The MOOC Hype Fades, in 3 Charts

Few people would now be willing to argue that massive open online courses are the future of higher education. The percentage of institutions offering a MOOC seems to be leveling off, at around 14 percent, while suspicions persist that MOOCs will not generate money or reduce costs for universities—and are not, in fact, sustainable.

The latest figures come from the Babson Survey Research Group’s annual survey, which was based on a 2014 survey of more than 2,800 academic leaders and was released on Thursday. The survey, which has tracked opinions about online education for more than a decade, started asking academic leaders about MOOCs in 2012, when free online courses seemed poised to disrupt the walled gardens of elite college instruction.

Back then, 28 percent of respondents believed MOOCs were sustainable, while 26 percent thought they were not. In this year’s survey, 16 percent believe MOOCs are sustainable, while 51 percent think they are not.

Sustainability is in the eye of the benefactor, of course. Some institutions can afford to lose money fielding a free online course. Only 6 percent of respondents at colleges that offer MOOCs said their primary objective was to either “generate income” or “explore cost reductions.” More often they wanted to use the courses to increase institutional visibility and drive recruitment.

What this means is that academic leaders seem to understand that any returns on their investment in free online courses will be indirect and possibly hard to quantify. They also seem to be at peace with the fact that MOOCs will not curb college costs, which they pegged as the most important issue driving the future of higher education. Self-directed learning, a central feature of MOOCs, ranked as the least important issue out of the six Babson asked about.

One supposed benefit of experimenting with MOOCs is that doing so might produce new insights about online teaching and learning, especially for institutions that do not already offer courses online. That was the primary motivation of about a fifth of institutions that offer MOOCs, according to the Babson survey.

And yet academic leaders in general have become skeptical that colleges need MOOCs to teach them about online learning. Asked in 2012 if they thought the free online courses were “important for institutions to learn about online pedagogy,” 50 percent agreed and 19 percent disagreed. Now only 28 percent agree, and 37 percent disagree.

Those findings may not come as much of a surprise. The MOOC hype has been flagging since mid-2013, when it started becoming clear that this particular breed of online course would not transform the economics of mainstream higher education. The conventional wisdom now is that free online courses offer a promising recruiting tool and an interesting (but not essential) research tool for colleges that can afford the upkeep, while also nudging more-conservative institutions to finally start integrating online coursework into the curriculum.

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