All posts by Rachelle Peterson

Rachelle Peterson is a research associate at the National Association of Scholars.

The Slow Fade of Academic Freedom

The greatest threats to academic freedom come from academics themselves, not from their students or from politicians.  That provocative claim is the thesis of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, an important new book by Joanna Williams slated for publication by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2016.

Williams, who directs the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Kent in the U.K. and serves as education editor for the online magazine Spiked, recently gave a lecture hosted by the New York Association of Scholars as part of a U.S. tour promoting her new book. Former NAS intern Madison Iszler also interviewed Williams for The College Fix.

Related: ‘Yes the Kids Are Intolerant’  

In an hour’s talk, Williams analyzed the growing list of crackdowns on dissent from “consensus” positions. This summer economist Bjorn Lomborg got ousted from the University of Western Australia after outrage that he “downgrades” global warming and insufficiently fears it. In 2013, feminists at the University of Kent “deplored” the London School of Economics for daring to even “give a platform” to legal scholar Helen Reece. Reece, who spoke at a debate on rape law, had written an article, “Rape Myths,” in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies that argued the unpopular thesis that judges in rape cases were not necessarily biased against the accuser.

In June Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, resigned an honorary position at University College, London, after he made a self-deprecating joke about female scientists distracting him in the laboratory. The list goes on. Williams acknowledges that forces outside the faculty have long warred against free exchange of ideas on college campuses. It is usually students, for instance, who demand trigger warnings, rail at “microaggressions,” and call for disinviting controversial speakers.

Related: U. of Michigan Vindicates Chris Rock       

But professors built the ideological machinery that hollowed out the very idea of academic freedom in the first place. And professors still operate the intellectual levers that pressure controversial speakers to keep quiet. Williams argues that the rejection of academic freedom not only prevents the advance of knowledge (by stifling the conversations and debates that sift out truths from misconceptions) but actually stems from the rejection of truth as a metaphysical or intellectual reality.

The advent of postmodernism has situated truth within the person contemplating it. “Truth,” if and to the extent it existed, is seen as perspectival. It is therefore neither universal nor uniform. This conception of truth as personal and subjective, when combined with assertions from feminists and critical race theorists that the personal is political, amounts to a proclamation that politics, not truth, is the primary concern of higher education. Under this framework, the very claim that truth exists and that university professors and students should seek and understand it, is cast as a boorish, inappropriate affront to personal political identity.

Related: How Our Universities Are Failing Us   

The purpose of professors, then, is not to advance truth claims and weigh out which best fits reality, but to advance sustainability, feminism, diversity, inclusivity—any number of ideological movements that aim at celebrating individual personal political identity rather than coming to understand the world and one’s place in it. When professors cease putting forth and debating truth claims, Williams says, academic freedom is no longer relevant in any meaningful way.

There is no need, in this postmodernist worldview, to afford protection to controversial but potentially true ideas. In fact, as the university moves closer to its subjective ideals but retains the linguistic artifacts of its past, “academic freedom” can actually become a weapon against the academics it once protected.

A roster of conformity-enforcing techniques—burning controversial books, disinviting or “no-platforming” controversial speakers, screening out nonconformist faculty with ideological litmus tests—becomes in Orwellian style an example of “academic freedom.” Has “academic freedom” itself become a tool of ideological conformity? For a fuller answer to that question, read Joanna Williams’ book this January. This article was published original on the National Association of Scholars.

Read More at Minding the Campus


Student activists pressing universities to divest from fossil fuels are of two minds about free speech. They want it for themselves, but don’t seem keen on allowing it for opponents. The divestment movement didn’t invent free-speech hypocrisy, but divestment activists offer a range of old and new reasons as to why opposing views should not be tolerated.

The debate is over

The divestment movement claims to like debate. It is convinced that anyone with an open mind can’t help but agree that divesting is a good thing to do. “Colleges would already be divesting if it were just about the arguments, because there are plenty out there.” says full-time campaigner Jess Grady-Benson, leader of an ardent student divestment campaign at Pitzer College in California.

