The fastest-growing purveyor, Coursera, now claims 4 million students across four continents and 83 college partners.
It's also clear students are inclined toward online education and more technology in education in general. A new study, "The Future of Education", conducted by Internships.com and the research firm Millennial Branding, found 50% of students feel a physical classroom is unnecessary for learning, 53% trust in the reputability of online colleges, and 39% expect education to be more virtual in the future.
Significantly, this report also found 43% believe online education will provide them with courses of the same or higher quality than traditional colleges.
Investors, meanwhile, remain bullish about ed technology and MOOCs in particular. "I believe self-learning will become even more popular than entrepreneurship has become," Renata Akhunova, partner at FormulaVC Venture Fund, predicted via email. "The investment boom in e-learning is still to be seen," she added. "MOOCs are the most attractive ventures, but at the same time, the most risky ones."
Investments in ed technology companies nationwide tripled in the last decade, ballooning to $429 million in 2011 from $146 million in 2002, according to the National Venture Capital Association. Ed technology companies received a total of $1.1 billion in 2012 from venture capitalists, angel investors, corporations and private equity shops, according to venture capital database CB Insights.
Some critics say MOOC providers aim their messages more at breathless venture capitalists and cash-strapped university administrations than students. "Look at [massive online open courses] as part of the larger conversation about online education," Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, told InformationWeek Education in a phone interview. The Campus Computing Project is the largest continuing study of the role of computing, e-learning and IT in American higher education. "MOOCs are a point -- admittedly, a flash point -- but just a point," Green said.
Important questions swirling around MOOCs start with their impact on students, according to Green. MOOCs provide an ad hoc rather than a permanent infrastructure for learning, he pointed out, which may have as-yet-unknown effects on students. While new user interfaces try to replicate the social interactions of a traditional campus -- such as access to faculty and other students -- it's not the same. "The question isn't whether you register 10,000 students, but whether you use this model to provide an effective teaching platform for 10,000 students."
Further complicating matters, a MOOC taught by an industry expert – say, a Google scientist -- might be viewed as more valuable than a class taught by a university professor. How employers come to regard certification and credentialing will be key, Green said. It goes without saying that if employers come to regard MOOC credentials as good as or better than a traditional academic degree, it would have serious competitive consequences for existing institutions.
Green considers many of these operational and strategic challenges in his excellent article "Mission, MOOCs, & Money" in the January/February issue of Trusteeship Magazine, a publication of the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) of Universities and Colleges.
Among other items, he considers the revenue opportunities for colleges considering a MOOC:
"For the vast majority of American colleges and universities, questions about offering MOOCs and affiliating with a MOOC provider such as Coursera, edX, or Udacity are, quite frankly, moot. Comparatively few of the nation's more than 4,000 degree-granting American colleges or universities (or even the 525-plus institutions that enroll over 10,000 students and that, in aggregate, account for more than 50 percent of total headcount) have the personnel, instructional and technological infrastructure, reputation (brand), and available cash to invest in launching their own MOOCs -- even if the institution aligns with a supporting entity such as Coursera, edX, or Udacity. Moreover, because MOOCs are, at present, free to students and generate no revenue for the institution, offering MOOCS will not provide a short- or mid-term path to significant new tuition revenues."
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