Editors' Note: This is the third of a four-part series on education reform, online technology, and the future of learning.


MOOCs seem to have captured the attention of anyone and everyone with an interest in higher education. Unfortunately, much of the discussion is marred by a tendency to search for a single “grand narrative.” Like many things, MOOCs mean different things to different people, so some framing is in order. There is an important distinction between how MOOCs might serve the needs of individual learners as contrasted with how they might serve colleges and universities that are currently in the business of teaching students and awarding degrees. While I welcome the wonderful potential of MOOCs to help people all over the world to benefit from access to the ideas of accomplished faculty, my focus for this piece is on how MOOCs might be helpful to established universities already serving large numbers of students.

Before reflecting on how MOOCs might benefit traditional institutions, let me first emphasize that despite all of the hype and excitement, there is little rigorous evidence available to inform us about the efficacy of these new technologies. Our digital and networked world moves at a frenetic pace and we need to move with it. But we also have a serious need for evidence, and my colleagues and I at Ithaka S+R—a strategic consulting firm for aiding the transition of scholarship to the digital world (I am a boardmember)—are working to conduct studies to shed more light on the impact of these new platforms for learning. Let this be an appeal for more researchers to study these issues. It is terribly important to higher education at this time.

So, while I acknowledge the dangers of acting rashly without ample evidence, it is not too early to at least start considering ways in which MOOCs, if proved effective, could be harnessed to serve the higher education community as a whole in transformational ways. In the right settings and used in the right ways, the benefits of MOOCs and other online learning technologies could be substantial. Imagine some examples. These technologies might make it possible for energetic, college-bound high school students to get an early start on their college education—perhaps by preparing them to take college-level tests that will allow them to place out of some introductory courses. Alternatively, given that the out-of-pocket costs of enrollment, and of attrition, are relatively low compared to the costs of traditional courses for which students need to pay tuition, MOOCs could allow students to experiment with different classes and get a sense of what disciplines interest them before they ever set foot on campus.

The biggest opportunity for MOOCs to raise productivity system-wide and to lower costs may well lie in finding effective ways for third parties to certify the “credit worthiness” of their courses—and the success of students in passing them. Earning a degree remains the ultimate objective of virtually every college-going student. The American Council on Education has endorsed several MOOCs for credit, thus essentially recommending to its member institutions that they offer credit to students who complete those MOOCs. A widespread acceptance of such a recommendation by colleges and universities across the country could have profound effects in simplifying scheduling, and could facilitate acceptance of transfer credits and forms of evidence of prior learning. These improvements could lead to an accelerated flow through the system for many students, and thus to reduced time-to-degree and higher completion rates, thereby potentially increasing productivity if there is not a commensurate increase in costs.

To have even a chance of achieving their potential benefits, MOOCs will have to gain traction among students, faculty members, administrators, and other key stakeholders. Several issues will need to be addressed by colleges contemplating accepting such credentials. One key question is how to define the coherence of the coursework they expect students to complete in order to receive one of their degrees. There are also complex intellectual property rights issues that need to be resolved if MOOCs produced by one professor for the general public are to be repurposed for use by another professor at a different institution, in a different classroom setting with a different student population.  There is also the question of integrity—how to ensure that the student who is completing the assignments is the same as the student who has signed up for the MOOC.

There are likely to be other challenges in the institutional context, chief among them faculty resistance to teaching content that they do not “own.” This is not just a matter of control or ego, but a matter of faculty believing that they know the best ways to teach their students. The Barriers to Adoption report released by Ithaka S+R and co-authored by our colleague Larry Bacow, the recently retired president of Tufts, identified a number of other challenges, including the substantial costs of developing new courses and retraining faculty to make the best use of these technologies, the understandable fears of faculty that online learning technologies will be used to reduce their ranks, and the need for customized platforms that take advantage of economies of scale while offering faculty sufficient flexibility and control of their courses.

It is critically important to avoid the 'all or nothing' mentality that mars discussion of online learning.

That leading MOOCs might meet this last need for readily adaptable platforms or tool kits is, at least at present, one of the most promising (though still entirely speculative) options. Not only have the developers of Coursera and edX said that they are committed to developing systems that can be used widely by others, but they have a rare combination of assets—impressive technical capacity, a strong financial base, and standing in the academic community. But this will not be a straightforward task.  After all, the MOOCs were originally designed to deliver course instruction directly to tens of thousands of students on a one-size-fits-all basis. Adapting MOOCs to individual institutional settings implies delivering a course, or course content, that can be used by a professor to teach groups of students. Customization will not be easy, but it seems to me that it is the most promising way to try to address the need for an effective but less expensive mechanism to teach the hundreds of thousands of students eager to attend university. This is really about developing the means to increase access and equity in higher education.

Related to the last point is one major concern: that the promises that online learning offers could simultaneously have the perverse effect of widening the gap in American higher education between the “haves” and “have-nots.” There is little point in refusing to recognize the existence of institutional differences. The resources available to the wealthiest institutions have grown more rapidly than the resources available down the line, which may position individuals at some favored institutions to become prospective leading “producers” of content more easily than others. At the same time, some individuals and institutions may be better positioned to be extremely skillful consumers of content that originated mostly, if not entirely, elsewhere. This does not mean there are “superior” individuals or institutions preordained to do the really creative work; rather, it is to make an argument for the division of labor and for taking advantage of economies of scale (I am, after all, an economist). If the institutions especially well-positioned to make significant contributions to course content and delivery mechanisms do so effectively, there is a very good chance that all of higher education will benefit. And at the end of some future day, the real kudos (and possibly savings) may go to the highly-creative institutional assemblers of organizational ideas, intellectual content, and pedagogies. There should be a real pay-off to institutions that are especially skillful in harvesting content others provide and then adding other kinds of educationally-rich value of their own, including mentoring and directed study.

But this is not all there is to getting a first-rate education and we should also recognize that there are central aspects of life on our traditional campuses that must not only be retained but even strengthened.

First is the need to emphasize the great value of “minds rubbing against minds.” There are, of course, both economic constraints and practical limitations on how much education can be delivered in person. But those of us who have benefited from personal interactions with certain teachers can testify to the inspirational, life-changing aspects of such experiences. The half-life of content taught in a course can be short, as we all know, but great teachers change the way their students see the world (and themselves) long after the students have forgotten formulas, theorems, and even engaging illustrations of this or that proposition. And then there are the benefits to be gained from face-to-face interactions with peers. A great advantage of some degree of on-campus presence, which is particularly true of, though not restricted to residential institutions, is that genuine learning occurs more or less continually, and as often, or more often, out of the classroom as in it.

It is therefore critically important to avoid the “all or nothing” mentality that mars much discussion of online learning. The most thoughtful uses of MOOCs may occur in the context of what amounts to something like a portfolio approach to curricular development that provides a carefully calibrated mix of instructional styles. There are advantages to gaining some competence in learning in online environments, but also great value in discussion groups, seminars, and directed study. This mix of instructional approaches will vary by institutional type, and relatively wealthy liberal arts colleges and selective universities may offer more in-person teaching than can many less well-resourced institutions. In many ways the most challenging issue is how to manage to keep the right value orientation and the real learning aspect of education in large, resource-strapped public universities—how best to take some of the resources that can be saved by an appropriate use of machine-guided learning (in fields in which it makes sense), and allow those savings to be used to do the other kinds of teaching that are so important.