Hey, Universities: Online Courses are Branded Content!

The New York Times today published the sixteen-zillionth story about free online courses that universities are shoveling onto the web. Almost all of those stories treat the online courses as if they are — or will soon be — a low-priced web-based version of attending college classes. And that’s dead wrong.

The online courses are branded content. And if universities thought of it that way, they’d be smarter about the race to put stuff online.

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Here’s the big, gigantic elephant in the online courses room: You can’t take, say, MIT’s online courses and get an MIT degree. The same applies to all these traditional universities, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon. If it did, and people could get a respected degree over the web for a few thousand dollars rather than going to a college for $100,000, we’d have an Innovator’s Dilemma moment in education — the cheap newcomers would disembowel the traditional players.

Which is exactly why it won’t happen soon. The established universities control the Higher Learning Commission, which would have to accredit online universities. (More detail about this tension here.)

So if the online courses aren’t really courses, what are they? They are content — a way for universities to give something of value to a larger audience and build respect for their brands. The content can boost a university’s current brand by luring real, paying students, and it can lay groundwork for a future brand in online education. But it is brand-building content, not college courses.

If universities think of it as content, they might package this stuff with a little more pizzaz, and more carefully curate what they put out there. Lectures by a boring professor sitting on the web for all to see is brand damaging. So is a lecture filmed in a hall that has 600 students jammed in. Until it becomes possible to skip college and build a great career on a web-based degree, universities should put some marketing folks in charge of their branded content.

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