Colleges Resist Free Online Courses, Undercutting Promise

U.S. colleges are resisting adding free online courses because academic leaders say the much-publicized approach is unlikely to make money and could confuse the public about their degrees, a study says.

Only 2.6 percent of U.S. institutions offer such courses and an additional 9.4 percent plan to, according to a survey to be released today by Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Harvard University, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among institutions participating in MOOCS, or massive open online courses.

Colleges, teaming up with online educational providers such as Coursera Inc. and EdX, say the free courses have the potential to revolutionize higher education by lowering costs and providing access to top U.S. professors. While institutions explore how to charge fees and grant course credit, Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, says the report shows there is skepticism among some academics.

“It’s clearly not ready for prime time,” Seaman said in a telephone interview. “People are saying this could make a real difference, but they’re not convinced there’s a sustainable business model.”

The new survey marks the 10th year that Babson has conducted a survey of U.S online education. With help from the College Board, a New York-based higher-education nonprofit group which counts universities among its members, Babson received responses from 2,800 colleges that enroll more than 80 percent of students.

Pearson, Sloan

Pearson PLC, the London-based based education and publishing company, which provides online services, and the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group promoting online higher education, sponsored the survey.

Online courses already have a firm foothold in the academic world. About 6.7 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, about 9 percent more than the previous year and more than four times the number in 2002. Almost a third of college students take at least one course online.

More than three quarters of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes of online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face classes. Yet, fewer than a third of chief academic officers said faculty members “accept the value and legitimacy of online education,” according to the survey.

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