Marketing MOOCs

A discussion I had last week with Justin Reich, the person who presented those HarvardX research findings back in January, got me thinking about the notion of whether marketing MOOCs is required to attract continued “customers” (i.e., students).

This question actually derived from another one regarding enrollments and completion numbers for MOOCs delivered more than once.  For if enrollment numbers stay static or grow each time a particular massive class is given, this would indicate large (potentially expanding) numbers of potential learners that just need to be made aware of the existence of a course as well as when the next iteration of that course becomes available.

But if enrollments shrink whenever a course is repeated, that would indicate the first one or two rounds of a course are depleting pent-up demand, so that more effort needs to go into locating new “universes” of potential enrollees and educating them about the benefits of enrolling in a free, high-quality MOOC.

Unfortunately, the Harvard data did not include numbers on repeat enrollments.  But if anecdotes I’ve heard from more than one source are correct, then it looks like course numbers tend to go down relatively quickly whenever a course is repeated, meaning even five-figure enrollments might be difficult to sustain if a course is given more than 2-3 times.

Those involved with building and teaching MOOCs might find it weird that people need to be tracked down and convinced to get something of high value (a quality college course from one of the world’s top schools) for nothing.  But keep in mind that while students have not demonstrated a readiness to shell out cash for a MOOC (mostly because they haven’t been asked to yet), those thinking about taking a course to completion are contemplating the dozens or hundreds of hours of commitment such a learning experience would involve.  So, from a market-analysis perspective, a good rule of thumb might be to multiply that number of hours by the minimum wage and then ask what kind of messaging would convince a customer/student to part with the resulting amount of money.

Because millions of people signed up for Udacity, Coursera and edX courses spontaneously (at least so far), there isn’t much data telling us how marketing might impact enrollments.  The closest thing I know of is what happened when edX President Anant Agarwal appeared on the Colbert Report (edX daily sign ups tripled for days afterwards).

I suppose we could look to see if similar bumps occurred when Coursera’s Daphne Koller gave her Ted Talk or Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun appeared in Wired (as well as track enrollments against the ups and downs of MOOC mentions in the mainstream media).  But if MOOCs follow the pattern of other online services offering something of value for free, I would expect marketing and PR to continue to drum up business in the form of increased enrollment numbers – especially since the subject matter of individual courses can help narrow the categories of people to whom one needs to direct marketing communication.

But, as Justin also brought up (that conversation will appear in full in an upcoming podcast, by the way), a tripling of sign ups due to the “Colbert Effect” only led to a doubling of certifications among that group, which either means Steven Colbert single-handedly slashed edX completion percentages, or the whole way we measure success or failure with MOOCs is not just un-productive but potentially counter-productive.

I’ve already talked about why dramatic enrollments numbers and frightful drop-out percentages are misleading ways to understand what is and is not happening inside a massive online class.  And given that the Harvard/MIT results (which reinforces other research) now tells us more about what students are doing in a MOOC class beyond signing up and either finishing or not finishing, it time to move beyond statistics that don’t do much beyond giving boosters and critics a way to either celebrate or condemn massive online learning.

The reason a focus on these two numbers might be counter-productive is that dwelling on them would mean that any marketing efforts designed to get more people to take courses that have the potential to be personally or professionally enriching would very likely lead to an increase in that dreaded “drop-out” rate used to communicate the educational worthlessness of a product that is actually educationally valuable.

Personally, I’m in the “drop-a-stone-in-the-water-and-don’t-fret-about-where-the-ripples-go” school that says it’s a good thing over 40,000 people signed up to take Greg Nagy’s Ancient Greek Hero, even if “only” 1400 of us earned a certificate.  For those statistics fail to capture the type of enthusiasm (about classical literature – a subject often claimed for dead) that led over 4300 people from the original course (including close to a third of the people who earned a cert the first time off) to sign up to take the course a second time.  And, as I’ve said before, each “enrollee” is actually an individual human being whose life is very likely pointing in a different after taking a MOOC than it was before.

Back to business(speak), the process of attracting new signups to a course is what is referred to as customer acquisition.  And if MOOCs are drawing down the pool of spontaneous customers, then those dedicated to their continued success have to either find ways to attract new students or determine what threshold indicates a course has done all the good it can and is ready for retirement.

Getting students to complete a course once they’ve signed up also has a parallel in the online business/marketing world, and it is to the subject of customer retention that I’ll turn next time.

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