Bill McKibben, founder of the activist group and the international divestment movement, declared at a recent rally, “We won the argument. “Twenty years ago we lost the fight and that’s because the fight was never about data.” If, in your own mind, you have won the substantive argument, but your opponent continues to persuade the audience to his side, what can you do? Declare the debate to be over? Yank the microphone away from the moderator? Refuse to share a platform with anyone who so wrongheadedly persists in thinking the debate is not over?

These might sound like exaggerated metaphors, but they are actual examples of what divestarians have done in the past. The commandeering of the microphone, for example, took place when a group of divestment activists, calling themselves Mountain Justice, took over a debate on divestment with Swarthmore College’s board of trustees. The rowdy group then went on a 90-minute screed about the need for ‘radical emancipatory action’ and cancelled the question-and-answer section where students and faculty could weigh in. When two students in the audience dared to ask if the meeting could be returned to order, divestment activists clapped them down in unison and told them to leave.

Delaying by debating

The divestment movement is sometimes in favor of debate, but in the same breath it spurns debate as a delaying tactic. Dialogue, it says, is enemy territory occupied by the fossil-fuel industry – debate is the industry’s way to buy time. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian of science, has convinced activists that the fossil-fuel industry has tainted scientific literature, political processes and the media. Anyone who advocates dialogue is immediately suspect.

Swarthmore activist Kate Aronoff verbalized the movement’s free-speech angst in a post called “f— your constructive dialogue.” She criticized her liberal friends who were mimicking conservatives in ‘deploying identical arguments in defense of tolerant civil discourse’. She found the dialogue suffocating and wanted sheer ‘conflict.’ Declaring debate to be over and deciding that there was no ground for debate in the first place is contradictory, but it all leads to the same conclusion – only the divestarians have a moral claim to free speech. Dissenters are either fools or knaves, and it would be a waste of precious time to give them the opportunity to speak. That time is better spent in preventing them from speaking.

Smear your opponents

McKibben says the divestment movement’s censorious tactics do the whole world a favor by cutting through political posturing and getting back to the facts. Fossil-fuel companies have ‘bought’ the politicians and the media, apparently, and the divestment campaign exposes the sound bite half-truths they are paid to say. But the divestment movement has itself honed the art of slanting messages and demonizing opponents. Indeed, demonization is its entire purpose.

McKibben says that divestment’s aim is to ‘revoke the social license’ of the fossil-fuel industry and turn companies into ‘pariahs’. Anyone who happens to oppose divestment is up for being labelled a pariah, too. Boards of trustees who vote against divestment learn this immediately – they are accused of climate-change denialoligarchical behavior and, in almost every case, money grubbing. Most US colleges promote sustainability and nearly 700 American colleges have taken pledges to go carbon neutral. Nevertheless, if they don’t rush to divest entirely, they still get painted as pawns of the fossil-fuel industry.

Polarizing opinion

The divestment movement insists it is taking steps towards political healing. Once corporations quit buying the political system, it says, the people will make the “right” decision about climate change. “Left to our own devices, citizens might decide to regulate carbon’, says McKibben, but right now we ‘aren’t left to our own devices” – you know, because of the Koch brothers, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party peppering us with propaganda. Divestment campaigns intentionally make political divides worse.

They want to sidestep real debates about energy policy and carbon taxes and boil them into simple yeas and nays on divestment. Campaigns at HarvardMiddlebury CollegeTufts University and more, asked dissenters to get ‘on the right side of history’. According to divestarians, those who disagree with them are not only factually and morally incorrect, but also historically illiterate.

Isolating opposition

This polarization goes deep. Divestment activists may well open an abbey soon – they don’t mingle with the non-believers. Innumerable activists have refused to speak to me and others because we oppose divestment. Harvard psychologist James Recht, active in Harvard’s divestment campaign and the nationwide American Faculty/Staff Divestment Network, filled me in on the new speech codes within the divestment movement. ‘We expect our peers to be forthright about their attitudes and their political views. If someone agrees with me, we tend to talk openly about our interests. And if someone disagrees…’ He trailed off. The divestment movement’s motto might well be this: free speech for me, but not for thee.

Of course, none of this would matter if the opposition to the divestment movement was hypothetical – if the debate really was over, or the opponents were merely stooges. But, in fact, the opposition is robust, thoughtful and well-armed with cogent arguments and compelling evidence – a situation that suggests the divestarians’ aversion to debate is based on something other than principle. Selling off oil stocks in the name of eco-purity does not in fact help the environment. Someone else will simply buy up those divested stocks. What’s more, divestment costs money and those stocks are valuable. And campaigning sucks student time away from studying and channels it into emotionally addictive but pointless activism. It scapegoats an industry, but lets consumers off the hook. Divestment, however, is today’s fastest-growing student movement.

Beginning at a handful of small colleges in 2011, the drive to persuade colleges to divest is now an organized presence on more than 500 campuses. Thirty-seven universities, including Oxford, Stanford and Georgetown, have acceded to the pressure by divesting or promising to do so in the future. The breadth of the movement shows that climate demagoguery is a force to be reckoned with. It has done virtually nothing to clean up pollution, but has gone far in scrubbing the free exchange of ideas from the academic environment.

This article originally appeared on Free Speech Now!

The Remarkable Class of 2015 Must Save the Planet

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all commencement speeches say more or less the same thing.    All that really changes in the annual dusting off of “follow your heart,” “fix the world,” and “dare to face the great challenges” is the precise address of the heartfelt, world-fixing, great challenge that lies ahead.  The space race? Poverty? AIDS?

This year it was that ever-imminent existential threat to humanity, that undeniable theory that explains everything but predicts nothing: catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.

“We are now deep in the most serious environmental crisis in human history,” Bill Nye (the “Science Guy”) admonished Rutgers’ grads at the university’s 249th commencement on May 18. Comparing climate change to World War II, he urged the Scarlet Knights to take arms against the 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide invading our atmosphere. “You all can be the Next Great Generation,” Nye advised. “You can, dare I say it, Change the World.” In twenty-two minutes, he invoked that imperative six times.

“Don’t think that you can change the world by sending each other e-mail petitions,” Bill McKibben, founder of the activist environmental group, warned at Grinnell College in a speech about the urgency of climate activism. Real change evidently requires picketing and chanting. He recounted how Gus Speth, former chair of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, claimed his most important position was a cell he shared with McKibben after their arrests for illegally protesting the Keystone Pipeline.

NASA administrator Major General Charles F. Bolden Jr. joked at Rochester Institute of Technology that he’d seen from space a giant “help wanted” sign plastered on the feverish CO2-blanketed Earth. The planet needs entrepreneurial citizens who are “not afraid to change what they are doing from one day to the next or one year to the next,” he said.

Not to be outdone, Naomi Klein on June 6 sermonized on the magnitude of the task: “It is true that we have to do it all. That we have to change everything.” Riffing off her bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Klein advised College of the Atlantic grads to give up piecemeal lifestyle changes and instead create a “massive and organized global movement” for systemic revolution on “climate change, wealth concentration, and racialized violence.”

It’s understandable why college students should care about the climate. After all, climate change is set to slash coffee production, and it’s the real force behind the rape crisis on campus. Global warming entrenches oppression, and, per Klein herself, it perpetuates racism.  Just about the only thing climate change hasn’t been blamed for is the student debt debacle—though Robert Redford did list the two on par in his talk at Colby College: “You’re stepping into a world that’s, well, pretty rough.…You’ve got climate change, you’ve got debt, you’ve got wars, you’ve got political paralysis.”

President Obama added a few more faults to global warming’s record. Addressing Coast Guard Academy cadets in May, he apologized for the difficulties they would face in the line of duty: “I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security.  And make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.”

The gravity of such risks makes ignoring them a high crime. “Denying (climate change) or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security,” Obama warned. At Tufts, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised “scientists who believe that conservation is a national security imperative” and denounced those who thought it “a four-letter word.” Comparing the climate change “consensus” to that on the health risks of smoking, Nye at Rutgers was perhaps the most direct of all: “Hey deniers — cut it out.”

The promise of technology to improve society opened a schism among the speakers. “Here in 2015, I don’t think we can count on entrepreneurs to invent everything we need fast enough,” Nye mused, even as he asked Rutgers grads to invent better batteries to store solar and wind energy. “So-called techno-optimism is just another way of living in denial.” Albright said technology had enabled “groups who use religion as a license of murder, as if God’s commandment were ‘thou shalt kill.’” McKibben, on the other hand, praised the solar panel for making the climate crisis “no longer necessary.” Bolden gave Gettysburg College grads a “mandate” to lead us to Mars and “tackle” climate change, and asked RIT grads to invent a way to “cure the previously incurable” planet.

