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

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

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

In the previous article in this series, we compared MOOCs to traditional colleges and universities along a number of lines, including growth rates, retention rates and student diversity. In these next two parts, we’ll look at some of the perspectives toward MOOCs from key stakeholders, including faculty and higher education administrators and finally from students.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

Higher Education Faculty and Administrators Vary in Their Opinion of MOOCs

One way of approaching the MOOC versus traditional college debate is to examine perceptions from college faculty and administrators. While MOOCs are making a big splash in higher education, faculty opinions seem to be contradictory at best. In one study, 58% of faculty described themselves as more fearful than excited about the growth of MOOCs. And 60% of the same respondents have recommended online education to students and/or advisers.

Another study found that many faculty were inclined to concede that MOOCs may offer a more affordable path to the attainment of a college degree. But most also felt that teaching a MOOC requires the diversion of time from other faculty activities, including research, service and traditional teaching. Interestingly, while most faculty believed that MOOCs were worthy of all of the attention they’ve been receiving, the same vast majority argued that completion of such courses should not confer formal college credit upon students.

For these reasons, many universities have chosen not to supplement their traditional course offerings with MOOC alternatives. Other research also seemed to suggest that many faculty felt in some ways threatened by the new teacherless program, for reasons that 1) their function as educators may become obsolete, and 2) their intellectual property as researchers and course designers might be stolen and exploited through these new offerings.

A similar study surveyed the opinions of 889 college presidents on the subject of MOOCs. Presidents carry a different perspective on these matters because they are less affected by the day-to-day happenings in class and are more accountable for college performance metrics overall.

The survey indicated that the presidents agreed with faculty in the sense that MOOCs may prove a more affordable alternative to higher education. But they were also less persuaded by the notions that MOOCs would either 1) improve student learning, or 2) improve the financial performance of their respective institutions.

MOOCs and Public Administrators

Finally, we should also consider the perspectives of public administrators in guiding the direction of academic institutions through funding and legislation. As discussed earlier, MOOCs came to prominence at an interesting point in the socioeconomic history of the United States.

The American public had just weathered the worst financial crisis in nearly a century.  They were thus understandably looking for tangible departures from the old paradigms that were perceived to have been responsible for their suffering.

And so in the post-recession political dogfights, public administrators were very quick to endorse anything that challenged the demonized status quo. New was good, and thus, MOOCs found a happy home in the eyes of public servants.

To be fair, colleges and universities have always enjoyed support from American communities at the local, state, and federal levels through funding and promotion. However, MOOCs have garnered enthusiasm from public administrators and legislators for the comparatively short period of time within which they have been a relevant topic.

It is important to note that the studies cited in this article reflected the opinions of faculty and administrators from institutions of higher learning in general. But this is representative of a very wide spectrum of professions and prerogatives.

For instance, four-year university faculty may have concerns for time and resources dedicated to research, and the protection of consequent intellectual property rights. Community college faculty, on the other hand, generally do not have much, if any, research responsibility, and this lends itself to an inference that perhaps some factors that weigh against the favorability of MOOCs might be less relevant for community college instructors than for university professors.

But college and university presidents, by contrast, have fairly consistent administrative responsibilities, including gaining community support, financial solvency, academic excellence and the maintenance of accreditation standards. So the results of the presidents’ surveys may in fact be more valid across different kinds of higher education institutions.

With these important points in mind, perceptions among faculty and administrators appear to be divided regarding MOOCs. Research findings and interpretations were mixed, to say the least. For these reasons, it is prudent to conclude that opinions among faculty and administrators are mixed concerning both sides, enough that no clear victor can be identified in this area.

In the final article in the series, we will look at one more very important perspective in the comparison between MOOCs and traditional colleges — that of students.

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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