- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2014

They have been touted as the biggest revolution in higher education since Plato opened his academy, but a growing number of educators are saying that MOOCs — “massive open online courses” offering free instruction through cyberspace — may not be ready for a cap and gown.

Academic administrators at top colleges are increasingly questioning the rigor of MOOC courses, the rates of success for students and the financial viability of teaming up with private companies using aggressive marketing tactics.

“There is a lot of speculation that [MOOCs] were going to change the face of higher education. That’s not what’s happening,” said Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson Survey Research Group.

Mr. Seaman and fellow Babson researcher I. Elaine Allen conducted a survey charting fresh doubts about MOOCs as long-term higher-education supplements. Their study, which polled chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education, reported that 39 percent say they do not believe that MOOCs are sustainable models for their schools — up from 26 percent in 2012.

Two years ago, leading schools such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were jumping onto the MOOC bandwagon, but the momentum appears to have slowed and some of the early adopters are pulling back.

“There still is not a clear business model to why I should do this,” Mr. Seaman said.

The MOOC concept is simple: A highly qualified professor offers an online noncredit “class” free to anyone willing to listen. The system allows students from around the globe to learn from renowned academics, who in turn are able to reach many more people than could ever fit inside a traditional classroom. Students can audit courses as specialized as Alexander the Great, equine nutrition and robotics. Leading private companies that sign up the colleges and promote MOOC courses include edX, Udacity and Coursera.

The companies say the high dropout rates for MOOCs are not flaws but features, giving a vast audience a chance to sample class offerings, even if only a much smaller number stay the course. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng notes that half of MOOC students who complete the first homework assignment wind up completing the entire course.

Schools’ skepticism

But skeptics say the virtues of MOOCs also are emerging as vices.

“Two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: massive and open,” Stanford President John Hennessy said in a widely noted interview with the Financial Times.

At Tufts University outside Boston, members of the schools of arts and sciences and faculty in the engineering department approved a policy in December that would allow more Web-based classes to be used toward graduation. But Tufts instructors stopped short of joining the world of MOOCs.

“So much of the big conversation around the country is around these massive online courses, and from our perspective, we don’t see evidence that that’s a model that leads to real learning,” Education Policy Committee head David Hammer told The Tufts Daily, the school newspaper. “If I had 750 students, if I had 7,500 students I’m not going to hear and respond to student thinking.”

Echoing other critics, Mr. Hennessy said many MOOC offerings are either too hard or not engaging enough for students.

Dartmouth College recently announced a partnership with edX. Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, said the college is starting to add MOOC courses slowly because it “very consciously did not want to jump on the bandwagon.”

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