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.
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.”
Dartmouth will add four MOOCs in the next couple of semesters, Mr. Kim said, but they will not be substitutes for and will not change regular Dartmouth courses.
“The promise of MOOCs has been overpromised,” he said.
Mr. Kim said Dartmouth’s emphasis on small classrooms and student engagement will not be abandoned. Professors will take the data from MOOCs and try to make their face-to-face classes better.
“Lifelong learners will be able to take part in a Dartmouth course, but they will not receive a Dartmouth education,” he said.
A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education analyzed 16 Coursera MOOCs over a year and found that the average completion rate of a course was just 4 percent. After the first few weeks, student engagement fell dramatically.
The study found users from all over the world, but most were from the United States, India and Brazil.
Cathy Sandeen, American Council on Education vice president for education attainment and innovation, said MOOCs initially were not designed for the degree-seeking student, but rather for the “leisure learner.”
“Very few MOOCs are really functioning right now to serve degree-seekers,” she said, and are proving highly useful when properly structured.
In 2012, 2.6 percent of American institutions of higher education were offering MOOCs. Last year, that figure doubled, with an additional 9.4 percent of U.S. schools planning on offering MOOCs in the near future.
Institutions offerings MOOCS typically have more than 15,000 students enrolled and focus on doctoral and research programs.
“This is an example of higher-education innovation, all with the goal of helping Americans achieve postsecondary degrees, certificates and credentials,” Ms. Sandeen said.
Babson’s Mr. Seaman said in a telephone interview that what matters is not how many institutions have added MOOCs, but how many students are enrolled.
Critics are quick to note MOOCs’ high dropout rates, but Mr. Seaman said the “sampling” fallout is high. Some 100,000 students may enroll in a given course, but only 15,000 may complete it.
“The measure is, who’s taking them, how well are they doing, and is it making a difference for them,” Mr. Seaman said.
Apart from MOOCs’ enrollment rates, the Babson study found that 17.4 percent of academic leaders think learning outcomes in online courses are inferior to traditional face-to-face classroom instruction.
“MOOCs are basically the 21st-century equivalent of reading a bunch of books and saying you got a degree,” Phil Powell, faculty chairman at Kelley Direct, Indiana University’s online MBA program, told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
With the industry still in its infancy, finding the best metrics to measure the efficiency of MOOCs has proved a challenge.
“We’re still in kind of the Wild West side of MOOCs,” said Andrew Gillen of the American Institutes for Research.
Mr. Gillen took a MOOC on computer programming through Coursera. Although he didn’t finish the course, Mr. Gillen said, the self-pace and freedom of a MOOC helped him learn. He said the MOOC provided little feedback but was still enriching.
Although the online classroom boasts more than 7 million students, the study found that the growth rate of traditional online education may be plateauing at 6.1 percent, the lowest in years. Traditional online education also is slowing, but specific avenues of online education, like MOOCs, are only beginning.
“There is still areas of very rapid growth, but it’s not universal,” Mr. Seaman said.
The study shows that institutions add MOOCs for two main reasons: to market their institutions and to increase student enrollment. Other reasons include MOOCs’ ability to incorporate “innovative pedagogy” and “flexible learning outcomes.”
The future of traditional online education appears to be growing at a slower rate. MOOCs, on the other hand, are at the top of the list in innovative higher-education tools.
“They really have opened up the conversation of online education in general,” Ms. Sandeen said.
According to the study, 65 percent of academic leaders think it is too early to determine whether the education model is meeting the objectives.
“It will be interesting to come back in two years, not to see how they are doing it, but why they are still doing it,” Mr. Seaman said.