Staying on top of the ever-evolving discussion surrounding MOOCs sometimes feels like a full-time job. All manner of people have weighed in on the issue. High tech luminaries and higher ed administrators certainly, but also interested professors, independent researchers and journalists galore. We’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject lately, not to mention talking about it with a range of industry experts. We thought it might be useful to do a quick recap of what we’re hearing, both from those of us on the institutional side as well as from the tech industry.

Compared to a year or two ago, you might be surprised at how similar the two perspectives sound. Some of the initial fervor over MOOCs—e.g., that they herald the end of higher ed as we know it—has simmered down. There is still a lot of excitement on both sides about their potential, but now some of the much-needed nuts and bolts conversations are happening. How might MOOCs fit into the existing higher education landscape? Which hurdles must MOOCs overcome in order to realize their potential? Where are institutions and tech companies still not seeing eye to eye?

If you’re curious about some of the answers being bandied about, read on! Also, check out the reading list at the bottom of this post for additional detail.

Complement, Rather than Replace
Instead of talking about how MOOCs might replace current higher ed institutions, a lot of the current conversations are focused on how MOOCs might complement the systems we have. Partnerships between MOOC providers and higher ed institutions have started to crop up around the country, suggesting a much less adversarial relationship than initially anticipated.

These partnerships have come in all shapes and sizes. Some schools have experimented with offering credit to students enrolled in specific MOOCs. Others have joined forces with MOOC providers to offer online remedial or continuing education courses under the aegis of the institution. Not all of these experiments have met with success, but some of the things MOOCs offer—a framework for flipped classrooms, for example, or a conduit to supporting underserved demographics—will likely be enough to encourage other institutions to test the waters.

Key Obstacles
Building a strong alliance between institutions and MOOC providers will be dependent on either finding solutions to or coming to terms with some of the format’s biggest challenges. Retention rates, for example. Although the enrollment numbers for some MOOCs are downright daunting (sometimes reaching 100,000+), the percentage of students who make it through the entire course is often extremely low (frequently less than 10%). In addition, there’s no reliable way to measure engagement, even for students who do work through the entire course.

Another issue is credit. Several states have fielded bills that would require institutions to grant credit for certain MOOCs. So far, though, legislative efforts have either been shot down entirely or been substantially declawed. Before the issue of credit can be settled, some form of certification system will need to arise to help schools compare MOOC curricula to their own. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. Currently there are very few incentives for institutions to invest in the kind of infrastructure and resources it would require.

Visions of the Future
For all that the MOOCs conversation has grown more harmonious, there are still several points on which institutions and the tech industry don’t see eye to eye. A lot of the voices on the tech side, for example, still see MOOCs’ potential for disruption as quite high. Some envision a higher ed future where employability is no longer linked to having a degree but rather on an applicant’s individual portfolio of completed coursework.

Many institutions, on the other hand, believe that MOOCs still lack many of the critical elements that make a higher ed degree valuable. The employability of graduates does not, after all, depend strictly on their coursework. Many elements unique to the on-campus experience are invaluable to success in the workforce. Some of the most important things that students take with them from a higher education—experience working in diverse groups, relationships with mentors, the ability to juggle coursework and co-curriculars—often all stem specifically from living and learning on-campus.

Wherever MOOCs eventually settle in the landscape of higher ed options, one thing is certain: It will be an interesting journey to watch.

Have some thoughts on the MOOC phenomenon or maybe an addition to our reading list? We would love to hear about them in the comments section below!

MOOCs Reading List:

MOOCs: Finding The Path Forward – July 31, 2013 – Evisions’ YouTube Channel

Fail Fast, Not Spectacularly – August 15, 2013 – Forbes

The MOOC ‘Revolution’ May Not Be as Disruptive as Some Had Imagined – August 8, 2013 – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Try, try again, Udacity – July 24, 2013 – Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation

The Colbert Report Interviews edX president Anant Agarwal – July 24, 2013 – Colbert Nation

5 Tactical Questions Higher Ed Administrators Should Be Asking About MOOCs – July 18, 2013 – MOOC News & Reviews

Bill Gates Discusses MOOCs at Microsoft Research’s Faculty Summit – July 16, 2013 – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Sebastian Thrun’s Online Goal: Act Where College Isn’t Working – April 3, 2013 – Forbes

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