Any student who's attended a chalkboard lecture in 2013 will tell you higher education isn't known for its swift changes.
But less than two years after a trio of massive open online course (MOOC) provider startups —Coursera, edX and Udacity — began ballooning in popularity, every college atop U.S. News and World Report's national university rankings is now embracing them. In addition, the nation's two largest public university systems — the California State University and State University of New York systems — are poised to join them.
In June, the University of Chicago became the last of the country's top 10 universities to announce it would begin offering MOOCs. A widely discussed trend in higher education, MOOCs routinely enroll tens of thousands of students across the world, often for free.
The University of Chicago will begin with two classes using Coursera: "Global Warming" and "Asset Pricing Theory." No date is set for the university's MOOC launch, said Charlotte Crawford, a spokeswoman for Coursera.
The benefit of MOOCs for universities is two-fold, says Roy Weiss, University of Chicago deputy provost for research.
"We need to be offering our students the latest types of educational experiences that are available," Weiss told The Chicago Maroon, the university's student newspaper. "And the other thing is a commitment we have to society at large to enable individuals from all over the world to experience the University of Chicago education at some level."
Also in June, the State University of New York announced it too would begin using Coursera to beef up its online-learning initiatives.
The SUNY system will work with Coursera to spread its online courses to colleges on the rest of its campuses, giving students the opportunity to earn as much as one-third of their degrees from classes taught by professors outside their home campuses.
SUNY and the University of Chicago are the latest in high-profile universities to join the MOOC craze. Harvard (No. 1 on U.S. News and World Report's list) and MIT (No. 6) partnered in 2012 to create edX, which says it has enrolled in its MOOCs more than 900,000 students from 192 countries. Professors from Stanford University (tied with MIT for No. 6) created the two other largest MOOC providers: Udacity and Coursera.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that colleges should rely on MOOCs to move into the future.
Harvard, which has 16 courses currently available on edX, came under fire recently by some professors for the way the university manages MOOCs. Its current system is based around HarvardX, an on-campus initiative that university spokesperson Michael Rutter said helps professors deliver online courses. Two faculty committees govern it: one to organize classes and the other to research the effectiveness of online-learning techniques.
"What it is becoming is a way to marshal resources here to engage with our faculty as they think about creating the courses," Rutter said.
But in May, 58 Harvard faculty members wrote to their dean with concerns about how quickly the school has been pursuing MOOCs. They called for an immediate faculty discussion about edX and more involvement in monitoring the ethical implications of it.
Rutter said the university is taking the summer to consider what improvements could be made to oversight of online learning at Harvard.
Several schools are using a methodical approach similar to Harvard's in their MOOC development. Instead of allowing professors to simply tweak traditional classes and post them online, universities are developing plans for maximizing their outreach. This often results in international exposure for the school.
Princeton, for example, established an online-learning policy committee to help navigate MOOCs and other new technologies shortly after its initial dive into Coursera. Columbia University also named longtime journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan as its first chief digital officer to lead the school through what he called the fastest evolution in education ever.
"No technology has ever developed this quickly in academia; not electricity, not the telephone, not the Internet," Sreenivasan told The Morningside Post, one of the university's student newspapers. "My role is to help Columbia navigate this in a strategic way, without panicking."
But navigating MOOCs isn't easy, and it's now the subject of a legislative debate in California. Lawmakers there are considering a proposal that would allow students to replace some introductory courses with MOOCs in the state's three higher education systems, which together enroll nearly 1 million students.
Proponents of the plan, including California Gov. Jerry Brown and State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, say it could relieve stress from overenrolled classes, but it passed through the State Senate despite resistance from faculty leaders. Opponents say MOOCs cannot always replicate engagement students receive in a physical classroom, and that the online classes are not the answer to years of budget cuts that have devastated state universities' funding.
One of those opponents, University of California Academic Senate Chair Bob Powell, said at a State Senate hearing that the system is already moving toward effective use of online education — without MOOCs.
But at the same hearing, Steinberg hinted at a different reason some professors might oppose his bill: He thinks they fear for their jobs.
"The bill has generated a lot of controversy … over legitimate issues, of course, but also a lot of fear that this is a stalking course to contract out or displace faculty or other public workers," Steinberg said at the hearing. "That's certainly not my intent, but we take the concern seriously."
At least one public university in California has already experimented with MOOCs, where it received mixed reactions — much like at other universities throughout the country.