Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Finds

January 15, 2014

Academic leaders increasingly think that massive open online courses are not sustainable for the institutions that offer them and will "cause confusion about higher-education degrees," according to the results of an annual survey.

The Babson Survey Research Group has charted the growth of online education annually for more than a decade with support from the Sloan Consortium and other partners. The latest survey, conducted last year, asked chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education.

The findings, released in a report on Wednesday, reveal a growing skepticism among academic leaders about the promise of MOOCs. The report also suggests that conventional, tuition-based online education is still growing, although not as swiftly as in past years.

In 2012 the Babson survey asked about MOOCs for the first time. At the time, relatively few academic officers were concerned about whether their institutions would be able to field free online courses year after year—after all, less than 3 percent of them had even begun offering MOOCs at that point.

A year later, there were more doubts about the long-term prospects of teaching free online courses. In 2012, 26 percent of academic leaders disagreed that MOOCs were "a sustainable method for offering courses." In 2013 that number leapt to 39 percent.

"The chief academic officers at institutions with the greatest experience and exposure to traditional online instruction are the least likely to believe in the long-term future of MOOCs," wrote I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, the report's authors.

'Too Early to Tell'

Many institutions have said they are building MOOCs in order to learn more about how to teach well, especially in online formats. But confidence in the importance of MOOCs as a learning tool for institutions has slipped.

Half of the respondents in the 2012 survey agreed that "MOOCs are important for institutions to learn about online pedagogy"; in 2013 agreement dipped to 44 percent, while the proportion of respondents who disagreed with that statement jumped from 19 percent to 27 percent.

MOOCs made no significant inroads in the past year in the existing credentialing system in higher education, calling into question whether they will be as disruptive to the status quo as some observers first thought. Still, academic leaders remain worried that "credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher-education degrees."

In 2012, 55 percent of survey respondents agreed with that statement. In 2013, 64 percent agreed.

MOOCs have generated a lot of buzz over the past two years, but relatively few colleges offer free, open-enrollment courses on the web. Only 5 percent of institutions in the latest survey were running MOOCs, and 9 percent more were planning to do so.

Those institutions were still largely uncertain about how MOOCs would play into their overall strategies.

Among the academic leaders at colleges that offer the massive courses, or plan to, the commonest reasons were marketing-related; the institutions hope MOOCs will improve their visibility and possibly help recruit students into their existing, tuition-based programs.

The early returns have been promising but inconclusive. Virtually none of the respondents said MOOCs were meeting "very few" of their objectives, and a handful said the massive courses were succeeding. But 66 percent said it was "too early to tell."

Quality Concerns Persist

Conventional online courses, meanwhile, are more popular than ever.

More than one-third of students took at least one online course in 2013, the Babson group estimated. That figure is growing more slowly than it has in previous years. Nevertheless, nearly all the respondents to the latest survey predicted that, within five years, more than half of college students will be taking at least one course online.

A strong majority also believed that concerns about the quality of online courses, relative to traditional ones, will persist.

As online education has grown, the challenges of educating students online have become clearer. In 2004, 27 percent of academic leaders said that retaining students was harder online than in face-to-face courses; in 2013, 41 percent said retaining online students was harder, even though online course delivery became more sophisticated during intervening years.

Additionally, a larger proportion of academic leaders now believe that students need more self-discipline to succeed in online courses than in conventional classes—although the Babson group's data indicate that officials at institutions that actually offer online courses have long understood this.