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Are MOOCs the future of U.S. higher education?

Rochester Business Journal
April 19, 2013

Massive open online courses-MOOCs-are quite the rage today. Using examples such as the replacement of cassette tapes by compact discs, typewriters by word processors and presentations with overhead projectors by PowerPoint presentations, proponents have contended that MOOCs are about to replace not only the more standard delivery media in academia but all of higher education. Even the normally astute New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently lauded MOOCs for having the potential to bring about a "revolution" in American higher education.
Why are so many infatuated with MOOCs? There are several reasons, all of which have a lot to do with economics. In an environment in which the cost of higher education keeps increasing faster than the rate of inflation, MOOCs appear to many to have significant cost-saving potential. Middle-class parents, whatever their understanding of MOOCs, are supportive of this new technology because it promises to lower their tuition bills.
Looking at the matter from a different perspective, Nigel Thrift in the Chronicle of Higher Education has argued that MOOCs appeal to "economic elites" because this group is constantly attempting to reconfigure the basic business model in higher education to obtain greater profit. In this regard, as higher education in America grows in scale, MOOCs provide the opportunity to teach large numbers of people relatively efficiently and so, the argument goes, deserve careful scrutiny.
Finally, in a time of economic austerity, state governments across America are looking for ways to reduce spending on higher education. In such a setting, MOOCs can look like a "win-win" solution because they allow lawmakers to cut funding and yet look efficient by embracing this new technology. In this regard, a state senator in California recently sponsored legislation that would steer students in California's public colleges toward MOOCs when they are unable to sign up for regular classes because of overcrowding.
Research shows, however, that the online course completion rate for community college students is much lower than the corresponding rate for students in face-to-face courses. Therefore, steering community college students in the direction of MOOCs is unlikely to be a judicious strategy.
Second and more generally, success in online courses requires what Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle of Higher Education has called a significant degree of self-discipline, motivation and time-management skills. Unfortunately, students who are pushed to enroll in MOOCs, possibly because of overcrowding in regular courses, frequently do not display those qualities in abundance. When such students are steered in the direction of MOOCs, they are often unwittingly being set up to fail.
Finally, MOOCs appear to work best for certain types of students and courses. The students, as one might expect, tend to be the more motivated and self-disciplined ones who already have had successful learning experiences in more traditional settings. Most of the MOOCs that have worked thus far are either vocational or math- and computation-based. We simply don't know whether the MOOC format is a desirable format for exploratory courses or for courses involving a significant amount of design or laboratory work.
In sum, a careful examination of the available evidence shows that in some circumstances, MOOCs offer opportunities for cost containment and efficient instruction, and they also have the potential to substantially increase access to higher education. Even so, we are nowhere near a world of the sort envisioned by Friedman, in which villagers in remote parts of Egypt (with questionable Internet access) are captivated by knowledge about Plato or quantum mechanics delivered through MOOCs. Overzealous stories in the media forecasting the demise of traditional universities are, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics at Rochester Institute of Technology, but these views are his own.4/19/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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