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MOOC Hype and the End for the 'Boring University Lecture'

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is pretty psyched about MOOCs. College presidents? Not so much.

Over the past few years, millions of students across the globe have signed up to take classes through online platforms like Coursera, edX, and Udacity. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is so enthusiastic about the potential of these so-called Massively Open Online Courses to transform education that he's now among the growing number of advocates predicting they'll bring abut the end of traditional university lectures and change the way the world learns.

Despite all the technology at our fingertips Wales told BBC News that higher education hasn't changed much since he was a college student. "In university you're still likely to be in a large lecture hall with a very boring professor, and everyone knows it's not working very well," Wales says. "It's not even the best use of that professor's time or the audience." Instead, MOOC supporters like Wales believe that learning through "libraries of video lectures, supplemented with interactive information, that can be used at any time on a tablet computer or laptop," is a much more engaging form of education.

The majority of college and university presidents in the United States aren't as enthused about MOOCs' potential as Wales. A just-released survey from Gallup and Inside Higher Ed found that although school presidents believe MOOCs have some potential to promote creative teaching methods and enable more students to learn from the best professors, only 3 percent of presidents strongly believe MOOCs "will improve the learning of all students," and a mere 2 percent say MOOCs will "solve colleges' financial challenges." And, at a time when students and families worry over the spiraling cost of higher education, only slightly more—8 percent—believe MOOCs will help lower the amount of cash students have to fork over for college.

Many schools already offer some online courses and last spring the largest university system in America, the 23-campus California State University system, announced plans to roll out a centralized online learning hub that they hope will enroll 250,000 students over the next few decades. But education technology consultant Phil Hill told Inside Higher Ed that the survey results reflect the fact that many school presidents are getting feedback from their faculty that MOOCs are no "magic bullet," making presidents more inclined to believe that MOOCs have "been over-hyped as a simplistic solution" to the challenges on campus. However they're still moving forward with implementation plans because of considerable pressure to roll out MOOCs from high powered school trustees or governors—with little to no education experience—who read glowing reviews of them in the media.

For his part, Wales believes the lack of enthusiasm about MOOCS is a result of there being "a certain inertia in the system." He also thinks schools have to adopt the technology or die. "If we thought of universities as normal businesses," says Wales, "we would say, 'Will they be able to adapt to the PC revolution?' It's that kind of question. Will Harvard or MIT, Oxford or Cambridge, be able to adapt? Or will Microsoft come out of nowhere?"

Of course the outstanding question is if Microsoft were to create a completely online MOOC higher education experience—or if online learning leaders like the Khan Academy did such a thing—would employers even accept the degree? Is Goldman Sachs going to hire someone with a bachelor's degree in economics from the Khan Academy or Microsoft MOOC, or are they still going to go for the Harvard grad? As long as a traditional college degree earned on campus remains the gold standard that employers look for when hiring workers, chances are slim of that being a real possibility.

And as far as lectures go, sure, you can rewind a video recording of an instructor, but whether it's in-person or being viewed on the web, isn't it still a lecture?

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