In recent years, MOOCs have developed rather negative connotations as a learning delivery platform: high attrition rate, middling rigor, heterogeneous student cohorts with widely varying skill levels and backgrounds, insufficient recognition of learning value, and an unsustainable “free” business model. Using a MOOC as a recruitment tool, rather than just a content delivery system, flips these MOOC “cons” to “pros.”

Strategy and implementation—our experience

The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), University of Maryland University College (UMUC), and the University of Maryland System (UMS) collaboratively engaged in a MOOC development project using the edX platform. The purpose of the MOOC was two-fold—to begin preparing learners for work in the field of global health, and to serve as a recruitment tool for a more comprehensive online Global Health Certificate Program. Earning a graduate-level certificate requires students to complete an accredited 12-credit program of study. A primary development goal of the Global Health MOOC was to make it both a useful recruitment tool and an engaging learning experience for all interested students.

After initial training by edX on the authoring tool, content experts, course developers, and marketing specialists teamed up to create a six-week course. Each week of the MOOC offered students a glimpse of one or more of the courses that make up the certificate program and also introduced students to the graduate faculty by means of brief video lectures. Each module required students to view several instructor video lectures, read some open educational resources (OERs), engage in an online discussion, and complete a set of knowledge-check questions. The rigor was purposely set at a moderate level, since the MOOC was accommodating a highly heterogeneous group.

The course launched with more than 800 students from over 100 countries (Figure 1). Eighty percent of participants had a college degree, and about half of those had a graduate or professional degree. From the start, only 32% of students actively participated in the course. Over the six-week span of the course, participation dropped to only 11%.

Figure 1: Geographic distribution of Global Health MOOC learners

However, those who demonstrated enough self-motivation and persistence to successfully complete the course (as determined by performance analytics, Figure 2) were considered prime candidates for the certificate program. These students were encouraged, through a personalized email by the instructor, to consider applying to the certificate program. Results of this phase of the recruitment effort, however, are indeterminate, since follow-up engagement of the preferred students is still ongoing.

Figure 2: Performance analytics by individual students


Using a MOOC for recruitment turns the inherent disadvantages of a free, large-scale learning experience into advantages. The high attrition rate becomes a natural means for filtering the self-motivated and persistent learners from those who are less so. The rigor of the MOOC coursework can be moderated to accommodate the tremendous variety of participants’ life experiences. The MOOC attracted a wildly multinational and multicultural student cohort with diverse skills and motivations who were all interested in gaining expertise in a common field of study—students our institution would never have reached through traditional recruitment methods. High performance and achievement were recognized and rewarded with a special invitation to apply for continued learning. And the free business model is made sustainable by attracting MOOC participants who elect to enroll in the certificate program.

If you would like to see more information about the Global Health MOOC, visit the course archive page.


G2 Collective. “Top 5 Issues with MOOCs.” 1 May 2013.

Universities UK. Massive open online courses: Higher education’s digital moment? May 2013.