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Finding Your Niche During the MOOC Revolution

By Donna Gardner Liljegren, Lisa Trombetta / December 2014

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MOOCs have the ability to attract thousands of potential students, and, if done right, can be one of the most promising ways to help people learn more about your academic programs and expose them to your institution. If you want to capitalize on the use of MOOCs to benefit your bottom line, development and marketing efforts must be crafted and executed carefully and strategically. The first and most important step in drafting a strategy is to ask the following questions:

  • What is our target/market demographic?
  • Who typically enrolls in our courses?
  • Who would find this information useful?
  • Is there a partnership opportunity available to support this market?

Answering these questions will help you to identify your niche and will influence your decision on what program or course to offer.

In the fall of 2013, the Department of Geography and Geosciences at Elmhurst College wanted to pursue the development and offering of a MOOC as a means of bringing global brand awareness and increased enrollments to the geospatial programs. When the School for Professional Studies (SPS) at Elmhurst College grappled with the questions described above, it became clear that a niche opportunity existed with its programs in geospatial science. Elmhurst College currently offers several geospatial program options: an undergraduate certificate in geographic information systems, a master of science in applied geospatial sciences, and two online graduate certificate programs. But few MOOCs existed devoted to these types of course offerings. The topic is highly relevant in today's society, and relationships between Elmhurst and several geospatial science organizations already existed.

To accommodate the needs of a growing school with limited human and financial resources, SPS and the Department of Geography and Geosciences leveraged partnerships for MOOC hosting, content development, and marketing to reduce the time and cost associated with the development of its first MOOC offering. It was decided that partnerships in the development and marketing of the course would provide greater visibility for the MOOC by increasing marketing channels, speeding up content development, and providing the College with a hosting solution. The following spring, SPS—in partnership with the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (Geo Tech Center), Esri, and Desire2Learn (D2L)—hosted its first MOOC: "Skills for the Digital Earth".

MOOC Design and Development

"Skills for the Digital Earth" ran for four weeks in April 2014 and provided participants with the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency of knowledge and skills corresponding to the "Geospatial Technology Competency Model" (GTCM) developed by the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration in partnership with the Geo Tech Center.

In addition to the Geo Tech Center, SPS partnered with Desire2Learn's Open Courses to offer the MOOC. A team of geospatial faculty members already trained in the use of the D2L Brightspace learning environment was assembled to design content for the seven course modules. The decision was also made to link students to Esri's free version of ArcGIS software for content-related videos and activities. A typical module contained the following components:

  • Welcome message
  • Module overview
  • Links to readings, activities, and exercises in ArcGIS
  • Content discussion forum
  • Quiz

Participants could take the quiz as many times as necessary to score at least 80 percent. Quiz questions were randomly drawn from a question library for each version of the quiz attempted.

A faculty developer from SPS coordinated and oversaw content development for the course, troubleshooting any issues with the Open Courses technology team on behalf of the developers. All content for the course was vetted by the program director in coordination with the Geo Tech Center. The Elmhurst College Office of Information Services (OIS) provided assistance with the development and integration of Credly badges with the MOOC learning environment. To increase the relevancy of the course content, the course outcomes aligned with the GTCM competencies and students could earn seven competency badges by successfully demonstrating proficiency (a score of 80 percent or higher) on each module quiz. These badges provided a means by which participants could document the GTCM competencies they'd demonstrated and share them with others via social media. They also provided an incentive for completing the module exercises. Credly badges were issued for: fundamental geography and skills; fundamental computing skills of geography; creative thinking in fundamental geography; problem-solving and decision-making in geography; geographic/geospatial tools and technology; business fundamentals of geography/geospatial environments; and abilities in the geospatial field-advanced digital earth.

As an additional incentive to enrollment, participants who successfully completed modules 1-6 and subsequently enrolled in the undergraduate certificate program were given academic credit for the first course in the program. Likewise, those who successfully completed all seven modules and subsequently enrolled in the graduate degree program received academic credit for the first course in the program.

In addition to the development of the content, the Geo Tech Center and Elmhurst College partnered on surveys at the start and end of the MOOC in order to collect participant information. The results provided both organizations with valuable data regarding the demographics, education, and career aspirations of the group.

