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Are MOOCs Serious Competition for Traditional College? (Part I)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, Wallace E. Boston School of Business

This is the first article in a four-part series about the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as competition for a traditional college education.

For more than a century, America’s public colleges and universities have been a driving force for mass market higher education. Their stock in trade is offering an affordable path for students — traditional and non-traditional, urban and rural, and from all backgrounds and personal circumstances — to prepare or re-tool for an ever-changing and competitive job market.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

Public colleges and universities have played an important role in molding and supporting the American workforce. But now, into the third decade of the 21st century, a perfect storm of circumstances may be quickly converging, such that these well-established institutions might find themselves out-priced and out-performed by alternatives that were previously nonexistent, namely Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

In the latter half of the 2000s, the United States found itself in what many have called the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. This crisis led to a stock market crash, a housing market implosion, and a general downsizing of workforces in almost every sector of American business and industry.

Millions of Americans lost their jobs, and for those with limited skill sets (i.e., unskilled labor), a very attractive option was to take advantage of educational opportunities to retool for the jobs that are in the highest demand and are most highly lucrative in the post-recession American economy. Colleges and universities saw a spike in enrollment following these troubled times, which is not unexpected; higher education interests tend to be inversely correlated with economic prosperity.

All of the above bodes well for the colleges and universities of the nation. However, unlike any previous economic crisis, the 2008 Great Recession happened to occur at a point in the chronology of technological advancement of First World countries, where — for the first time — online education was experiencing widespread acceptance as a credible alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. Internet/bandwidth proliferation and the advancement of online learning platforms rendered web-based education not only a viable alternative to traditional schools, but potentially a superior one.

Online-Only Education, Including MOOCs, Grew in Popularity

A 2011 study by the Babson Survey Research Group found that 31% (6.1 million) of all students enrolled in higher education had taken at least one online course, indicating a growth rate of online education 10 times greater than that of other forms of higher education.

Thus grew the University of Phoenix, Corinthian Colleges, American Public University System and a host of other institutions dedicated primarily to online higher education. Additionally, many preexisting academic institutions soon jumped on board with their own online offerings. More good news, it would appear.

This shift in business model also brought with it the creation of MOOCs. Definitions and exact parameters vary as to what is and is not a MOOC. However, the general consensus is that these offerings are characterized by either very large or unlimited enrollment volume, nominal or nonexistent enrollment fees, and content delivery through an online format that can be offered from any institution anywhere on the planet and made accessible to learners everywhere through the internet.

Some MOOC institutions offer either certificates or genuine college academic credit toward bona fide degrees in conjunction with their courses (primarily in California). Others do not.

The unmatched convenience and value of these offerings appear to give MOOCs an upper hand over traditional colleges and universities, but there are still genuine debates over the difference in quality between the two models.

Quality, of course, can be measured in many different ways, including objective metrics such as growth and retention rates, and subjective metrics such as perspectives of the stakeholders involved. In this article series, we’ll look at the various factors involved in the competition between MOOCs and traditional higher learning institutions, and we’ll speculate — based on these findings — about the future of each.

It is important to note at the onset that literature concerning the efficacy of MOOCs and comparisons between the characteristics of MOOCs and other forms of higher education is relatively sparse. This is simply due to the fact that MOOCs are still a relatively new alternative in the higher learning arena, and researchers have just begun to investigate their dynamics. However, a healthy enough foundation exists upon which to begin this conversation.

Online Education Now Rivals In-Person Education

In the “early days” of online education, skeptics dismissed it as subpar to traditional in-school environments. However, with the proliferation of various forms of online learning, these offerings have gained at least the attention — if not quite yet the full acceptance — of even the most notable academic institutions. The term “MOOC” was first used to describe a course in “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” offered by the University of Manitoba in 2008.  Since then, interest in and discussion of this new phenomenon has exploded.

Researchers have attempted to measure the efficacy of MOOCs with varying lenses. To examine them all would be impossible, but in this series we’ll look at some of the most widely explored metrics, which include growth rates, retention rates, student markets served and the perceptions of stakeholders involved.

It’s worth noting that cost might seem an extremely relevant factor in this discussion, but given the enormous variability in cost models for both community colleges and MOOCs — ranging from no cost at all to thousands of dollars per course — this factor will not be used as a point of comparison.

In the next part of this series, we’ll begin by looking at growth metrics for MOOCs.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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