Will MOOCs Massively Disrupt Higher Education?

Even as they grow in popularity, massive open online courses prompt debates about their impact on students, business model and role in the future of education.
This summer, San Jose State University suspended a program to offer credit-bearing courses in partnership with Udacity because of low pass rates in the spring term. However, Udacity CEO Thrun recently told InformationWeek he was on the verge of discovering the "magic formula" for success with these blended classes, based on summer term results from San Jose State, where in some cases online students did better than their on campus counterparts.

Plenty of observers remain optimistic about MOOCs and their power to transform the academy.

"I have no doubt that in the next 10 years, there will be valuable alternatives to the certification that we are currently holding onto as if it were the last vestiges of the core value that we represent," Lev Gonick, VP for IT services and CIO at Case Western Reserve University and CEO of OneCommunity, said in July in a keynote at the Campus Technology 2013 conference in Boston. "That is creative destruction at play, whether we choose to be resistant to it or whether we actually get in front of it. That is a choice that all of our institutions and organizations need to grapple with."


Many echo Gonick's emphasis on certification, arguing that the heralded "revolution" in education is hard to imagine without schools bestowing diplomas on MOOC students.

But such degree schemes don't exist today, and may never arise. Why would universities or colleges risk undermining their existing financial models or brands this way?

Nor are faculty supportive of the idea. A February survey of MOOC instructors by the Chronicle of Higher Education found 72% of the MOOC instructors answered "No" when asked if they felt their passing students deserved formal credit from their home institution.

Sensitivity to accreditation was best reflected in the May 2012 launch of EdX, the $60-million MOOC founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time, both Harvard and MIT were adamant that their goal was to improve, not supplant, classroom education.

Coursera in January begun offering a service called Signature Track that, for a nominal fee, gives students in select classes the opportunity to earn a Verified Certificate for completing their Coursera course. "Signature Track securely links your coursework to your identity, allowing you to confidently show the world what you've achieved on Coursera," the company said at the time.

In addition, Coursera is working with the American Council on Education (ACE) to ensure that credits that come from the Signature Track program will be honored by many of ACE's 1,800 member schools, such as Amherst University, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon and others.

In July, one of the nation's largest public providers of online higher education, the University of Maryland University College, announced it would offer transfer credits to students who "demonstrate learning" from three, ACE-approved Udacity or Coursera courses. The university will verify students' competence in the math and science courses through standardized exams in a test center.

But in the end, the certification debate may be answered not by schools or groups like ACE, but by the marketplace. If companies and hiring managers start to regard MOOC certifications of job candidates in their hiring decisions the way they now value diplomas, the disruptive revolution in education will have arrived.