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  • Cautious towards MOOCs

    - “The concern is that MOOCs do not provide an educational experience that is equivalent to a traditional classroom.” Because the benefits of MOOCs are still uncertain, American higher education leaders adopted a “wait and see” approach, Laura Perna and Alan Ruby from the University of Pennsylvania discovered.

    Laura Perna, Executive Director, and Alan Ruby, Senior Scholar, Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania wrote the following article about their findings.

    “Over the past year, U.S. higher education print and digital media have paid considerable attention to MOOCs. Although MOOCs are a potentially important innovation, the recent attention to MOOCs has tended to overlook the role and pervasiveness of online higher education more generally. In January 2014 the Sloan Consortium, a longstanding advocate of technology as a path to open learning, released its 11th annual survey of US online education (Allen & Seamn, 2014).

    The report reveals that online instruction is already playing a noteworthy role in the delivery of higher education: 7.1 million higher students – or one in three U.S. higher education students – is now taking at least one online course. Although the rate of increase has slowed in recent years, the 2013 number represents a 6.1% increase from 2012.

    Positive when offering MOOCs

    With this degree of penetration, it is not surprising that two out of three chief academic officers responding to the survey reported that online education is a critical long-term strategic issue for their institution. Nine out of ten responding chief academic officers believe that online courses will continue to grow in number and that more students will be taking online courses in the future. Online programs appear to be an enduring part of U.S. higher education. 

    That said, many higher education leaders continue to raise questions about the educational effectiveness of online education. The Sloan survey reveals that, over time, the share of chief academic officers that agrees that student outcomes from online courses are comparable to or better than outcomes in traditional courses has increased. But one-fourth of chief academic officers continue to think that outcomes from online offerings are inferior to the outcomes produced by face-to-face instruction.

    Our research center, the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD) found a similar division of opinion in a small survey of higher education leaders on the benefits of MOOCs. The results of the April 2014 ‘What’s AHEAD’ poll show that leaders of institutions that offer MOOCs tend to be more positive than other leaders at institutions about some potential benefits of MOOCs. For example, about half of respondents at institutions that offer MOOCs strongly agree that MOOCs may be a potentially effective mechanism for improving access to students in under-served communities in the U.S. and around the globe, compared with about a fifth of respondents at institutions that do not offer MOOCs.

    The ‘What’s AHEAD’ survey also found that the institutions offering MOOCs are the ones talking the most about MOOCs. Half (51%) of leaders at institutions that offer MOOCs are talking about MOOCs “a great deal,” compared with 9% of senior administrators at institutions that do not offer MOOCs. See Figure 1 below.   

    Institutions that offer MOOCs Alan Ruby

    Figure 1. Distribution of respondents by degree to which their institutions are talking about MOOCs 

    Our survey also finds that there is more discussion of MOOCs now than a year ago on many campuses. Half (49%) of respondents at institutions that offer MOOCs report more discussion of MOOCs now than a year ago, compared with 29% of respondents at institutions that do not offer MOOCs.

    No public stance on MOOCs

    Despite increased dialogue about MOOCs, few presidents have publicly voiced skepticism about MOOCs. Most respondents at institutions that do not offer MOOCs report that their president has taken no public stance on MOOCs (77%). By comparison, 60% of respondents at institutions that offer MOOCs report that their president has taken a public stance in support of MOOCs.

    Even among the MOOC-active colleges and universities there is uncertainty about the benefits of MOOCs to institutions and students. One respondent to the ‘What’s AHEAD’ survey succinctly described this uncertainty, writing: “The concern is that MOOCs do not provide an educational experience that is equivalent to a traditional classroom.”  The Sloan survey also found uncertainty at many institutions, noting that about half (53%) of respondents were unsure whether their institution would be adding a MOOC (Allen & Seaman, 2014).   

    Because of the uncertain benefits, it is not surprising that many higher education leaders are adopting a “cautious approach” to MOOCs. One respondent to the ‘What’s AHEAD’ survey summarized his institution’s position stating: 

    Wait and see

    We have adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude regarding MOOCs. At present we don’t need MOOCs, and we are very skeptical about their supposed benefits – including cost reduction. For now, we will let others experiment and either prove or disprove the theories about MOOCs. Ultimately, the market will decide.

    Despite this uncertainty, both the Sloan and What’s AHEAD surveys reveal that at least some higher education leaders are optimistic about the potential of MOOCs to produce a number of benefits for the sponsoring institution (by increasing institutional visibility and prestige), higher education students (through improved pedagogy), and society more generally (through increased access to higher education in the U.S. and across the globe).

    To understand whether MOOCs can achieve these potential benefits, empirical research must not only keep pace with the rapid growth in MOOC users, courses, and investment dollars, but also be used to guide next steps in the evolution of this innovation. With others at Penn GSE, we are engaged in a program of research designed to understand whether and how MOOCs can “democratize” higher education. Our research focuses on addressing three key research questions:

    Do open online courses increase access to learning for people currently unserved or underserved by available face-to-face programs?

    Can open online courses offer learning experiences and generate outcomes that are comparable to those of traditional instructional delivery?

    What are the characteristics of open online courses that engage learners and promote learning?

    Surveys of higher education leaders (like Sloan’s and our small effort) provide invaluable insights into multiple important dimensions of the development, adoption, and implementation of MOOCs. Many basic questions about the design, purpose and efficacy of MOOCs merit scholarly attention Researchers should build on these survey results to systematically study MOOCs and further enhance our understanding their potential roles and contributions. 


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