We are only starting to imagine the possible effects that massive open online courses and other innovative technologies will have on traditional higher education—but the immediate response has a disconcerting air of panic. The recent surge of interest in MOOC's suggests that some colleges hope that offering such courses is a kind of inoculation against the effects of technological disruption, and many institutions are feeling tremendous pressure to join the elite group of colleges that has staked a claim in this area. It is not clear, though, whether every college has weighed the costs and benefits of membership in what is now, at least, a particularly exclusive club.
The speed with which announcements of new MOOC initiatives have emerged in the last few months seems reminiscent of the period in 2007-8 that saw a number of colleges follow the lead of Princeton in eliminating loans from their financial-aid packages. The need to become a "no-loan" institution was suddenly talked about at board meetings across the country, and every month another prestigious college proudly announced that its financial aid would consist entirely of grants. There was much less fanfare when, following the recession of 2008, a number of colleges had to eliminate their no-loan policies.
Colleges that are contemplating a new venture, such as a MOOC or other online-learning offering, need to ask themselves the fundamental question: Is this consistent with the unique mission of our institution? Not, Are MOOC's a good idea?, or even, Are they inevitable?, but: Should we be offering them right now?
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THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION