Data points and case studies

Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version.

Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, “Isn’t there some other way to do this?”[1]

~ Clay Shirkey, “How to Save College”

            Ultimately, students are not concerned with the distinctions we make about online learning platforms.  They look to those of us in higher education to provide an accessible environment in which they can excel and attain their academic objectives. MOOCs must be discussed, planned for, and implemented as an additive component in a broader online learning environment that provides flexibility and choice to students trying to navigate a higher education system in transition.

The 2013 Babson Survey, Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States, confirmed that enrollments in online education are increasing (although retention and completion rates remain low) in the face of declining enrollment in higher education overall. This suggests that MOOCs can develop, even thrive, in the current environment.

An overview of current online learning helps contextualize MOOCs. Over 6.7 million—roughly one third—of all higher education students took at least one online course during the fall 2011 term. This was an increase of 570,000 students over the previous year and a noteworthy increase over 2002’s 1.6 million. Thirty-two percent of higher education students now take at least one course online. More than 70 percent of public and for-profit colleges now offer online academic programs (as opposed to single courses). Roughly half of private nonprofit colleges now offer online programs—nearly double the number doing so in 2002. Other key findings from the report:

  • 77 percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face courses.
  • Low completion rates are an obstacle for the growth of online learning.
  • 88.8 percent of academic leaders surveyed believe that student discipline in online courses is a barrier to growth, and just over 40 percent believe the same is true regarding acceptance of online degrees by potential employers.

Online learning in all forms is expanding for several reasons, including the growing number of students unable to gain access to classrooms. Campuses are struggling to accommodate the needs of matriculated students unable to register for required classes, transfer to four-year colleges, or maintain eligibility for financial aid. As a result, more college and university systems across the country are considering MOOCs. In addition to hoping to alleviate enrollment issues, many are betting on MOOCs to generate new revenue, reduce the cost of education, decrease time to graduation, and maximize return on investment.

The following is a brief overview of how some state systems are integrating MOOCs into their online portfolios.

            New York. In March 2013, the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees announced support of a plan to use MOOCs, prior-learning assessment, and competency-based programs to increase enrollment, shorten time to completion for degrees, and reduce the cost of education. The SUNY board intends to leverage expansion of the current prior-learning assessment program of the system’s Empire State College and will encourage more faculty to teach MOOCs so as to maximize return on that investment. There are one hundred fifty online degree programs offered across the system, developed, delivered, and administered by each individual campus. As part of an effort to reduce costs, create a three-year degree program, streamline administration, and expand curricular offerings to non-traditional students, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher intends to consolidate these online offerings. SUNY aims to increase enrollment by one hundred thousand students in three years.

            Florida. Where the Chancellor’s office is taking the lead in the New York system, Florida lawmakers tentatively plan to place a single university—likely the University of Florida—in charge of expanding online efforts while simultaneously streamlining administrative overhead and oversight. Florida’s online offerings and administration currently are scattered across the system, with nearly three hundred ninety online degree programs offered by ten of its twelve schools. Each campus administers its own design, development, and delivery of online courses.   If the proposed legislation passes, Florida’s university system will offer two new undergraduate degree programs by January 2014 and four more in the following year, while consolidating authority and eliminating redundancies. Florida, like New York, intends to leverage existing programs and take advantage of MOOCs to reduce the cost of education and increase enrollment.

            California. In California, where cutbacks in state support led to decrease in the number of available course sections just as student demand increased, the legislature is reviewing a bill to use MOOCs and online learning to solve their higher education woes. [As of this writing] Senate Bill 520, sponsored by State Senator Darrell Steinberg, calls for a system enabling students experiencing trouble registering for lower-level, high-demand classes to take approved online courses offered by commercial providers outside the state’s higher-education system. If the bill is passed and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown (in the face of strong opposition from faculty in all three California college systems), state colleges and universities may soon be accepting credits earned by students enrolled in MOOCs.


[1] Clay Shirky, “How to Save College,” The Awl, February 7, 2013, http://www.theawl.com/2013/02/how-to-save-college.

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