All agreed that inaction was not an option. “Others might prefer to opt out of addressing the big challenges of these times. You don’t have that luxury,” Bolden advised at RIT. Michelle Obama echoed at Oberlin, “No, you don’t get to be precious or cautious or cynical. No, not when the earth is warming and the oceans are rising.”

McKibben cast climate activism as a civic duty: “The answer (to global warming) has to be citizenship. Aggressive, engaged, and occasionally impolite citizenship.” This is a moment, he pleaded, “When we desperately need you as full-fledged citizens.” Like Klein, he sees the climate campaign as part of a systemic revolution. “It is a good idea to change your light bulb” and drive an electric car, he averred, but only a “fool” could imagine such personal decisions capable of solving climate change: “This is a structural and systemic problem which means that the answers are structural and systemic.”

Michelle Obama listed climate change among “the revolutions of your time,” an opportunity to “wake up and play your part in our great American story.” Albright congratulated Tufts students for their “protests and marches” on sexual assault, racism, and climate change, which had made the university a “light on the hill” and “shown yourselves to be active citizens.”

“Class of 2015, you have to vote!” Nye chided, noting that “Right now, it’s still too easy for any of us to dump our carbon waste in the world’s atmosphere.” Any who didn’t care to vote, he said, should “please just shut up, so the rest of us can get things done.”

Perhaps the real draw of activism, though, is it’s answering an internal longing for significance. Long-time activist Mindy Lubber rejoiced in the “kindred spirits” she found at Green Mountain College in Vermont, a place “that warms an environmentalist’s heart.” Poet Julia Alvarez urged Middlebury graduates to mimic an environmentalist arrested at a protest who told a reporter, “I’m here because I have a soul.” “May you have a soulful beautiful life,” was Alvarez’s parting advice.

Flattering the audience seldom goes amiss, but it might be worth noting that even skeptics of global warming and supporters of the Keystone Pipeline have souls.  And with an eighteen-year pause in global warming and our planet healthier than it’s been in centuries, this year’s grads might have been better served with some other chestnuts.  Don’t believe everything you are told.  And the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the sustainability fence.

‘Nudging’ Goes to College

Classical economics went wrong at its first turn, say Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Man is not homo economicus, the rationally calculating actor that the dismal scientists from Adam Smith down through Milton Friedman supposed our species to be. No, we are emotionally driven, contextually influenced, socially conditioned: Humans, not Econs.

Sunstein and Thaler famously lay out their Human vs. Econ divide in Nudge, their 2008 bestseller that popularized a new sub-discipline, behavioral economics. Behavioral economists recognize that people make hasty decisions for non-rational reasons, relying on rules of thumb, heuristics, and past experiences that bias their judgment and prevent them from maximizing their gains. “Unlike Econs,” say Sunstein and Thaler, “Humans predictably err.” And if you can predict what errors they will make, you can wall off temptations and set Humans up to succeed.

What predictable mistakes do we Humans make? We procrastinate on important decisions such as enrolling in retirement accounts, hate losses more than we love comparable gains, fall for cravings like sweets even when we know they’re unhealthy, and stick with default settings. Nudgers can exploit these systematic flaws in our thinking, automatically enrolling us in retirement accounts until we say otherwise, imposing fees that discourage bad behavior, hiding desserts in the back of the cafeteria and prominently displaying salads at the front, and setting organ donation as the default unless we opt out. By “nudging” people towards the best outcomes, “choice architects” massage the social atmospheres in which we decide to make it easier for people to make the right, rational choice.

Thaler and Sunstein call this “libertarian paternalism”—libertarian because “choice architects” never take away choices, but simply rearrange the buffet of options, making the good ones easier to select and the bad ones harder to find. That makes nudging paternalistic, they acknowledge, because it influences people’s choices, but it’s worth it, because people’s lives are improved. Who wouldn’t want to outsource the hard work of analyzing the data and still come to the same optimal Econ-like behavior?

