One of the big trends in higher education news is the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free, non-degree classes that an unlimited number of people can take over the Internet.

Some believe such courses offer great potential to make a college education available to all. It’s a little more complicated than that, argues Alison Byerly in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Byerly, a professor and former provost at Middlebury College, writes that many colleges have no business offering such courses:

Colleges that are contemplating a new venture, such as a MOOC or other online-learning offering, need to ask themselves the fundamental question: Is this consistent with the unique mission of our institution? Not, Are MOOC’s a good idea?, or even, Are they inevitable?, but: Should we be offering them right now?

The most important question to consider might be “why?” Do colleges want to offer MOOCs for the public good, or do they want to do this because some fancy colleges are doing it too? Because offering MOOCs is not easy.

The trouble is that students taking such courses will not be the same students who are actually enrolled in the regular college. Should MOOCs supplement or replicate existing courses, or are they an entirely different form of education. The demands of those taking such courses will be real. Does the college care about their needs?

This is not a money making endeavor, after all. The institution better have a pretty good reason to make this commitment. Byerly:

I hope it is because your institution is prepared to make a substantial commitment to the principles of open access, your faculty members are excited about curricular experimentation, and your trustees believe that asserting a leadership role here is worth the investment.

If your honest answer is, Because all the cool guys are doing it, then I can hear my mother’s next question: If Stanford jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?

Beyond that, if Stanford’s already doing it, why do you need to? If Stanford offers an introductory class in macroeconomics or biology or computer science, why does it need a competitor? Are the courses really that different?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer