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As scores of colleges rush to offer free online classes, the mania over massive open online courses may be slowing down. Even top proponents of MOOCs are acknowledging critical questions remain unanswered, and are urging further study.

Dan Greenstein, the head of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, now wonders aloud if MOOCs are a “viable thing or are just a passing fad.” Gates has agreed to spend $3 million for wide-reaching MOOC-related grants. But Greenstein said higher ed is suffering from “innovation exhaustion,” and MOOCs are part of the problem.

“It seems to me, at least with respect to MOOCs, that we have skipped an important step,” he wrote in an Inside Higher Ed op-ed last week. “We’ve jumped right into the ‘chase’ without much of a discussion about what problems they could help us to solve. We have skipped the big picture of where higher ed is going and where we want to be in 10 or 20 years.”

The American Council on Education is working with Gates; it also recommends colleges grant credit for some MOOCs it has reviewed. But ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said the free online classes have perhaps been greeted with more hype than is appropriate.

Broad said innovation exhaustion “may be overstated,” but she said there is a “settling out” about the future of MOOCs. She said they have received more hype than any higher ed development in recent memory.

“It is right at the intersection of high quality and lower cost, so I think those things are indeed linked to why it has been perhaps overexposed,” Broad said in an interview. “So I think all of that makes good sense. So now is the time for us to step back and do what all of us at universities are the best at doing: criticizing or evaluating or recommending changes or improvements – or some will choose to walk away from this strategy altogether."

She said this would not affect ACE’s ongoing review of certain MOOCs for credit.

If anything, MOOCs are going through what the technology consulting firm Gartner has identified as the “hype cycle.” The firm says any much-hyped product goes from a “peak of inflated expectations” to a “trough of disillusionment” before institutions figure out how to really use and benefit from a new technology.

The MOOC disillusionment is coming from a number of corners. Faculty groups are worried MOOCs will cost them their jobs, rob them of their intellectual property rights and fail to educate students.

Some administrators are also becoming dubious in big ways. The provosts at the Committee on Institutional Cooperation -- the Big 10 universities and the University of Chicago -- directly challenged the hype and MOOCs and signaled last month in a position paper that they could walk away because of worries that corporations and not universities will end up controlling the future of higher ed. About one-sixth of the MOOCs offered by Coursera come from those universities. The CIC statement is typical of many of those urging a more careful analysis of MOOCs: it doesn't suggest they have no value, but expresses a need to study how they may or may not fit into university goals and priorities -- and to do this at a calm pace.

The new rhetoric in discussion of MOOCs may also be showing up from MOOC providers themselves. Sebastian Thrun, the CEO of Udacity, predicted last year that within a half-century there would only be 10 institutions of higher education left in the world.

Now, Thrun is a bit more modest. "Upfront, I believe that online education will not replace face to face education, and neither is it supposed to," he wrote in a blog post last month. "Just as film never replaced theater plays and many of us prefer to watch sports live in big stadiums, online will not abolish face to face interaction." He also said ed tech innovators should be "willing to learn from our failures and to forge on."

Andrew Ng, a co-founder of Coursera, said he too is thinking about the future of MOOCs.

In a wide-ranging telephone interview with Inside Higher Ed, Ng said his company is not just about MOOCs, though it sees great promise in them, particularly their scale.

Ng said he and Coursera's co-founder, Daphne Koller, who are both computer science professors at Stanford University, had debates even before they founded the company about the best use of technology.

Ng had been posting course material online free; Koller had been working on blended learning, where she would give students online courseware to study before coming to class. Ng said their debates came down to whether they should focus on serving hundreds of thousands of students with free courses or using online courseware to free up class time for students enrolled at a university.

“We actually had these debates for a long time until we both realized it was a silly debate and we realized we should work with instructors and universities and then do both,” Ng said.

But Coursera’s MOOCs have clearly received the most attention so far, at least until late May when the university announced a series of experimental partnerships with a network of public colleges and universities in nine states. Some of the partnerships were focused on MOOCs; others on blended learning. 

“We’re a hosting platform and the same platform can and has been used to offer free online content and can and has been used to offer content to students attending university campuses,” Ng said.

Some observers accused the company of scrambling to find a business model amid pressure from its venture capitalist backers to make money. Observers also wondered how the company had gone from offering free classes taught by professors at elite universities to a fee-based series of partnerships with less-than-elite public institutions. 

Ng said he isn’t facing pressure from investors. "This is so not a search for money. I think it’s a search for student benefits,” he said of the public university deals. He said internal projections show the company can become “sustainable” by charging some MOOC users for verified completion certificates. But, the public university deals do broaden the company’s business model, he said.

Responding to a broad series of criticisms about MOOCs possibly reducing the quality of higher ed, Ng said the company is looking out for students.

“For as long as it’s Daphne and me running the company, I’m confident we’ll do what’s best for students,” Ng said.

Carol Geary Schneider, the head of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, worries that MOOCs can amplify the “least productive pedagogy” in American higher education, which she calls lectures followed by multiple-choice tests. But she does see potential for MOOCs to help flip classrooms so professors can spend less time lecturing in class and more time engaging students.

“It would be a tragedy if you substituted MOOCs in their current form for regular courses,” she said in an interview. “But it would be a creative breakthrough if you take advantage of MOOCs and other forms of online coverage to make more space and more time for students to apply concepts and methods appropriate to their field to real problems.”

A host of faculty and administrators are studying the issue. ACE announced a group of university administrators who will be studying technology innovations, including MOOCs. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which co-founded MOOC provider edX, is going through its own extensive campus-based exploration of the future. Campuses across the country are taking deeper looks at the use of technology, though Greenstein accused some governing boards of " 'me too'-ism, where innovation itself becomes the goal without a clear and compelling strategic purpose."

Susan Meisenhelder, the former president of the California Faculty Association and an active member of the faculty-led and MOOC-wary Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, said she is encouraged by what she sees as a slowing in pro-MOOC rhetoric.

“We’re just relieved, because of the scale of this thing, because of the scale of MOOCs themselves, because of the scale of the frenzy around this,” Meisenhelder said. “Many of our folks thought we were going to do serious damage to a generation of students by just throwing them into MOOCs and feeling like we’ve done them a favor -- we’re hoping the conversation can now be a more grounded one.”

If academic leaders are eyeing a new technology with skepticism to make sure it doesn't hurt their business model, this would not be the first time, said John Thelin, a University of Kentucky professor who studies the history of higher education.

When television came along and began to broadcast college football games, Thelin said colleges worried fans would stop coming to games -- a worry similar to the concern that MOOCs could end on-campus education. So higher ed leaders strengthened the NCAA, which tightly limited the number of games broadcast each week for more than three decades, until the early 1980s.

“It was a way of slowing down this fear that if you had this unregulated medium it was going to drain off traditional attendance, so that people would stay home and watch games on TV,” he said. “So the MOOCs would be very, very similar.”

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