Not many—at least when Thaler and Sunstein first proposed the idea. While finishing his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Rochester in the 1970s, Thaler started keeping a list of common irrational behaviors that defied economic models, eventually writing a column “Anomalies” for The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Initially he struggled to find an audience; his first paper on behavioral economics was rejected by five journals. Thaler’s breakthrough came in 1976, when he found the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who categorized common biases that shaded people’s judgments (a task that years later in 2002 earned him a Nobel prize in economic science). A 1974 paper, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” co-authored by Kahneman and the cognitive scientist Amos Tversky, gave Thaler the key to fit psychology into economics: people regularly misunderstand, misjudge, and miscalculate because they fail to recognize their susceptibility to context and emotion.

Thaler’s synthesis of behavioral psychology with economics alarmed many. When in 1995 Thaler arrived at the University of Chicago as director of the Center for Decision Research, Nobel Prize-winning economist Merton Miller shunned conversation. But Sunstein, then the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence at Chicago, struck up a friendship, and soon they co-wrote, with a Harvard law professor, “A Behavioral Approach to Law and Economics” for the Stanford Law Review, a kind of technical precursor to the layman’s guide ten years later in Nudge.

Since then the nudge tactic has grown immensely popular. Thaler and Sunstein’s manual became a bestseller. In 2009, shortly after the book’s release, President Obama made Sunstein his “regulatory czar,” and in preparation for the 2012 election he added Thaler and Sunstein to his “dream team” of behavioral economist advisors. Sunstein followed up Nudge with a sequel, Why Nudge? that sent the concept into the public view once more. Michelle Obama’s crusade to make school lunches fresher, less starchy, and healthier takes a page from Nudge by fiddling with the “default” options. The New York City subway ad campaign advising parents to stay proactively involved in their kids’ lives takes down over-optimism and the status quo bias, two of the faulty thought patterns Thaler and Sunstein warn against.

Why Not Nudge?

One counter-solution to the emotional-Human problem is to make people more perceptive and knowledgeable—a bit more like Econs. Teach them to think rationally, point out their biases, build up their self-restraint to help them avoid indulgence. And, giving proper deference to the heart, teach them to turn their desires in the right direction, so they naturally love and respond to what is good, no matter the roadblocks that stand in between. This is traditionally the job of education, which arms students with the rational knowledge and moral character to live upstanding, free, and independent lives.

That’s a nice ideal, say the nudgers, but a dangerous assumption. How can you be sure that people know enough and are virtuous enough to withstand every difficulty? Novices lose out to experts—take chess as an example, write Thaler and Sunstein—and most of us are novices at most aspects of our lives. We’re almost always less knowledgeable than the expert professionals pushing their products on us. And nudging is inevitable: “In many situations,” aver Thaler and Sunstein, “some organization or agent must make a choice that will affect the behavior of some other people.” If we know the system is rigged no matter what, we’d be hurting humanity by not rigging it in a way that encourages us to make the right choice.

If Thaler and Sunstein are right, then education’s purpose dramatically changes, away from educating moral citizens and towards training Pavlovian disciples coached to respond to the right signals. A popular statistic has it that students’ brains do not fully mature until their mid-twenties, making them excellent candidates for nudging rather than lecturing.

In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein spend only three of their 300-plus pages on higher education, remarking briefly that the federal financial aid process could be simplified and parents could be rewarded for starting a college savings account while their kids are young. But already administrators have copied a few plans from Thaler and Sunstein’s playbook. Loss-averse college students might be incentivized to graduate if they paid a fee during their freshman year that was refunded upon graduation. Floundering students could use an algorithm that suggests majors and courses based on their previous accomplishments and interests. The state of Minnesota has run a “Summer Nudging” program since 2012 to remind recent high school graduates to matriculate in the fall. Professors can rearrange students’ chairs to a U-shape to make conversations easier. One college, perhaps embracing the value of transparency, assigned Nudge as a summer common reading for all incoming freshmen. Are people who know they’re being nudged more or less nudgeable? Consumers of school lunches may vote “less.”

Some nudges are relatively benign, some even entrepreneurial. But others are more ideological. Identity studies departments and offices of diversity try to counter the “structural racism” that they see as built into society and into each person. “Implicit bias,” like Thaler and Sunstein’s rules of thumb and heuristics, supposedly prejudices people in ways they never realize, clouding their judgment and preventing them from coming to the rational, independent conclusion. The president’s office at the University of California offers employees a guide to the most common instances of “implicit bias” that mirrors some of the irrationalities that Thaler and Sunstein identify.  The resultant micro-aggressions are seen as perpetuating cycles of racism by building up a social atmosphere that encourages stereotypes. The solution? Setting up safe spaces that nudge people to celebrate diversity, and policies of racial preferences meant to correct for instances of invisible racism.

Diversity is not the only college fad to climb the nudge bandwagon. In Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, a recent report I co-wrote with Peter Wood, we recount some of sustainability-themed nudges at play on campuses across the country. Dozens of institutions have sidelined their cafeteria trays in an effort to make wastefulness a salient topic for students. Trying to juggle plates, cups, and cutlery sans tray won’t save that much dishing water, but it sure makes students think, three times every day, about the need to conserve.  Many institutions hire student “eco-reps” to shame their peers into composting their corn-starch based disposable flatware, ride a bike to class, buy carbon offsets to make up for their flights home at Christmas, and quit drinking bottled water. And some sort through trash bins on the college quad to visually remind students that hastily trashing their plastic is turning up the heat on the planet.

But once you start nudging, there is no safe place to stop. A culture trained to respond to nudges becomes dependent on them. If you’re always nudged to take the pre-set easy path, what happens when the right thing to do is hard? Cultivating fortitude, love of honor, and a disposition to careful thought will get a man through trying temptations; a habit of trusting the default option will not. A society that presumes its citizens to be irrational inevitably tends towards heavy-handedness. Nudgers say they don’t take options off the table, only rearrange the context in which they’re presented. But fiddling with the milieu inevitably makes some options socially unacceptable, if not completely inaccessible. If Humans gravitate towards the default settings, nudges aren’t as “easy and cheap to avoid” as Thaler and Sunstein insist they are.

And who decides what’s right and rational? Mankind has historically been very clever at “rationalizing” his desires; self-confident choice architects are no different. Nudging is the nanny state dressed in its Sunday best. Thaler and Sunstein say nudges are only permissible if they “make choosers better off, as judged by themselves” (italics in original). But it’s impossible to know how every person will judge his state of being.

Adam Smith critiqued in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” top-down attempts to meddle with human behavior: the “man of the system” errs when he assumes he can arrange society systematically as if on a chess board. Each man, he said, has “a principle of motion of its own altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.” That makes nudging bound to fail its promises of health, wealth and happiness. Thaler and Sunstein—and the administrators following their advice— would do well to take heed.

Hamstringing Online Colleges

Federal rules for state authorization of online college teaching raise some odd questions. Why is Massachusetts charging $40,000 for an online college to hire a work-from-home professor living on the Vermont-Massachusetts border? Why does North Carolina demand a $37,000 fee before allowing administrators with a distance learning university to meet prospective students face to face? A Norwich University administrator offers a tour of this regulatory jungle gym of federal higher education law, commenting bluntly, “I wish my job didn’t exist.”

In 2010, the Department of Education expanded previous guidelines that required states to “authorize” the colleges and universities operating within their borders, widening the reach to include online colleges that served state residents.  Online colleges and universities that failed to secure “authorization” from each of the states in which students used their materials were threatened with losing the ability to issue federal financial aid to their students.  The regulations differ state by state. Some require minor fees—$100 in Wyoming—and accreditation by one of the accrediting agencies. Others demand regional accreditation and stiff protectionist fees.

The goal of these regulations, according to Fred Sellers, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Education at the time, was to protect students from fraudulent colleges and to provide them with leverage points to hold online schools accountable. Students studying in Wisconsin using material produced by an institution headquartered in Colorado, for instance, would be empowered with a state agent who could pressure the institution to fulfill its obligations. Colleges that neglected or misled their students would face real damages—the inability to offer federal aid and to sell their courses to students in other states.

Transparency and accountability are laudable goals, especially for online institutions prone to facelessness and, at times, implicated in fraudulent activity.  But transparency needn’t come at such exorbitant costs. Accountability needn’t pressure colleges to lay off staff in fee-heavy locales and redirect significant funds from professors to political agencies. Fees should cover the costs of reasonable regulatory enforcement, but not serve as government money-makers. The federal government should roll back its mandate on state authorization, letting each state determine if separate authorization is necessary. States crafting their policies should consider regulatory processes with lower barriers to entry and stiffer penalties for infractions, preserving online colleges’ incentive to treat students fairly but enabling colleges to expand to markets where users welcome them.

