According to research into massive open online courses offered first by elite universities, the public narrative about MOOCs and those universities’ goals do not align well.
By Dikran W. Kassabian, senior technology director, ISC Networking & Telecommunications, University of Pennsylvania
When Stanford University opened two of their artificial intelligence courses to the public over the Internet in late 2011 — without credit and without charge — more than 100,000 people signed up. Leaders across higher education took notice.
During 2012, which the New York Times called “the year of the MOOC,” massive open online courses went from virtually unknown to one of the hottest topics in higher education. Higher education insiders formed three major MOOC platform and distribution companies — Udacity, Coursera, and edX — and soon afterwards MOOCs began to appear from some of the top universities in the country. As of early 2014, the three largest MOOC providers have made more than 800 open online courses available, featuring the faculty and course content from more than 200 of the best-known universities in the world. Many millions of students have enrolled in these courses.
MOOCs quickly became the subject of hyperbolic claims ranging from how they would “save” higher education through improvements in student throughput and cost efficiency, to how they would “doom” higher education through the casualization of the faculty labor force, or even lead to the closing of universities crushed under disruption and unbundling effects previously experienced in other industries when the Internet profoundly affected their business models.
Through those early days, MOOCs appeared as feature stories almost daily in the higher education and popular press, while only slowly becoming the topic of research papers in scholarly journals. Some early MOOC commentators, such as Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School and Clay Shirky of NYU, described the potential for MOOCs to disrupt higher education while also helping with three of its biggest challenges: access, cost, and completion. MOOCs clearly provide an additional form of access to educational materials over the Internet. Whether MOOCs also help to manage or reduce cost by scaling up some college classes, or help with completion by leveraging MOOCs for advanced placement or other credit, is a matter for continued debate.
If enthusiasm for MOOCs in the early days was high, MOOC skepticism has grown just as rapidly. Previous large-scale online education efforts have failed, so it is reasonable to wonder whether MOOCs will turn out to be merely a higher education fad that will fade away. Certainly the many reports of low completion rates have shifted the MOOC narrative.3 In the language of the Gartner “Hype Cycle,” 2011 and 2012 may have been the “peak of inflated expectations,” while 2013 and 2014 may be the “trough of disillusionment” in which MOOCs don’t turn out to be the silver bullet that neatly solves higher education’s problems. A worthy question is whether MOOCs then follow the classic hype cycle and rise through a “slope of enlightenment” toward a “plateau of productivity.”
[ Full article available at EDUCAUSE Review Online: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/value-moocs-early-adopter-universities ]