MOOC Marketing

The MOOC experience at Elmhurst College was positive in that the course generated a vast audience and broad awareness in areas that we would not otherwise reach, with costs for promotion at a mere $189.92. How did this happen? The College quickly realized promoting a MOOC doesn't have to mean spending a large amount of money; rather, marketing initiatives are enhanced by forming strategic partnerships. The College's marketing strategy focused largely on digital efforts—and we don't mean online advertising. The most successful efforts in promoting the MOOC were web-based partnership initiatives including email blasts and social media.

Relationships with the Geo Tech Center, as well as local business, and educational contacts broadened the scope and reach of marketing efforts. The College's partnership with the Geo Tech Center was beneficial in reaching a larger, geospatial industry audience. The Geo Tech Center's monthly newsletter, which highlighted the College's MOOC intiative, reaches 1,200 geospatial industry professionals and teachers. In addition, through this partnership, the MOOC was promoted to the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) and community colleges, and posted on Twitter, Facebook, and to LinkedIn groups. An interesting benefit of promoting to industry contacts was that they also acted as decision makers for others to take the MOOC, therefore cross influencing other target markets (i.e., a geography teacher involved with Esri decided to have her high-school students participate in the MOOC for her class).

In addition to digital efforts, internal (faculty, staff, administration, alumni, students) and external distribution lists (national lists of Geographic Alliance Coordinators, Advanced Placement high-school teachers, and geospatial college faculty), were used to disperse information about the course through a chain of email communications. As a result, the Illinois Council on Continuing Education (ICCHE) sent an email blast to its members. Additionally, 22 industry, corporate, and educational websites allowed staff members to share information about the MOOC. The College's public relations staff also sent press releases to various media networks on a regional and national level. Finally, the Elmhurst College website ran information about the MOOC and links to register for the new course. During the promotion period, the Skills for the Digital Earth webpage had 2,562 clicks from 1,922 unique visitors. Interestingly enough, the only paid advertising that was used to promote the course was the use of Facebook ads, which resulted in our total cost of $189.92.

Elmhurst College also needed to get the word out locally, so through grassroots marketing efforts the staff distributed flyers at local site-based events, listed the event on community calendars in the Chicago area, provided flyers to local libraries and chambers of commerce, and a live radio promotion on WXCL 102.3 FM was conducted during an event with our educational partner, the University Center of Lake County.

MOOC Results

The benefit of forming partnerships became clear (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. "Skills for the Digital Earth" Infographic © Lisa Trombetta and Donna Liljegren
[click to enlarge]

The surveys created in partnership with the Geo Tech Center told us the following:

  • Participation spanned the globe: 45 states and 80 countries.
  • Most participants (60 percent) were between the ages of 20-39, and 88 percent already had an earned college degree.

The Open Courses platform helped us to track participation and completion:

  • A total of 1,430 participants registered for the MOOC. Of those, 58 (4 percent) withdrew from the course.

Overall participation:

  • 564 participants completed at least one module (39.5 percent of total registrants)
  • 217 participants successfully completed all seven modules scoring 80 percent or higher on the module quizzes (15 percent of total registrants)
  • 266 participants successfully completed modules 1-6 scoring 80 percent or higher on the module quizzes (18.6 percent of total registrants)

From Credly we were able to track badges. A total of 1,727 badges were awarded:

  • Module 1: Fundamental Geography Knowledge and Skills; 314 badges (22 percent of total registrants)
  • Module 2: Fundamental Computing Skills of Geography; 302 badges (21 percent of total registrants)
  • Module 3: Creative Thinking in Fundamental Geography; 262 badges (18 percent of total registrants)
  • Module 4: Problem-Solving and Decision-Making in Geography; 237 badges (16.5 percent of total registrants)
  • Module 5: Geographic/Geospatial Tools and Technology; 223 badges (15.5 percent of total registrants)
  • Module 6: Business Fundamentals of Geography/ Geospatial Environments; 220 badges (15 percent of total registrants)
  • Module 7: Abilities in the Geospatial Filed - Advanced Digital Earth; 172 badges (12 percent of total registrants)

At 15 percent for modules 1-6 and 12 percent for all seven modules, completion rates exceeded national averages. According to a 2013 study, national averages for 221 MOOCs were 7.7 percent.

