While MOOCs are by no means the first, or even perhaps the most dramatic educational innovation to confront higher education, the attention and prominence given them in these three preeminent forums is noteworthy. Moreover, the dialogue found in them focuses on how large, elite institutions have been some of the first schools to implement MOOCs, and those schools such as the University of Virginia experienced political strife when confronting the possibility of offering them. Despite the palpable ambivalence towards MOOCs in the academic world (to be represented in my paper by the contributors to these three sources), MOOCs have made a noticeable mark in higher education. This can be seen, most obviously, in their relatively widespread adoption by the most prestigious research universities. For the purposes of my study, I will illuminate how the discussion of MOOCs over that first major year of 2012 reveals particular priorities, concerns, and motives by various educational actors. By looking at how and speculating at why MOOCs are cast in a certain way, as well as what the points of emphasis are, I aim to reveal some of the current, deeper issues regarding innovation – or at least institutional relevancy in a technologizing era – that are confronting most research universities in the early 21st century.
To give scholarly basis to this analysis, I will also utilize peer-reviewed literature on research universities’ orientation to and perspective on online education in the past decade. I have searched for and obtained this literature using keywords such as “online education,” “e-learning,” “issues,” and “challenges” in the largest databases such as EBSCO Host, ProQuest, and JSTOR. I will use this literature to illuminate two key institutional considerations in online education more broadly: original motives, both pragmatic and idealistic, as well as perceived challenges. Of course, some of the elements within these considerations are non-specific or even irrelevant to MOOCs; however, a majority of them (e.g. growth of the internet, new student populations, and funding concerns as drivers of online education) clearly apply to MOOCs as well. Overall, this discussion should provide a necessary context to the primary streams of thought regarding MOOCs found in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and Educause.