A massive opportunity for universities in the era of the MOOC …and one danger.

As the world of higher ed buzzes about the explosive growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with equal parts fascination and terror, it’s important to cast a hard eye on what MOOC’s have accomplished so far, what they haven’t accomplished, and what they may never accomplish. And what opportunities that may provide for brick-and-mortar universities in the age of online education.

It’s true that MOOCs have enrolled hundreds of thousands of students for college-level courses lasting as long as a semester. Notice I said enrolled. Because counterbalancing all the crowing about enrollment sizes is the vast, rarely-mentioned-in-the-same-breath number of dropouts, approaching 80 to 85 percent in some cases.

(Size may not be all that it’s cracked up to be — in terms of MOOC’s, anyway. Coursera had to call off its MOOC on — wait for it — “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.” last weekend when the demands of the 41,000 students participating crashed the course platform.)

Even allowing for the low barriers to enrollment in MOOCs and the concomitantly low level of commitment to a course in which the student has no financial investment — most MOOC’s are being offered for free at this point — this is the kind of dropout rate that would drive your average university president to mount the campanile for a swan dive.

The low level of commitment endemic to today’s online courses raises an important question, and that is one of outcomes. Surely there are many students who learn, and learn well, for the simple intellectual pleasure of it. Others require incentives of various kinds, ranging from “Dad’s gonna kill me if I flunk this course,” to “I paid a lot to come here and I’m going to get my money’s worth,” to learn effectively. Even when students satisfy MOOC course requirements — and we’ll get to that issue in a moment — it’s certainly worth asking whether their outcomes are equivalent to those of their peers in conventional classrooms.

The fact that most MOOCs are free undoubtedly drives their massiveness. But, as every first-week entrepreneurial-journalism student knows, free is not a business model over the long run –someone always pays. And this raises two more questions: What happens to enrollments when or if this someone winds up being the student? (Less-than-massive, not-so-open online courses, anyone?) And which MOOC platforms of the many now in operation will survive the shakeout?

Finally, the issue of accreditation and certification looms large for MOOCs. Who, precisely, is going to certify to schools, employers and other evaluators that the online coursework has been rigorous to an agreed-upon standard, and that it has been completed legitimately and satisfactorily? Who has the credibility and the standing to accomplish this? Coursera? Open Badges? Pathbrite? Not at this point, certainly.

The point of the argument isn’t to deny the importance and inevitability of widespread online learning — that would be like the newspaper executives who kept debating the potential impact of the web until it disrupted them right into the unemployment line. Obviously, large-scale online learning is here to stay — and that’s a good thing.

The point is the stunning opportunity this provides for universities, especially specialty schools such as CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to student motivation. They already retain the tech savvy necessary to make the platform work. Unlike most MOOC platforms, grad schools actually create educational content — they’ve already hired the talent necessary to produce it. They already have infrastructure for marketing, billing, recruitment and the like in place. And who better to certify and accredit online learning achievement than a school whose business is already based on it?

In other words, who are you going to trust: the City University of New York … or Coursera?

The danger for universities in all of this, of course, is the same one always faced by businesses staring down the barrel of disruption: That they’ll fail to see that the new medium requires a new paradigm. That merely shoveling the old educational tools of syllabi and office hours and lectures and recitations onto the web won’t do the job over the long run, no more than newspapers’ early shovelware forestalled their day of reckoning with digital.

The era of the MOOC provides a lot of opportunity for existing educational institutions. But, as in most things, the best opportunities will go to those unafraid to be bold.