All hail MOOCs! Just don’t ask if they actually work

Dozens of top universities and colleges are scrambling to get in on the latest trend in higher education, massive open online courses known as MOOCs, Time reports. Enrollment is ballooning by the hundreds of thousands each semester. A third of administrators say they think residential campuses will eventually be obsolete.

Google just announced it’s teaming up with Harvard and MIT to create “a YouTube for MOOCs.” And The Economist asked this summer if the courses portend “the fall of the ivory tower.”

There’s only one hitch: No one really knows if students learn anything in a MOOC. Scant existing research suggests that the success rate of online education, in general, is poor. And even the people behind MOOCs are becoming concerned about sky-high expectations, which they say represent a misunderstanding of their purpose.

“At this point, there’s just no way to really know whether they’re effective or not,” said Shanna Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has produced some of the most recent scholarship about online education.

“Everyone in the research field agrees that, for the particular purpose of replacing on-campus education, the evidence [for MOOCs] is ambiguous at best,” said Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and research director for HarvardX. “Far more research is needed. And we’re conducting some of it. But we’re way out over our skis when it comes to that particular purpose of MOOCs.”

Enrollment in online college courses of all kinds increased by 29 percent to more than 6.7 million between 2010 and last year, the latest period for which the fast-changing figures are available, according to the Babson Survey Research Group.

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