To MOOC Or Not To MOOC?

It seems at present that nearly every American college and university is wrestling with the question of whether to offer MOOCs (massive open online courses). There is something irresistibly seductive about the idea of simultaneously reaching thousands of students everywhere in the world, effectively seating them in an infinite virtual lecture hall. Indeed, the idea has taken on such allure that the University of Virginia (temporarily, as it turned out) fired its president, Teresa Sullivan, for among other things not jumping immediately on the online bandwagon.

But is Sullivan’s skepticism unwarranted? And even if it is in a given university’s case, are MOOCs appropriate for small colleges to offer for the world or to license for its students? The MOOC seems much more an extension of the large-university tradition, with its massive lecture halls seating hundreds of students per lecture, than it does of the liberal arts college, with its small, intimate classes centered on discussion. When you look, for example, at Ohio State University’s fall 2009 course offerings, you find freshman-class enrollments of 374 (Form, Function, Diversity, and Ecology), 298 (Introduction to Theater), 541 (Principles of Macroeconomics), and 671 (Introduction to Biology). All these involve students sitting together in a single lecture hall. Many liberal arts colleges have smaller numbers in their entire graduating class.

The MOOC, then, is essentially a high-tech extension of the traditional industrial-age university lecture-hall experience — and one, moreover, with an unproven financial model. Despite the apparent resonance with the traditional university lecture hall, there remain challenges for MOOCs even in the large research university environment.

They do not lead to a widely recognized credential. There is no workable revenue model in place for the startups and institutions that are funding them. While nearly $100 million has gone into MOOC funding, none of the major players — edX, Coursera, Udacity — has a business plan. (Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have pumped $60 million into edX. Coursera has raised $16 million in venture capital. Udacity has raised an undisclosed amount of money from Charles River Ventures.)

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