How MOOCs Really Work


Did you know you can get a degree in your pajamas? It’s true, the company EdConnect assures us–thousands of students are doing it every day. Meanwhile, in California, the legislature and governor are cooking up a “faculty free” college experience: just take exams to get a degree. Too lazy to take your own exam? Maybe an expert can phone it in for you.

Welcome to the brave new world of Silicon Valley-style higher ed. One visionary, Sebastian Thrun, fantasizes about teaching 1.5 million students at a time. The less ambitious professors of “Coursera” settle for entering classes of tens of thousands. Never mind how many actually complete their course–the media will fixate on the sign-up numbers. In the weird economy of prestige of today’s networked public sphere, that’s enough.

Thrun & company have helped popularize the “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC)–an educational experience designed to bring something like an Ivy League education to millions of internet users around the world. To be sure, there are some noble MOOC exemplars. Khan Academy has brought math and science skills to thousands of students. I have listened to wonderful lectures on topics ranging from finance to philosophy, thanks to iTunes.

Not the Same Experience

But let’s not kid ourselves about what online education experiences can accomplish. High school algebra may be reducible to a series of lectures and exercises for extraordinarily motivated students. But the MOOC experience can often be a pale shadow of the undergraduate course it is meant to mimic. I don’t know of any service offering the MOOC-takers the types of assessment, networking, community, and credential that those physically attending courses enjoy. I’m sure people taking Robert Shiller’s Finance course at Yale built networks that will be incredibly valuable for careers in finance. I listened to nearly all his lectures on iTunes, but certainly did not have the same experience.

Similarly, Tamar Gendler is a brilliant Yale lecturer, and it’s a great service for both Yale and Apple to post her lectures online, but I don’t think I’d have the tools to appreciate her reflections on Plato and Aristotle if I had not actually taken philosophy courses and written papers in them. The same is true for the downloadable feast of London School of Economics podcasts I listen to: the foundation of work in a library and with teaching assistants and peers was essential.

For MOOC enthusiasts, there is always a technological solution: have students join “peer assessment groups” online, where they critique and grade one another’s work. Again, if the motivated and dedicated can find one another, this may work. But get a few too many students raised on reality TV shows into the mix, and the predictable problems will arise: back-scratching and favors-for-favors among cliques that grade more generously than outsiders. However much Silicon Valley likes to fantasy about the radical egalitarianism of “disrupting” old hierarchies, professors have authority for a reason–they’ve often spent decades thinking about a topic, considering the relative merits of hundreds or thousands of papers. It’s hard to imagine how such judgment could be gained in a few weeks of prep lectures before “peer assessment.”

Grading Is a Problem

The professor has another advantage over peers in recognizing and rewarding quality work. There are rarely direct personal stakes in any given grading decision. Admittedly, student evaluations and websites like Rate My Professors provide some incentives to go easy, as grade inflation shows. But professional standards provide some backstop against pandering. It is hard to see how they could sustainably inform thousands of small groups of peer assessors. Indeed, the charismatic authority MOOCs attribute to the professor-leaders of their classes is more reminiscent of a preacher or cult figure than an educator.

The modern church analogy is appropriate in another way—for like prosperity gospel televangelists, some MOOC lecturers appear far less interested in the strictures of culture than its enjoyments. Jonathan Rees observes that MOOC “providers don’t want to scare off potential students with too much work.” One Texas MOOC politely informs students that “”While not formally required, prior to or during the course, you might wish to read the book.” Reading for class–so 20th century. Why not subliminally pick up the material in pop songs?

These many missteps of MOOCs would be more forgivable if they were just another educational fad. But their rapid spread has a mercenary motive. As the New York Times reported on a leading MOOC firm, Coursera, the MOOC company is to get the “vast majority of” whatever cash comes from course. (To be exact: 85 to 94% of revenue and 80% of gross profits.) In its race to put more courses online, the UC administration has apparently asked faculty to give up all intellectual property rights to content the university will require them to give to Coursera.

Can the System Be Manipulated?

The lecture grab raises some troubling questions about just how “open” the Coursera model will be. Could the company repurpose a course for use in, say, Singapore, by promising to cut out any critical commentary on the Singaporean government? The UC Santa Cruz Faculty Association is also challenging that provision, asking “What plan does the campus have to reduce instructional costs as a result of its contract with Coursera?” In other words, is this MOOCification really an effort to expand access, or just to shift money from one area (direct instruction) to another (platforms for promoting online models of education)?

The other key question here is: Why isn’t U of C itself building a platform for online ed? Its grandees appear willing to allocate funds from a course at about 6% to 15% to the university (home of the engineers and professors who actually make the course content and do research), and about 84 to 95% to the operators of the toll road for the content. Even if we assume that the MOOC platforms are using cutting edge technology to record courses, and the best educational research to present them, I would still need to see many more platform functions to be convinced that the proper allocation was not more along the lines of 90% to the university, and 10% to the platform.

By all means, let’s try some new models in higher education. But let’s see that innovation driven by the real needs of students and society, rather than abdicating responsibility in one-sided, cronyist deals. Parasitic on the prestige of the academy, while doing precious little to contribute to it, the MOOC is starting to look a lot more like a mooch.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *