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It’s hard to follow higher education news these days without seeing a reference to MOOCs. The online learning platforms from edX, Coursera, Udacity, and others were launched to great fanfare over the last two years. Proponents praise them for their potential to change education, while critics chalk them up as more hype than hope.

Higher ed institutions driving courses online to meet increasing demand sometimes need outside help in developing or designing their digital curriculum. Of more than 2,000 colleges and universities with online programs, about 10 percent have used third-party vendors for any course development, estimates Richard Garrett, vice president and principal analyst for online higher education at the consulting firm Eduventures.

Sharing information on the go is second nature to today’s college student. That reality is pushing higher ed leaders to leverage that connectivity to build a more interactive learning environment. Smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and other mobile devices offer flexibility in extending the learning space beyond the classroom and getting students more engaged.

Massive open online courses are all the rage. By allowing anyone to take an online course—in the original form and without receiving a recognized credential from an institution—MOOCs appear to skirt the edges of the complex, multilevel regulatory framework governing American higher education. By different names, these courses have actually been around for years, but the promotion of MOOCs by prestigious American institutions has created a tsunami of interest. In the age of the MOOC are fascinating possibilities for advancing access to quality higher education.

It’s one of modern cinema’s most familiar and resonant moments: the scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character humiliates a Harvard student, contending that the Ivy Leaguer blew $150,000 to learn less than Will could learn with a library card.

In President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, he made it clear that increasing college graduation rates would be a main priority of his administration. In the months that followed, “MOOC” became the buzzword of the year, bringing online learning to the forefront of the education conversation. But whether they’re massive and open or they enroll 12 students, online courses have traditionally given institutions trouble in the area of retention—an issue that could dampen the goal of leading the world with the highest share of college graduates by 2020.

Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium girl on computer

As distance learning programs are developed and then refined, there are many options for national, regional, and statewide distance education consortia that the institutions can, and often do, join. The consortia help in sharing resources and tips to help each other with distance learning efforts.

Organizations like the American Distance Education Consortium, National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and Sloan Consortium offer member schools access to networking, resources, conferences, and learning opportunities.

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