Search results show MOOCs are driving online brand awareness for universities

How to stand out from the online crowd. Cloud graduation hats via T.Dallas/Shutterstock

Think of a university, any university. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale may spring to mind. Or your local university, or the one you or someone you know attended. I’m fairly sure that the University of Phoenix, Arizona, was not one of the first you thought of (unless you live or study there). However, it recently topped the list of most searched-for universities released by Google to the BBC.

Second on the list is Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which for the third consecutive year topped the league table of the QS world’s best universities. The Open University, a pioneer in distance learning in the UK, comes third. Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge appear on the list, but rank much lower than you’d expect (13th, 15th and 16th respectively). And Yale is not in the top 20, while five Indian universities are.

A shift online

It would appear that there has been a shift in search patterns in the last few years, with more and more people searching for universities based on their online offerings, rather than their reputation.

What the top three universities, and many other on the list, have in common is the provision of free online study materials. The appeal of the University of Phoenix seems to be based on their online courses, open admissions programme and the fact that they allow students to try courses before enrolling. It also has more than 100 campuses and study centres.

Since 2002, MIT has offered free online materials through their very successful OpenCourseWare initiative: they currently offer over 2,000 courses and attract over 1m visits a month. The Open University – the top European institution in the list – offers free study materials through several channels including YouTube and OpenLearn, which has received over 33m visits.

These universities also offer a large amount of free materials on iTunes U, Apple’s online library of free educational resources, which surpassed the billionth download mark in 2013. Stanford University (ranked 7th on Google’s list) and The Open University were the first two universities to reach 50m iTunes U downloads. MIT’s iTunes U collection on how to design applications is among the most downloaded ever.

MOOC boost

In the last few years Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become hugely popular. These are free online courses provided mostly by universities which require registration to a platform but no payment. Among them, Coursera, with over 750 courses and over 9m users, is the largest MOOC platform, along with EdX, Udacity and more recently FutureLearn in the UK, which is owned by The Open Univeristy.

Some of these platforms offer certificates of participation for those who complete the courses – including some paid-for certification. A big criticism of MOOCs has been the number of students who drop out: on average, fewer than 10% of registered users complete a MOOC.

But others have said that arguments against them based on this statistic are too simplistic. The completion numbers of courses are essential to measure the success of traditional university courses, but should not necessarily be applied to free online courses. MOOC learners are not necessarily dropping out, but making choices about their learning.

At first it would appear contradictory to the universities’ business model to make their previously-inaccessible materials available to the general public. Now reforms have introduced higher university fees in the UK and elsewhere, it is unlikely that many of the students who take free online courses would make the jump from informal to formal learning.

There is some evidence (such as the case of the University of Phoenix) that a few do register for degrees after using the online material as tasters, but not in significant numbers. In addition, it appears that many MOOC and other online learners already have a university qualification.

The reasons why universities are providing all this free content are likely be the opportunity to enhance their reputation, plus an increase in brand awareness through the free publicity these courses bring. This is no more evident that in this Google list.

Free Open Online Courses (massive or not) provide learners with opportunities to learn about something they have an interest in: 82% of OpenLearn users report that they access the study materials because of personal rather than professional interest, as did nearly 72% of the participants in a recent study of iTunes U users.

Disruptive new models

An initiative that may bridge both formal and informal learning options may be the OER Universitas, a collaboration between a number of universities (originally mainly from Australia and New Zealand). They are providing the opportunity for learners to combine successful engagement with a number of open educational resources and courses to gain a formal qualification.

Open content may not be the threat to university learning that some anticipated. It works alongside traditional offerings and caters to a different demographic. What the list of most searched-for universities demonstrates is that universities may not be in a position to rely on their name alone to remain relevant in the online education landscape.