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Optimism About MOOCs Fades in Campus IT Offices

MOOC fever is cooling, at least among campus information-technology administrators, according to the 2014 edition of the Campus Computing Survey, an annual report on technology in higher education.

While a little more than half of last year’s respondents thought MOOCs “offer a viable model for the effective delivery of online instruction,” just 38 percent of this year’s participants agreed with that statement. And only 19 percent of respondents in 2014 said MOOCs could generate new revenue for colleges, down from 29 percent last fall.

“I’m not surprised to see some pessimism about the role of MOOCs in the future,” said Norman Bier, director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University. “After a lot of excitement and a little bit of hype over the past year or two, what we’re seeing is, simply taking learning materials and making them available is not a guarantee of quality.”

Since 1990, the Campus Computing Survey has measured the role of information technology in higher education. This year’s results are based on answers submitted by senior campus IT officials at 470 two- and four-year public and private nonprofit colleges in the United States.

Generating revenue from MOOCs is of interest to the many universities that have teamed up with providers like Coursera and edX using a variety of contracts. Coursera guarantees its college partners a cut of generated revenue, while colleges that use edX see returns only after edX collects specified amounts. It’s not yet clear how profitable any MOOCs will be.

“Part of the challenge is, they came out guns blazing with this grand prediction of disruption,” said Benjamin B. Bederson, associate provost for learning initiatives at the University of Maryland at College Park. “It’s absolutely the case that they haven’t come anywhere close to the level of disruption” people thought possible two years ago.

But running MOOCs through Coursera has provided Maryland with branding opportunities, Mr. Bederson said, and has engaged faculty members in creative thinking about teaching with technology.

And so far, he’s pleased with the financial side of the equation, too. A small percentage of students who take free MOOCs later sign up for fee-based online classes at the university, Mr. Bederson reported. Coursera’s revenue-sharing model, he said, more than makes up the university’s cost of paying professors to develop MOOCs.

“It creates real, strong positives for our campus,” he said.

In addition to decreased optimism about MOOCs among IT administrators, the survey revealed universities’ weaknesses in providing accessible technology to students with disabilities, increased interest in applications for mobile devices, and concerns about cloud security.

Online Enablers

IT departments may be skeptical about MOOCs, but colleges are forging a digital future by creating online programs. And they’re enlisting help: Nearly a third (29 percent) of respondents said their colleges were outsourcing online-program development to third-party providers. Those “enablers,” such as Pearson Embanet, offer marketing services and technology support in exchange for payment.

Over all, 43 percent of IT officers said they believe outsourcing “offers a viable instructional strategy for their institution’s online efforts,” but among those at private universities, 67 percent do. A third (34 percent) think outsourcing will provide a solid revenue strategy, but among those at private universities, 59 percent do.

Equal Opportunity

Compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act is a concern for IT officials: Only 49 percent of participants reported having a strategic plan for ensuring universities meet mandates protecting students with disabilities. Concern about campus compliance led to the introduction, in November 2013, of the Teach Act, which would create accessibility guidelines for electronic materials used or assigned by college professors and administrators.

Mobile-ization

Colleges having been moving toward mobile applications for several years now, and the trend continued in 2014. Among survey participants, 83 percent said their campuses had mobile apps or would by next academic year. That number has increased by 6 percent since last year, and by more than 72 percent since 2010.

At the request of a student, Ohio State University launched its mobile application in 2011. It allows users to search for classes, view grades, rate professors, and check students’ account balances.

“The growth has been tremendous,” said Stephen Fischer, Ohio State’s director of web and mobile applications. “We had about 46,000 unique users the first week of classes … and 30-percent year-over-year growth. It’s become a part of every student’s Ohio State experience.”

Planning around mobile technology during the next two to three years is on the agenda for most respondents, 83 percent of whom said it would be “very important” for tablets. Eighty-two percent of respondents felt similarly about smartphones.

Cloudy Future

The proportion of campuses with a strategic plan for cloud computing rose slightly (to 29 percent this year, up from 27 percent in 2013), but security remains a concern. One-third of respondents disagreed with the statement that “cloud computing offers a level of data reliability and security that equals or excels the level of security and reliability we can provide with on-campus hosting.”

The survey will be available for purchase starting on December 1 at campuscomputing.net.

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