While MOOCs have caught fire over the past few years, most medium-sized institutions have been forced to watch from a distance. They simply do not have the manpower or the money to maintain such high volume. While they might create project-based groups and obtain grants or small donations to compensate the creation and labor costs, these are not sustainable methods of delivering open courses. Open courses, however, would offer medium-sized institutions a means of meeting their community service goals, marketing their institution to new markets, and better connecting all of the stakeholders of the university. What options do medium-sized institutions have, though, for delivering open courses?

What is a SPOC?

The word SPOC was first brought to my attention a month ago. I must admit, I had never heard of the term till then, even though Harvard had ran a few SPOCs by this point. SPOCs are a smaller version of MOOCs, massive open online courses. In my research, I’ve seen two definitions of the word SPOC. Each definition seems to present a slightly different model.

The most common is ‘small, private online course’. As I read up on this definition, I thought to myself, “how is this any different than the small, online courses we offer now?” At first, I was conflicted by the term and definition, which dropped the ‘open’ part of MOOCs. I assumed that this definition meant that the university would offer a closed MOOC for matriculated students enrolled at the college. This was not the case, however. A SPOC, by this definition, is limited to a certain, smaller number of applicants. These applicants may have to complete an entrance essay to prove their seriousness, such as with Harvard’s courses. In this method of selection, Harvard still gets to pick who is eligible for the course. (I am conflicted on whether this helps to better select candidates who can contribute and expand the conversations or contributes to widening the gap, in its own small way.) In any case, it can still be described as being open, because it is free.

In another definition of ‘open’, it can be argued that the previous definition of SPOCs are not really ‘open’ because they do not allow everyone/anyone to access the content. The second definition I found describes a very different model, “self-paced open course”. In this case, the course is completely open to anyone who wishes to access it and it is self-paced.

There might be a third definition worth considering, however. What if SPOC stood for ‘small, private open course’? Perhaps there would be a course that runs a period of time with a limited number of participants, but then pieces of the course, the content, was available to everyone, at all times. This is not only a more open model, but it is a more sustainable model. If the content remains open, individuals, including future instructors, will be able to access the content afterwards.Future instructors of the actual course will be able to use the content to deliver more sections of the course. They will also be able to maintain and build on the course pieces. What is key here is building pieces that can be ‘remixed’ and reused by anyone. This open model will also allow institutions to meet their community service goals by allowing anyone to access the content, including instructors from around the world, and specifically those in developing countries who may need access more. 

Are SPOCs right for medium-sized institutions?

Hefty costs have been associated with delivering MOOCs. These costs are usually fixed to the development and management of MOOCs. Recent technology advancements in course storage and reduced enrollment and can shave off some of the costs in these areas.

Even though its only been a few years since this part of the open market really took off, rapid advancements have brought forth free and open systems for institutions to use to deliver open courses. A university no longer has to carry the load (literally, as in loads on servers), it can use a platform that has already perfected the art of delivering an engaging course online to the masses.

Whichever definition an institution uses to develop their open course, SPOCs cut down on the manpower needed to manage such a course. Once a course is developed, there are less people to attend to. Manpower can also be shaved off of other parts of the course, like application and assessment.

Using an essay application system would only increase the up-front manpower, it seems. Instead, there can be strict expectations delivered when applying and an automated selection process can be used. Perhaps the course is only available to the first 200 applicants or perhaps there is a lottery drawing.

Many MOOCs use peer reviewed assignments and automatically graded quizzes. The method of assessment must match the purpose of the course, however. Some MOOCs may not require traditional assessment methods, such as forced assignments and quizzes, which can hinder the interest and involvement of some individuals. Development teams will have to seriously weigh the appropriateness of assessment to the manpower needed to grade.

How Can Medium-Sized Institutions Best Deliver SPOCs?

First, an institution will want to do a thorough investigation of the open platforms available to them. Each has a different configuration, style of delivery, and mission.

Next, a phased plan will have to be developed. Parts of this plan include delivery system information, subject matter expert information, instructor requirements, teaching assistant requirements, course content, development team assignments, assessment directions, a marketing plan, directions for enrollment, a participant engagement plan, assessment information, and completion procedure.

A small project-based team can be assembled to carry out different parts of the plan if such a unit does not already exist. If a project-based group is assembled, the institution will have to determine a method of compensation and time release from other projects. Is this a volunteer activity? Can individuals be compensated with time off or traveling funds?

There is also the question of how to house the content in an open way, should the institution decide to go that route. Pieces can easily be stored on the Web, but at what cost to the institution? These costs will be minimal at first, especially if some of the content can be housed on open platforms, such as YouTube or Google Drive.

Finally, the institution will have to determine an area on campus best suited to supporting this endeavor. For example, a SPOC could be run out of a center for professional development, an office of institutional advancement, or out of a department. The institution may already have an area dedicated to innovative online endeavors, where such a project might fit best.

In conclusion, SPOCs are an alternative means for medium-sized institutions to deliver an open course that can help them to expand their brand into new markets and meet their community service goals. By thoroughly planning out the specifics of such a course and simultaneously developing a process for delivering SPOCs, institutions can create a sustainable method for branching out into the open arena.