Has President Obama caught MOOC fever?

“We want to encourage more colleges to embrace innovative new ways to prepare our students for a 21st century economy,” Obama said.

President Obama, in outlining his new education plan this week, didn’t utter the phrase “massive open online courses” or its handy acronym, but one could think otherwise, looking at the news articles, blog posts and tweets declaring that Obama has caught “MOOC fever.”

The president’s plan calls for tying federal aid into a college ranking system that would measure the average tuition, size of student debt, and amount of innovation on campuses.

“We want to encourage more colleges to embrace innovative new ways to prepare our students for a 21st century economy and maintain a high level of quality without breaking the bank,” Obama said, before listing some existing alternatives that included competency-based learning at Southern New Hampshire University, online courses at Arizona State University, and a certain online-only master’s degree program at Georgia Tech.

Competency-based learning and Georgia Tech’s master’s program are familiar concepts to MOOC supporters and detractors, and their inclusion in Obama’s plan, which he has promised will “shake up the current system,” has inspired both praise and criticism.

Differing opinions on MOOCs is nothing new, with fans of the online courses pointing to the ability for students and colleges to save money by utilizing them, and critics pointing out MOOCs’ low retention rates.

Some faculty have expressed concern that with widespread MOOC adoption, many of them could be out of a job. Others in higher education were encouraged by the president’s enthusiasm for experimental online classes.

“It’s part of a continuum, not the only solution,” said Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “Overall, I think it’s very positive to encourage ways in which we can lower the cost of education.”

See Page 2 for details on how MOOCs are just one part of a larger push for innovation on campuses.

The MOOC dropout rate has been one of the technology’s largest obstacles in achieving mainstream acceptance and accreditation. According to Open Culture, a website documenting the growth of MOOCs, the highest completion rate for a MOOC as of June 2013 was 19 percent. Many MOOCs struggle to even reach a rate of 10 percent.

The reasons for the low retention vary, but, according to Open Culture, they include the length of time the courses take the complete, poor course design, and an assumption that MOOC students are too well-informed.

Indeed, several studies have found that the majority of those who complete MOOCs are students who already have degrees. It was for this reason that Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, said in July that MOOCs were not a good fit for community colleges. Some are now saying the same thing about Obama’s new education plan.

Schroeder said Obama’s plan only references MOOCs as part of a larger push for innovation.

Higher education is still trying to figure out what MOOCs can really do, he said. They’re evolving at a rapid pace, but research on their potential is just now really getting under way. In the future, MOOC platforms could offer an entire curriculum, not just courses.

In July, when the MIT Technology Review asked Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun where he hoped his MOOC provider would be in five years, he said it would be accepted as though it were a university.

Schroeder was more cautious with his optimism.

“We’ll track MOOCs and see how they do,” he said. “Were still very early in this process and I think there are a number of ways that we’ll see MOOCs evolve to lower the overall cost of education.”

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