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Obama Is Advised to Let Market Forces Decide Fate of MOOCs

Massive open online courses could help increase access to higher education while driving down its costs, but President Obama should not intervene in order to push the MOOC movement in that direction.

That’s the advice the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has offered the president in a letter, made public on Wednesday, that focuses on education technology—and MOOCs in particular.

“Although the new technologies introduced by MOOCs are still in their infancy, and many questions and challenges remain, we believe that they hold the possibility of transforming education at all levels by providing better metrics for educational outcomes, and better alignment of incentives for innovation in pedagogy,” the letter’s authors write.

The letter acknowledges the concerns that have been raised about MOOCs and online courses generally, and notes that it is still unclear whether online courses can actually reduce the cost of higher education. But over all the letter strikes an optimistic note, dismissing the rocky experiment involving Udacity and San Jose State University as a natural part of the trial-and-error process that comes with innovation.

The council’s advice to the president is to hang back for the time being and “let market forces decide which innovations in online teaching and learning are best,” rather than leaping to subsidize a favorite.

The council also encourages Mr. Obama to continue pushing accrediting bodies to “be flexible in response to educational innovation.”

The president already surprised many higher-education leaders in February by asserting, in a document released just after his State of the Union address, that he seeks more accountability from accreditors.

The science-and-technology advisory group agreed, saying that the Department of Education “should continue to encourage regional accrediting bodies to be flexible in recognizing that many standards normally required for an accredited degree should be modified in the online arena.”

Finally, the group encouraged President Obama to keep federal research money flowing to projects aimed at understanding how teaching and learning work online. ”There would be huge societal advantages to the widespread sharing of such data,” they write, “and the colleges and universities offering the courses will appreciate this benefit more readily than for-profit platform vendors.”

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