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MOOC Skeptics at the Top

May 2, 2013

It would be easy to think that the leaders of American higher education are all in when it comes to MOOCs. Dozens of colleges and universities -- many of them among the elites -- have rushed to offer massive open online courses. Top foundations back the effort. The American Council on Education has moved quickly to certify some of the courses as credit-worthy. Many other colleges are considering plans to award credit for MOOCs or to use them in instruction.

But it turns out that -- when asked privately -- most presidents don't seem sure at all that MOOCs are going to transform student learning, or reduce costs to students -- two of the claims made by MOOC enthusiasts and an increasing number of politicians and pundits.

That is a major finding of a Gallup survey of college presidents (based on responses from 889 of them) being released today. Inside Higher Ed editors and others helped Gallup draft the questions, as part of a new Gallup/Inside Higher Ed collaboration that will feature brief quarterly surveys of presidents on timely issues. (Gallup is also the survey provider for Inside Higher Ed's annual surveys of key decision-makers in higher education, including an annual, more detailed survey of presidents. Unlike the surveys Gallup does for Inside Higher Ed, this series does not break answers down by sector).

The margin of error on the survey, according to Gallup, is 3.3 percentage points.

This first iteration of the quarterly survey featured questions on academic preparation of students, college costs, shared governance and other topics, and a cluster of questions on MOOCs.

On MOOCs, only small minorities of presidents strongly believe that they will improve the learning of all students (3 percent), solve colleges' financial challenges (2 percent) or cut what students spend on higher education (8 percent). Much larger shares of presidents strongly disagree with those statements. Presidents were more likely to see MOOCs promoting creative pedagogies or getting the best teachers in front of more students, but even on those topics, many presidents appear doubtful.

Presidential Views of MOOCs

I consider MOOCs to be a solution to the following:

Scale is from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree)

 

1

Strongly

Disagree

2 3 4

5

Strongly

Agree

Don't

Know

Improve the learning of all students 28% 31% 24% 10% 3% 4%
Solving colleges' financial challenges 31% 33% 21% 9% 2% 4%
Getting superior teachers in front of more students 18% 22% 28% 22% 7% 3%
Fostering creative pedagogical strategies 10% 17% 27% 32% 11% 3%
Increasing collaboration among colleges 10% 19% 30% 29% 7% 5%
Reducing costs of education to students 15% 23% 31% 20% 8% 4%

So how to make sense of this skepticism with the seemingly endless flurry of MOOC-related announcements these days?

One theory is that much of the speed with which colleges have embraced MOOCs (at a pace uncommon for academe) has been spurred more by trustees than presidents. Last summer, after the University of Virginia board (briefly) ousted Teresa A. Sullivan as president, open records requests revealed that trustees -- while plotting Sullivan's removal -- were e-mailing one another articles about MOOCs, especially articles suggesting that they were about to transform higher education. The e-mail messages suggested that board members were frustrated that U.Va. hadn't moved more quickly to join the MOOC movement. (Shortly after Sullivan was reinstated, Virginia did start a MOOC.)

Privately, some presidents and provosts have told Inside Higher Ed that they too have received strong interest from trustees in MOOCs, more interest in fact than they have received about online education efforts that have, at many institutions, existed for years. They have said this is in part because so many top universities have embraced MOOCs, and in part because publications read all the time by trustees (The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, for example) have published many articles and columns extolling MOOCs.

"Based on these findings, it's clear that the U.Va. situation is just a canary in the coal mine," said Brandon H. Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education. "College presidents, writ large, are extremely skeptical about the value of MOOCs as it relates to reducing cost, improving quality, and even expanding reach. And with governing boards that have strong business backgrounds and have been reading all of Clay Christensen's writing about how online education and MOOCs will change the world, there's bound to be big clashes ahead at most -- not just some -- institutions."

Phil Hill, co-founder of MindWires, a consulting group on education technology, co-led a webinar for Educause in February called "Beyond the MOOC Hype." And he said that he thought the survey results reflected a reality that isn't apparent from watching all of the MOOC announcements.

"What I see is ambivalence," Hill said. "I do think there is a very real trend that MOOCs are changing higher education, and ironically, one of the ways they are doing that is getting presidents and provosts directly involved in how online education should change their business model."

But as the presidents get more involved, Hill said, they see that MOOCs "have been over-hyped as a simplistic solution" to many problems.

He agreed that presidents face pressure from trustees to find ways to make MOOCs work. But at the same time, presidents are hearing from faculty members who "say that MOOCS are not a magic bullet."

Hill said that if the Virginia e-mail messages reflect the way trustees are looking at MOOCs, that creates a challenge for presidents. "The board at Virginia didn't understand online education. They were into this hype cycle," he said.

Another reason many college presidents may be skeptical of MOOCs, he added, is that the courses have become the province of elite institutions, which in turn are creating tools for other institutions to use or license in some way. The participation of the elites may create credibility for MOOCs, Hill said, but that means other institutions may not see the same benefits.

Costs, Jobs, Preparation and the Faculty

Other findings of the survey touched on non-MOOC issues.

On the issue of college prices and costs, most presidents reject the idea that college degrees are "becoming a privilege for the rich." Only 4 percent strongly agreed and only another 19 percent agreed with that statement. At the same time, only 8 percent of presidents strongly agreed (with another 24 percent agreeing) that higher education is affordable.

Asked whether certain factors were "very important," "important," "not very important" or "not important at all" in evaluating the quality of a college, 65 percent said that the percentage of graduates able to get a good job was very important. And 58 percent said that the percentage of students who graduate from college was "very important." With plenty of presidents agreeing that those two factors were moderately important, only small minorities of presidents didn't view those issues as significant.

A majority of presidents agree that most high school graduates are not prepared for college -- with 11 percent saying that less than 25 percent are prepared, and 47 percent saying that the percentage prepared is 25 or higher, but less than 50.

Recent years have seen tensions over shared governance at many campuses, with faculty members complaining that administrators and boards are less likely than in the past to consult with professors or to defer on academic issues. Asked if their boards no longer respected shared governance, 18 percent of presidents either agreed or strongly agreed.

 

 

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