Through email exchanges, the Elmhurst College staff members were able to identify and confirm that two high -school classes were participating in the MOOC, one in Davie, FL and the other in Lubbock, TX. The faculty member in Lubbock reported she had 31 students enrolled in the course. Of those students, six successfully completed all seven course modules, and 12 successfully completed modules one through six.

As of August 2014, nine MOOC participants had completed applications to attend Elmhurst College geospatial programs, and two had been admitted.


The School for Professional Studies at Elmhurst College didn't know what to expect when it decided to embark on the "Skills for the Digital Earth" project. Prior DL2 Open Courses offerings had

averaged between 550-700 participants for other colleges, so the consensus was that 1,000 participants would be an overwhelming success. Given the low development and marketing costs, the SPS recouped costs with the enrollment of just one student from the group of 1,430 participants. Based on this information, SPS considers its first MOOC offering to have exceeded expectations, and, after a few revisions to the design and marketing plans, will re-offer the course in spring 2015.

The survey data identified new markets for Elmhurst to explore, such as high schools and geospatial professionals, so we will be better able to target these niche groups with future marketing efforts. While this was designed as a marketing initiative for the College's geospatial programs, it is clear from the feedback provided by participants that the course provided a worthwhile educational experience as well, and has provided Elmhurst College with global recognition of its programs. For a small college, this type of exposure is priceless.

Think about how this might benefit your own institution. Even if you don't reach thousands of students, you'll have garnered interest in both your programs and institution. Whether participants merely signed up, finished one module, or completed the entire course, they now know who you are. You've become part of their consideration set, and it is very likely that they are the decision maker for others, including family members, spouses, or even strangers.

For Elmhurst College, the use of strategic partnerships to reach a niche market helped to keep development time, as well as development and marketing costs low. And there's a new worldwide awareness of our geospatial programs.

Suggested Reading

Bali, M. MOOC Pedagogy: Gleaning good practice from existing MOOCs. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10, 1 (2014), 44-56.

Beaven, T., et al. MOOCs: Striking the right balance between facilitation and self-determination. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10, 1 (2014), 31-43.

Brauch, M., and Kaddy, J. Best practices for online program market research and marketing. 19th Annual Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning (Nov. 20-22, Orlando, FL). 2013.

Clark, D. MOOCs: Who's using MOOCs? 10 different target audiences. Donald Clark Plan B. April 15, 2013.

Fomin, E. M OOCs: Tips for enrollment professionals. J ournal of College Admission 220 (Summer 2013), 19-20.

Jordan, K. Completion Data for MOOCs. The Ed Techie. Dec. 12, 2013.

Korfhage, D. A Tale of Two MOOCs: The importance of community in online learning. ed Social Media. Jan. 31, 2013.

Kuper, S. Why should colleges be doing MOOCs? Relationships. E DUCAUSE Review Online. Nov. 4, 2013.

Leading the MOOC discussion: 99 Twitters to follow. 2013.

McGuire, R. Offering MOOCs to market your product - Q&A with the Spanish MOOC teachers at Instreamia. MOOC News and Reviews. May 28, 2013.

Oneupweb. Nothing to fear: Marketing advice about massive open online courses (MOOCs). Whitepaper. 2013.

Ross, J., et. al. Teacher experiences and academic identity: The missing components of MOOC pedagogy. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10, 1 (2014), 57-69.

About the Authors

Donna Gardner Liljegren is director of the Elmhurst College Online Center and manager of instructional support for the School for Professional Studies at Elmhurst College. In these roles she is responsible for the administration and growth of the Online Center as well as instructional support, including faculty recruiting, for online, onsite, and hybrid programs in the School for Professional Studies. She has worked in both faculty and executive leadership roles in higher education for 22 years and distance learning for 17 years. Dr. Liljegren earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in english from Governors State University and her Ed.D. in adult education from Nova Southeastern University.

Lisa Trombetta is the marketing manager for the School for Professional Studies at Elmhurst College. In this role, she is responsible for the development, execution, and day-to-day management of the School for Professional Studies' marketing plans to increase lead generation and brand awareness. She boasts a vast set of skills in all facets of marketing, including marketing plan development, media planning and buying, web development, social and digital media, advertising, promotions, event planning, public relations, and graphic design. She has worked in the non-profit, for-profit and public sectors in marketing management positions for over six years. Lisa earned her bachelor's in marketing and entrepreneurship from North Central College.

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