Online education has been around for well over a decade now and it continues to evolve. One fairly recent model that’s getting a lot of attention in higher education is the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). The definition of a MOOC is still somewhat imprecise at this point, but broadly speaking, the term refers to an online college-level course that is (1) free, (2) does not require students to be registered at a particular institution and (3) has no upper limit on enrollment. The driving principle behind MOOCs is to make education accessible to as wide of an audience as possible, eliminating the barriers of distance and cost – consistently two of the most often-cited reasons why people don’t pursue higher education options, based on RMS’s research findings over many studies.

There are a number of prominent providers of MOOCs, perhaps the most notable of which is edX, which started as a joint venture between Harvard and MIT and now includes other top institutions such as the University of Texas System, UC Berkeley, Georgetown and Wellesley College. Another notable provider is Coursera, which was launched by some faculty members at Stanford University. While the trend is still very new and has its detractors and skeptics, the reputation of the institutions involved alone make MOOCs a development that the rest of the higher education world has to take seriously.

Understandably, educators are still struggling to grasp how MOOCs might impact the higher education landscape. Fundamental questions remain unanswered at this point: Will MOOCs catch on? Is the model sustainable? If so, will they make the traditional university experience obsolete?

Only time will tell on many of these issues, but based on RMS’s research on higher education preferences, particularly those among adult learners and continuing education students, we do not believe that an online model will completely supplant bricks-and-mortar colleges at any point in the foreseeable future. When we ask current and potential college students about their preferences for course formats, online is consistently a popular option, but more popular still is a hybrid approach that incorporates both an online component and an in-person classroom or group experience. This trend has held up over a number of studies and most recently in a survey that we administered to our online panel in May 2012. In that survey of more than 200 adult learners, 55 percent said they preferred a hybrid format, 25 percent said they prefer traditional classroom instruction and 20 percent said they preferred a purely online approach. In addition to that, feedback we have received from qualitative studies indicates that a high value is placed on the classroom experience and that many people feel they have learning styles that make them absorb and retain information better when it is presented to them in person and they can have face-to-face interaction with instructors and classmates.

Granted, those preferences do not take into account the very substantial cost difference in taking a MOOC course and the traditional college model. It may very well be that students will be likely to ignore their reservations about pure online learning if MOOCs are able to sustain a model that offers instruction for free or at a very low-cost. And, of course, the ever-increasing proliferation of low-cost computing options globally and the increasing cultural comfort with conducting various aspects of our lives online could make MOOCs or something like them a virtual inevitability. But again, those are issues that will only be sorted out over time.

In the meantime, colleges and universities will no doubt continue to monitor this and other developments in online education and develop their adaptation strategies accordingly. As they do so, they will need to make broad strategic decisions regarding questions such as: Should MOOCs be treated as a threat to the existence of bricks-and-mortar universities? As a passing fad? As a harmless niche in the marketplace? As an innovation to be adopted? And, as always, RMS recommends that continuous research on the evolving preferences of education consumers be part of that strategic process.

If you currently work in the higher education industry and you are interested in using market research to help guide your strategic direction, give Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) a call to discuss your needs. Please contact our Business Development Director Sandy Baker, at SandyB@RMSresults.com or by calling (315) 635-9802.

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