Recent studies suggest that MOOCs are very much alive, but are not a threat to traditional higher education

MOOC-educationFor some educators and journalists, the rasping final breaths of massive open online courses (MOOCs) began late last year.

They followed nearly two years of hype and excitement that even the most skeptical of instructors and reporters got swept up in. Many of those who denounced the courses did so in a similarly frantic fashion, writing proclamations and open letters condemning MOOCs, as though they were caught in a great academic war.

Then, suddenly, a blow was struck. And it came from one of MOOCs’ most famous creators.

“Sebastian Thrun, godfather of the massive open online course, has quietly spread a plastic tarp on the floor, nudged his most famous educational invention into the center, and is about to pull the trigger,” Rebecca Schuman wrote at Slate in November 2013.

It was a dramatic way of saying that Thrun had announced that his company, Udacity, would now focus its MOOCs more on vocational training rather than traditional liberal arts courses.

That Udacity was only one company of a growing number focused on MOOCs — and that many of these platforms, including its main competitor Coursera, still aimed to disrupt traditional higher education — did little to slow the wave of speculation.

It was the capper on a year of MOOC hand-wringing. If 2012 was the “year of the MOOC,” then 2013 was the “year of the MOOC backlash.” Those who trust Gartner’s “Hype Cycle” believed MOOCs were going through a common “trough of disillusionment,” that would soon be followed by a “slope of enlightenment.”

But by the start of 2014, many were already asking: “Are MOOCs dead?”

The answer is not as sensational as the question. MOOCs aren’t dead — not yet — but they likely won’t be replacing any traditional means of higher education, either.

(Next page: Why MOOCs live on)

Universities are not really backing off exploring using MOOCs, and financiers are continuing to back MOOC companies. Udemy, which isn’t even one of the “big three” platforms, announced just last month that it had raised more than $30 million in its most recent funding round.

“It seems clear that MOOCs are neither the cataclysmic disruptor that advocates predicted nor the flash in pan their critics were hoping for,” Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a  report released by Bellwether in May. “MOOCs have changed the conversation about higher education reform and, if deployed strategically, they could much more.”

The report, targeted at policy makers, stressed that MOOCs have mostly helped educated students become more educated.

That may mean they aren’t reaching enough of their original target audience (low-income, low-access students that may not be able to attend college), but it also means, for the most part, MOOCs are supplementary products, not replacements.

Kelly compared the differences between MOOCs and traditional higher education to those between health clubs and hospitals.

“Providing free access to a gym will encourage lots of healthy, motivated people to use it and get healthier,” he wrote. “And that would be a good thing; healthier people will avoid costly visits to the hospital and will live longer, more productive lives. At the same time, though, doctors do not expect that access to a gym will automatically improve the health of less motivated people, especially those with serious health problems.”

The Harvard Business Review this month also tried to answer the question of whether administrators, especially those of business schools, should be worried about MOOCs.

“The answer depends on the students participating in MOOCs,” the researchers wrote. “If they fit the profile of traditional MBA or executive education enrollees, then the threat to business schools is clear. Our data suggest that this is not the case. At least at present, MOOCs run by elite business schools do not appear to threaten existing programs, but seem to attract students for whom traditional business school offerings are out of reach.”

(Next page: MOOCs are alive, but not a threat)

But what about the sustainability of MOOCs? After all, a common criticism has been that MOOCs, which have achieved their popularity by being completely or nearly free, lack a viable business model.

A recent study from Columbia University, found that most universities do not expect to make any revenue of MOOCs — at least not directly. For example, using MOOCs as a form of advertising for full courses remains a popular reason for adopting the courses, and that could increase revenue as a result.

But universities don’t seem to be seeing much on that front either, according to the study.

“We found scant evidence that MOOCs have increased revenues substantially, and substantial evidence that they have increased costs significantly,” the researchers wrote.

So if MOOCs aren’t reaching the right students, aren’t bringing in revenue, and remain fairly high cost to produce (as much as tens of thousands of dollars in some cases), then why won’t they die?

Simply put: because universities and entrepreneurs have put in too much effort by now to give up so easily.

MOOCs may not replace a traditional course, but they could work as a valuable studying tool, or perhaps as an easier way to collect data on how students learn. Maybe eventually, when the courses have found a more mainstream audience, MOOCs can serve as big, flashy, online billboards for more lucrative college courses.

“Much of the hype surrounding MOOCs may be subsiding but it is clear that the infrastructure and effort that has been poured into such initiatives are not likely to evaporate overnight,” the researchers wrote. “Whether MOOCs as they currently stand persist into the future is certainly debatable, but there is no doubt that online and hybrid learning are here to stay.”

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