOCs, but rather the move to universal, affordable access to education. This populist view runs contrary to 2U, Coursera, Udacity and edX, all of which target elite universities, betting that their brands and faculty are important to attract large numbers of students.

I, for one, am sympathetic to this view, as I indicated to Josh Kim in his recent set of prediction interviews:

Despite xMOOCs targeting ‘elite’ higher ed, it will be non-elite institutions that aggressively adopt the model and define the 2nd generation of MOOCs.

Converting courses to MOOCs

How will the partner institutions convert their courses to MOOC courses? The first issue is that each school chooses how to offer their MOOC, and many will offer them on the same LMS already in use. While this vendor-neutral approach has its benefits, I could see a problem if the school’s LMS is not set up to be a MOOC platform.  The platform has to scale quickly if the courses grow in size to thousands of students. Many self-hosted LMS solutions are not capable of scaling in this way, nor are simple managed hosting solutions that have dedicated hardware per institution.

The second issue is that MOOCs need to be designed to be easy to get into the course content and interactions as easily as possible. A clunky course design as well as a clunky LMS design will run counter to this need.

The third issue is instructional design, as any interactions and activities need to be able to handle large numbers of students with unpredictable participation. Who is providing the expertise and instructional design advice to ensure that each course is truly ready to be a MOOC? I assume that Academic Partnerships is playing this role, but I am not sure.

Randy Best indicated that two methods to be used by the partner institutions is to alter the start dates as necessary, allowing the course to begin a month early to work out logistics, for example. The institutions could also throttle enrollment and keep to a manageable size. Another approach to handling this issue can be seen in another recent Academic Partnerships announcement referenced in the press release.

Due to the partnership between Academic Partnerships and Canvas, universities can use the Canvas Open Network System at no cost to offer MOOC2Degree courses.

Convincing partner institutions

I asked Randy Best if he had to strong-arm any schools to get them to try out the concept. After all, many traditionalists view MOOCs as a competitive threat that might harm institutional brands or revenue potential. The answer was interesting, as Randy said that all of the initial schools were already considering how to explore MOOCs, and the MOOC2Degree really provided a workable concept that made sense. This concept potentially gives schools a sustainable model combining the free, open nature of MOOCs with the potential for credit-bearing, tuition-generating online programs. In other words, schools want to get into MOOCs, but were much more eager to do so when the concept made sense.

In my mind, this is another key milestone in the rapid transformation of MOOCs into the next generation – in combination with Instructure’s launch of the Canvas Network, Udacity’s move to MOOC 2.0, and the American Council on Education’s moves to recommend credits for MOOCs.

Update 1/24: For additional coverage:

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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13 Responses to Further Evolution of MOOCs with Academic Partnerships and MOOC2Degree Launch

  1. Nick DiNardo says:

    Well stated as usual Phil. I was just asking this question to myself, and posted it on my blog with reference to your original course design figure. I wondered if it was productive for two of the course design models to be blended together? I am quite sure that Academic Partnerships will have some success selling this product. I just wonder whether institutions will adopt as a pure branding play, or if a product like this can have an impact on student success? I guess only time will tell. It certainly helps address the problem of “bottleneck” courses. What a great time to be involved in this business.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Nick, If the web conference yesterday was indicative of other customers, then it seems that other institutions are treating this more of reducing barriers to starting a program, which indirectly affects branding. The argument from the nursing school was that there is a high need for a greater percentage of nurses to get a bachelor’s degree, but current nurses:
    – are working adults
    – are not sure if they are ready for a bachelor’s program
    – are not sure if they would do well in an online environment

    MOOC2Degree, for them, lowers these barriers. Of course, if successful, this builds up the brand.

    As far as student success, it seems the biggest potential is a better process for matching the right students with the right program – MOOC as qualification.

    It will be interesting to watch.

    By the way, good to see you start the blog.

  3. Nick DiNardo says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Phil. I certainly have alot to learn from you, Michael and others as I try to create valuable content to the community. Talk soon.

  4. Howard Davis says:

    MOOCs might function at a grander scale, and the SaaS ventures, as you point out, facilitate a college’s move to the online space, but schools need to think carefully about these relationships and not give away the store.

    I agree–course design is still the nub of the matter. MOOCs have brought the power of the web to higher ed, but we’ve yet to see innovative pedagogical approaches in the MOOC space.

    I wonder when we’ll see emergence of new learning models.

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  7. Fred M Beshears says:


    I’d just like to point out that in many respects MOOCs that do not offer degree credits are alot like MOOTs (Massive Open Online Textbooks). With all the hupla over MOOCs, perhaps this is a moot point :-).

    But, nevertheless, like a MOOC online text books can be open in that you don’t have to be enrolled in a school to use one, they can be used by a massive number of students, and they can be linked to or plugged into Learning Mangement Systems, which provide assessment tools, discussion group tools, etc.

    Perhaps there are differences between a MOOC that doesn’t offer degree credits and a MOOT, but IMHO they seem pretty similar.

    Fred M Beshears

  8. Fred M Beshears says:

    One other item that might be of interest to you and your blog readers, I’ve posted a piece that reminds readers of an old idea – Tutored Video Instruction – that could be used in conjunction with online textbooks and MOOCs. It’s called From Tutored Video Instruction, to Online Textbooks, to MOOCs and it’s at:


    Fred M Beshears

  9. Phil Hill says:

    Fred, good question and point about open textbooks (MOOTs), and nice post. BTW, do you have Twitter handle?

    Interesting thoughts on TVI in your post. Although it doesn’t attack scale (just quality & outcomes), I thought of the SJSU implementation of edX course, where they turned the MOOC into a flipped classroom. The small-group activities in the class were the rough equivalent of the TVI student-led sessions in your post. The MOOC-originated videos were the recorded videotape.

  10. Fred M Beshears says:


    Sorry, don’t have a Twitter handle but I’ve considered getting one.

    Thanks for the heads up on the SJSU edX flipped classroom course.

    My hope is that more brick-and-mortar institutions see the wisdom of at least letting their own students reserve conferencing rooms if they’re taking a MOOC together.

    You’re right that face-to-face TVI doesn’t scale, and it obviously doesn’t work for those students who are geographically isolated. However, since faculty don’t have to attend the study group sessions, there is no variable cost associated with TVI. Of course, you do need to consider the fixed cost of having the room itself. And, if you’ll excuse one additional bit of econ-speak, the room is a rival resourse, so it doesn’t scale, whereas the online videos and other online content would be considered non-rival, hence easily scaleable.

    When I worked at Berkeley (1987-2007), I tried to get them to at least experiment with TVI way back in 1988. Unfortunately, even though I had the support from one early adopter assistant professor, a senior professor in the same department crushed the project. My grand objective back then was to move Berkeley away from large lecture courses, but powerful interests wanted to preserve the large lecture status quo. Unfortunately, when I retired in 2007, those same powerful interests were still alive and well.

    If you or your readers are interested in the history of small study group programs and TVI at Berkeley, check out The High Tech Small Study Group Saga at


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  13. Ross says:

    Excellent article. Good map of where this kind of eduction is up to.

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