More of the world's elite universities are joining the rush to offer "massive open online courses" that are broadening access to higher education. But some experts question how much so-called MOOCs can help students trying to earn college degrees.
Coursera and edX, two of the leading MOOC providers, on Thursday announced major expansions that will roughly double the number of universities offering free online courses through their websites.
Cambridge, Mass.-based edX, which was founded in May by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it will add six new institutions, including five outside the U.S., which will offer at least 25 additional courses.
Mountain View-based Coursera said it will add 29 institutions, including 16 outside the United States. Over the next several months, the schools will offer 90 new courses, including some taught in French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese.
"Having courses taught in other languages will enable more students to take our classes," said Andrew Ng, a Stanford University professor who co-founded Coursera last April.
MOOCs have attracted millions of students and captured the public imagination over the past year, allowing people from all walks of life to learn from leading scholars at top-tier universities — free of charge.
But the question remains: Can these large-scale, highly automated classes help increase college completion rates or lower the cost of earning a degree?
So far only a small number of institutions are offering degree credit for MOOCs, but that could change if more colleges determine the digital classes meet their academic standards.
Earlier this month, the American Council on Education said it will recommend credit for five Coursera courses. The association is evaluating more MOOCs for possible credit recommendations, which many schools use to decide whether to grant credit for nontraditional courses.
But some experts say MOOCs can't replace traditional classroom learning, especially for struggling students who need more face-to-face interaction and mentoring to succeed.
A new study by Columbia University found that community-college students who took small-scale, online-only courses performed worse and were more likely to drop out than peers who took traditional classes. There was a steeper decline in performance among students who are young, male, black or economically disadvantaged, according to the report.
"Online education as it's been developed so far, including MOOCs, I don't think has been effective for struggling students," said Tom Bailey, who directs Columbia's Community College Research Center. "We're not finding you can't learn online. But we're finding a less effective outcome."
EdX President Anant Agarwal said colleges should use MOOCs to improve — rather than replace — campus-based education by combining online lessons with classroom instruction.
San Jose State University students who recently took a "blended" version of an edX engineering class performed significantly better than students who took the classroom-based course, he added.
"I really believe the blended model is really a key approach to improving campus education," Agarwal said.
The MOOC movement has also encountered some setbacks during its rapid expansion.
Earlier this month, Coursera suspended an online course offered by Georgia Institute of Technology because of technical problems. The company hopes to relaunch the course, "Fundamentals of Online Education," in the near future, Ng said.
Last week, a University of California, Irvine professor, Richard McKenzie, said he would stop teaching a Coursera economics course halfway through the term because of disagreements over how to run the class.
McKenzie declined to comment Thursday, but Gary Matkin, UC Irvine's dean of distance learning, said the course would continue as scheduled because the instructional materials have already been created.
"Prof. McKenzie is not accustomed (as few are) in teaching university-level material to an open, large, and quite diverse audience including those who were not seriously committed to achieving the learning objectives of the course," Matkin said in a statement.
Ng said Coursera played no role in McKenzie's decision to stop teaching, but he noted that teaching a MOOC is quite different from teaching a traditional course and "it really isn't for everyone."
"We're all experimenting still with what makes sense for MOOCs," Ng said. "There will be missteps along the way."
Coursera currently offers 220 courses from 33 institutions and has almost 2.8 million registered users who have signed up for nearly 10 million courses. Only a fraction of enrollees actually complete the courses, in part because it's easy and free to sign up.
The 29 new Coursera partners include Chinese University of Hong Kong, Technical University of Denmark, National Autonomous University of Mexico as well as the universities of Copenhagen, Geneva and Toyko.
EdX, which currently offers 25 courses from six universities and has 700,000 registered users, will add six new members: Australian National University, Delft University of Technology, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, McGill University, Rice University and the University of Toronto.
Delft University in the Netherlands will be the first edX partner to provide courses as "open content," which means that other universities are free to incorporate the materials in their offerings, said Agarwal.
"People can reuse it and remix it," Agarwal said. "It enables courses to get better and better over time by allowing people to share content."