MOOCs as Admissions Tools: Another Disruption for The Disruptive Model?


H.E. James, Writer, Research and OLC Member

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Online education in its various forms has been shaking up education for years.  More than a decade ago, Arizona State University Online was one of the first online institutions to offer courses all over the world.  It continues to lead the way in disruptive educational technologies, including the poster child of disruptive educational technology: the MOOC.

Just like their big brother, online education, MOOCs have changed since they were first introduced in 2008.  Now, online education itself is more traditional than a MOOC.  MOOCs themselves are poised for their own disruption, as more institutions, ASU included, are changing the way they’re offering courses and even credit.

What does this mean for higher educational institutions, traditional and otherwise?  It means it’s time to join the MOOC club.  Done properly, using the newest disruption to the ever-disruptive MOOC can help colleges and universities recruit new blood.

They’re Already Interested

In 2013, when MOOCs were just five years old, researchers at Stanford published a paper on the audiences of the courses.  They studied the low completion rates, the demographics of the enrollees, and the percentage of completions, drop-outs, etc.

They found a surprising statistic among all their analyses: high school students rated the largest percentage of completion of MOOCs.  According to the Stanford study, 27 percent of those completing the courses were high school students.  Only eight percent of undergraduates and five percent of grad students completed the MOOCs.

Thus, it’s obvious that MOOCs, while made by higher ed institutions, aren’t being used by their students.  MOOCs are being used by potential students.  Now is the time to truly start using them to convert high school seniors into college freshmen.

Don’t Dumb It Down

Last year, Class Central detailed five reasons high schoolers should take MOOCs, and the article pointed to edX’s high school MOOCs.  However, many of these courses are Advanced Placement high school courses or college preparatory courses.

If higher education institutions want to effectively use MOOCs and do so to convert high school students to college students, the courses should be similar, if not the same, to courses offered at the institutions.  Students who are truly interested in learning at a higher level want to be challenged.

Create MOOCs that will give high school seniors a taste of what they will experience when they enter a university, traditional, online, or hybrid.  This is a great way for higher ed institutions to bridge the gap between traditional and online learning.

In 2013, the University of Maryland’s Hank Lucas wrote for Educause about how higher ed would survive in the new learning landscape.  In his article he discussed how faculty and staff can use MOOCs to compete with each other.  Most high school seniors are juggling more than one college application.  Designing the right MOOC can bring one institution to the head of the pack.

Add Value for the Students

Last year, ASU began its Global Freshman Academy (GFA), offering credit to students who successfully passed the courses.  Costing considerably less than traditional credits, the courses launched this fall with three offerings: Human Origins, Introduction to Solar Systems Astronomy, and Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe.

While just one percent of the initial enrollees are eligible for credit, the GFA is an example of how a university can target potential incoming students with MOOCs.  If a high school senior doesn’t care for the class structure, she can complete the course, but is not obligated to pay for it or register for Fall classes at the institution.

At the same time, it behooves the offering institution to make the courses appealing for the students beyond just making them affordable.  ASU sees this year as a pilot of the program and plans to expand the offerings so that students may be able to complete their freshman years before ever setting foot on campus or in the “traditional” online classroom.

Undergraduates aren’t the only admissions being targeted by MOOCs.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which offers courses through edX’s high school initiative, is now offering MOOCs for credit in one of its Master’s programs.

For its Master’s in Supply Chain Management, which usually has an enrollment of around three dozen, MIT is offering the first semester courses via edX for anyone who registers.  If their grades pass muster and they pass a proctored exam, those who’ve completed the semester can apply for what MIT calls a “MicroMaster’s,” and then apply for admission into the full program.

It’s a Win-Win

Using for-credit MOOCs to recruit high school students is a win-win for both the students and the institutions.  High performing high schoolers will start their college educations with not only AP credit, but potentially an entire year of college under their belts, at a lower cost without the lower quality.

Institutions will have courted the most enthusiastic of students to their programs by offering rigorous education that gives them a taste of college life.  Higher education no longer need fear that the MOOC is going to reduce the student population.  It can only serve to add to it.

ASU online degree programs. Retrieved March 21, 2016, from
Can the current model of higher education survive MOOCs and online learning? (2013). Retrieved March 21, 2016, from
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Massive open online course (2016).  In Wikipedia. Retrieved from
Executive. (2015, October 7). Take free online classes, get course credit at MIT. Retrieved March 21, 2016, from
Kizilcec, R. F., Piech, C., & Schneider, E. (2013). Deconstructing disengagement: Analyzing Learner Subpopulations in massive open online courses general. Retrieved from
Straumsheim, C. (2015, December 21). 323 learners eligible for credit from MOOCs at Arizona state U.  Retrieved from
Tanguay, E. (2015, April 28). Five reasons high school students should consider MOOCs – class central’s MOOC report. Retrieved March 21, 2016, from Commentary,

About Hattie James

Hattie is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho.  She has a varied background, including education and sports journalism.  She is a former electronic content manager and analyst for a government agency.  She holds an MBA and enjoys local ciders and the outdoors.
Twitter: @hejames1008


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