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Conventional Online Higher Education Will Absorb MOOCs, 2 Reports Say

Massive open online courses will not fundamentally reshape higher education, nor will they disappear altogether. Those are the conclusions of separate reports released this week by Teachers College at Columbia University and Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit advisory group.

Neither report contains any blockbuster news for those who have followed the decline of the MOOC hype over the last year or so. But they support the theory that the tools and techniques Stanford University professors used in 2011 to enroll 160,000 students in a free, online computer-science course will be subsumed by broader, incremental efforts to improve higher education with technology.

“It seems clear that MOOCs are neither the cataclysmic disruptor that advocates predicted nor the flash in pan their critics were hoping for,” writes Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the Bellwether report.

MOOCs are like free gyms, says Mr. Kelly. They might enable some people—mostly people who are already healthy and able to work out without much guidance—to exercise more. But they won’t do much for people who need intensive physical therapy or the care of a doctor.

The Columbia report, which weighs in at a hefty 211 pages, goes through each of the “major goals that institutions hope to achieve through MOOC initiatives” and finds no clear indication that colleges will see a return on their investment in the free online courses.

Part of the problem might be a lack of data, but the researchers note that the big questions, such as “whether MOOCs are an effective and cost-effective means of educating a broad range of learners compared with existing models of education,” might be difficult to resolve.

“Some institutions are unclear as to why they are embarking on MOOC initiatives,” write the authors of the report, Fiona M. Hollands and Devayani Tirthali, “and until they can agree internally on suitable and realistic goals, they will struggle to justify the expense and effort.”

The Columbia researchers nevertheless predict that MOOCs will not disappear. More likely, they will “evolve to more closely resemble regular online courses,” with some elements—such as one-on-one tutoring, estimable credentials, and qualitative feedback on assignments—available at a price.

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