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Survey Finds Only Limited Public Awareness of MOOCs

Many people outside of higher education have never heard of massive open online courses, according to a new survey of public attitudes toward the free offerings.

While an overwhelming majority of respondents to the survey said they were familiar with online education in general, only 22 percent said they were familiar with MOOCs, and only 4 percent said they were very familiar with them.

The survey, which was based on a nationwide sample of 1,042 people interviewed online in May, determined that a majority of people were modestly in favor of colleges’ offering MOOCs. But there was a distinct split in attitudes among specific subgroups of respondents.

College students and soon-to-be-college students were the most likely to have heard of MOOCs, but only 26 percent of them said MOOCs were a good idea. Meanwhile, 41 percent of alumni said MOOCs were a good idea. Parents indicated a greater interest in MOOCs, but for themselves rather than for their children.

“For students who are currently in the midst of that more-traditional college experience, the idea that that might be replaced by an online experience is not particularly appealing,” said Jerry Johnson, executive vice president of Brodeur Partners, the strategic-communications firm that sponsored the survey.

The survey’s findings, to be released on Wednesday, suggest that colleges should be careful how and to whom they market their online offerings, said Greg Schneiders, a founding partner of the Prime Group, the consulting firm that conducted the survey. A key takeaway from the survey, he said, is that MOOCs by themselves are not a compelling draw for the student who is going to college for more than simply academic study.

Despite the broad interest in MOOCs among alumni, they were not more likely to donate to a college just because it offered the online courses. In fact, 26 percent of alumni in the survey said they would be less likely to donate if their alma mater offered a MOOC, while only 13 percent said it would make them more likely to donate.

The survey also sought to clarify which arguments are most persuasive both for and against the massive online courses. Pollsters found that the strongest messages in support of MOOC adoption included that they made higher education more affordable and available, and offered greater flexibility to students. The strongest message in opposition was that MOOCs cannot provide the “traditional college experience” that in-person attendance offers.

Based on the survey’s findings, Mr. Schneiders said that MOOCs would not be the death of traditional higher education. He said the survey had revealed that MOOCs were causing disruption in higher education more akin to the recent technological disruption in the retail sector than in the travel industry.

“Travel agents largely went away. Retail didn’t,” he said. “The difference being that there was something about the bricks-and-mortar retail experience that is different from buying stuff online. Online purchasing became another part of retail opportunity but not a complete replacement, and it looks like, based on this survey, that retail is the better analogy than travel.”

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