Millions of people signed up to take a free class from the top research universities and Ivy League schools in 2012, but some higher education leaders remain skeptical of these massive open online courses.
MOOCs, as they're known, have been around for a few years but really took off in 2012, as some of the most well-respected universities signed up to offer courses through several different startups. They were met by students from around the globe flocking to take the classes.
edX, a non-profit MOOC operator from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, saw 370,000 students enroll this fall, the New York Times reported. Coursera, a for-profit venture started by Stanford University professor Andrew Ng, has reached more than 1.7 million students. At least 150,000 people have signed up with Udacity, another for-profit with ties to Stanford. Other MOOC startups include Udemy and Marginal Revolution University.
With so many people signing up -- as many as 50,000 or more to a class -- some college leaders worry MOOCs could lead to the devaluing of American higher education. Lester Lefton, president of Kent State University, said as much at a recent dinner with other university presidents at the Penn Club in New York City.
"The great thing about our higher education system, which was just shown in our election, is our politicians have all have totally different views on economics and probably because they came from a variety of different kinds of schools with a variety of different kinds of viewpoints," Lefton said. "If everybody were all to take economics 101 through a MOOC, there would be one view of economics. And I think that's potentially dangerous, and it devalues what we have been so good at in terms of creating a real diversity of thought."
Michael Crow, head of Arizona State University, also worries MOOCs coud spread too much of the same thinking, but he believes the online courses could be a great tool when used in conjunction with other teaching methods.
"Our objective is to create an environment in which we can create a person capable of learning anything," Crow said at the dinner. "If you're working with that as your objective, then you need every tool, every mechanism, every means to be able to achieve that."
Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of the American Colleges and Universities, echoed Crow's view that MOOCs were not a one-step transformation of the higher ed world.
"Right now, there's a kind of fetishization of the great online course going on as though this will be our silver bullet," Schneider said, "but it will not, by itself, be a silver bullet at all."
Schneider, who has a Ph.D in history from Harvard and has taught at several well-regarded universities, signed up for a Princeton University history class through a MOOC this year. She said she felt the writing assignments left something to be desired.
"It is not teaching me how to use evidence, it is not sending me out into the field to dig into the archives or create new evidence," Schneider said.
Despite these growing pains, the American Council on Education is evaluating a handful of Coursera classes to determine whether universities should accept their completion for credit, and several universities announced they would offer online classes for credit in a consortium. Other schools have gone full steam ahead; Indiana University announced recently it would replace its School of Continuing Studies with a MOOC called IU Online.
Still, the reserve expressed by university presidents reflects skepticism of MOOCs among faculty. When surveyed earlier this year, college professors expressed more fear than excitement about the growth of online education, while administrators generally felt the opposite. Professors doubted a web-based course could provide as good an education as a traditional class.
Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University, said he sees promise in MOOCs, but isn't convinced human interaction should be taken completely out of higher education. "I think MOOCs are an important step but they're not the end game," he said.
Also on HuffPost:
Wallace D. Loh -- University Of Maryland (100% Approval Rating)
Richard C. Levin -- Yale University (100% Approval Rating)
FILE - In this May 28, 2007 file photo, Yale University President Richard C. Levin waves as he arrives at his office on the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn. before the start of the university's commencement ceremonies. Levin, 65, announced Thursday, Aug., 30, 2012, that he will step down at the end of the academic year after 20 years at the Ivy League school. (AP Photo/Bob Child, File)
Amy Gutmann -- University Of Pennsylvania (100% Approval Rating)
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, center, looks up with Amy Gutmann, left, president and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, and Michael A. Fitts, Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law, during an event a the University of Pennsylvania Law School Thursday, April 5, 2012 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
John Hennessy -- Stanford University (100% Approval Rating)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and John Hennessy, the President of Stanford University walk around the Stanford University campus during her visit to the US in Palo Alto, California 15, April 2010. Chancellor Merkel will meet with business people and academia through out her visit to northern California. AFP PHOTO / Pool / Monica M. DAVEY (Photo credit should read MONICA M. DAVEY/AFP/Getty Images)
Mark S. Wrighton -- Washington University In St. Louis (96% Approval Rating)
392959 03: Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton Of Washington University In St. Louis Looks Over The Excepted Flight Path Of Solo Spirit Minutes Before Liftoff August 5, 2001 At Washington University In St. Louis, Missouri. The Hot Air Balloon, Solo Spirit, Piloted By U.S. Adventurer Steve Fossett, Set Off On It's Voyage To Circumnavigate The Globe Today From Australia. This Will Be Ritchie's Sixth Attempt To Complete The Trip. A Previous Bid Was Fouled By Storms As He Flew Over The South Pacific. (Photo By Getty Images)
Mary Sue Coleman -- University of Michigan (94% Approval Rating)
In this Nov. 4, 2010 photo, Michigan University President Mary Sue Coleman addresses the media in Ann Arbor, Mich. The University of Michigan will invest $50 million to develop innovative ideas about global challenges and opportunities as well as up to $25 million as it directly puts money into its own startup businesses for the first time, the school's president announced Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. The 5-year, $50 million "Third Century Initiative" will aim to develop innovative, multidisciplinary teaching and scholarship approaches to such topics as climate change, poverty and malnutrition, energy storage, affordable health care and social justice challenges. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Gordon Gee -- The Ohio State University (94% Approval Rating)
FILE - This July 13, 2007 file photo shows Ohio State University President Gordon Gee in Columbus, Ohio. A newspaper investigation finds that Gee has spent $7.7 million on top of his record-setting compensation to travel, entertain, and maintain his 9,600-square-foot mansion. The Dayton Daily News review published Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, detailed spending by the 68-year-old Gee. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
Michael McRobbie -- Indiana University (92% Approval Rating)
The President of the Indiana University Michael A. McRobbie speaks next to a replica of the painting "Flagellation of Christ" during to the official restitution ceremony between the Indiana University and the the Foundation for Prussians Palaces and Gardens at the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. Created by a Cologne master, the painting dates to the late 15th century and originally formed part of a wing of an altarpiece. It was one of more than a dozen paintings that disappeared from the Berlin museum during the summer of 1945, looted by Russian and British soldiers. The IU Art Museum acquired the painting in 1985 as a gift from former IU President Herman B Wells. IU officials said Wells purchased the work in good faith from a London art gallery in 1967. In due of conservation and security reasons the original painting was not shown at the ceremony. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Drew Faust -- Harvard University (91% Approval Rating)
Harvard University President Drew Faust jokes with photographers before the start of Harvard's commencement exercises on the schools campus, in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, May 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Morton Schapiro -- Northwestern University (90% Approval Rating)