Academia is hardly known for its rapid embrace of change.
But when it comes to accepting massive open online courses, or MOOCs, some worry university leaders may need to slam on the brakes.
It's been less than three years since MOOCs entered the public discourse, but the online classes are already causing quite a stir in the higher education universe as elite universities such as Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor embrace the courses.
Champions of MOOCs believe they are the best higher education development in decades, a way of providing free, high-quality classes to students anywhere in the world. But skeptics worry the courses will have a devastating effect on the American university system.
MOOCs are different from traditional online courses in that they are usually free, open to anyone with an Internet connection and draw hundreds or thousands of students. MOOCs can be created by institutions and individuals and are most commonly offered by third parties such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.
Colleges and universities don't typically accept MOOCs for credit, unless they are associated with their own programs. However, experts predict that will change in coming years as institutions feel pressure from their peers and students to accept the classes.
Advocates of MOOCs say they have a range of benefits, even if they don't count toward a degree. The classes can be used as free professional development tools or for help with remedial courses before college, experts say. They can also help students explore personal interests or transition into a new career.
Because MOOCs are often taught by professors from top universities such as Harvard and Stanford, they also give students the benefit of learning from the world's most distinguished educators.
"This movement has raised more awareness and enthusiasm for higher learning than I recall in recent history in this country," says Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois—Springfield. "It has allowed people to quickly and easily access learning in fields that otherwise they would have never pursued."
Since MOOCs made their initial splash in the late 2000s, proponents have lauded their potential to make higher education accessible to the developing world. Through use of a smart phone, computer or other device with an Internet connection, people in remote villages can have access to higher education – for free.
About half of the students who enroll in MOOCs are from outside of the United States, according to Schroeder. The largest number of enrollees comes from India, Russia and Brazil.
"I think there is a great desire for American education in these countries and they highly value taking a class from a Stanford University, a Princeton, a University of Penn, etc.," he says.
Despite the hype, many question the quality of the courses, arguing that the best way to educate students is through face-to-face interaction. MOOCs may offer discussion groups, but that is nothing like having a back-and-forth conversation in real time, they say.
And although online learning might be a good fit for some students – particularly older students and working adults – some say MOOCs may not be ideal for young undergraduates and people at risk of dropping out of school. MOOCs often enroll many students at the get go, but only a small percentage of students actually finish the classes, experts say.
"For motivated learners, certainly MOOCs work very well," Schroeder says. But "for those learners who need close attention and support it can be much more difficult for them to progress through those courses."