MOOCs–What You Need to Know about Them Now

If you can’t beat them, join them. So seems to be the MOOC mantra now that “tsunami” hype is fading. Gone is talk of do-it-yourself education replacing credit hours and diplomas en masse. Now MOOC providers are developing elements of the structure of the traditional institutions they once challenged, and focusing predominantly on niche tech markets unlikely to directly challenge the higher ed hierarchy.

Udacity now talks of offering “nanodegrees” complete with prerequisites and tuition fees. Coursera has followed a similar trajectory. First came “Signature Track” with identity-verification and course fees, then “Course Specializations” that grouped classes into a curricular arc culminating with a capstone “senior” project. Now, both Udacity and Coursera have secured tech giants Continue reading MOOCs–What You Need to Know about Them Now

How MOOCs Threaten Your Privacy

If you take a MOOC in statistics to demonstrate your mastery of regression analyses and forecasting, you might get promoted at work. You might also become a statistic yourself.

MOOC providers and their third-party consultants collect and mine the massive amounts of data their courses generate. Accordingly, parents, teachers, and legislators are increasingly concerned about student privacy and independence. Students in “Preparing for the AP Statistics Exam” from EdX, for instance, are monitored for online habits such as how many attempts they make at online assignments, what they write about in discussion threads, and whether they reach out to the professor for help. That data holds the key to identifying the traits that mark good students and good pedagogies. Does watching videos before reading the text aid comprehension? Are more quizzes better than fewer? Thanks to big data and patterns of correlations, EdX knows. That knowledge, though, comes at a price.

Why MOOCs Are Ripe for Data Mining

Data-mining is popular in many fields, and it is Continue reading How MOOCs Threaten Your Privacy

Are College Degrees the New Taxi Medallions?

In 2011 two of New York City’s prized taxi car medallions sold for $1 million dollars apiece. In June 2013, another went for $1,050,000. These high prices weren’t terribly surprising, since taxi drivers can only legally pick up passengers if they possess medallions.

Some are beginning to think of college degrees in similar terms. As tuition and student debt continue to grow but college degrees are still linked to higher earnings and better career prospects, students now view degrees as pricey but essential investments. That poses a question. Which is more important when it comes to college: the knowledge and education, or the diploma? “Competency degrees,” a new trend in higher-ed to award college credit for life experience and professional skill, answer with the latter.

Continue reading Are College Degrees the New Taxi Medallions?

Faculty Are Increasingly Skeptical about MOOCs

Two years after MOOCs grabbed higher-ed headlines and recession-battered students began calling for cheaper college options, what do professors think of online education?

According to Inside Higher Ed’s 2014 survey of faculty attitudes on technology, they’re cautiously becoming more hopeful about its success, if education consists in conveying information. But they’re increasingly skeptical about its worth, if the heart of education is something more than bestowing credentials and transmitting facts.

This year, 26% of faculty agree or strongly agree that online courses can produce student learning outcomes on par with in-person counterparts, up from last year’s 21%. Another 44% disagree or strongly disagree about online education’s potential (down from 48% last year), with approximately another third neutral or unsure. Professors who have taught online show slightly more optimism: 41% look favorably on online learning outcomes, versus 30% who cast doubt on the Internet’s efficacy. Technology administrators, though, teem with temerity: 67% believe online education replicates or outpaces face-to-face instruction. (Last year, 59% thought as much.)

Continue reading Faculty Are Increasingly Skeptical about MOOCs

How Radicals Hijacked Environmentalism

A 14-year old Colorado boy with an Aztec name travels the world with his younger brother, 11, as a missionary for “global sustainability,” rapping, dancing and speaking for Earth Guardians, a group he directs. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is not descended from Aztecs, the bloody tyranny that ruled central Mexico for several centuries until Cortes and his Native American allies overthrew them in 1521.   But Aztecs have somehow emerged in the sustainability movement as an ideal of eco-friendly civilization.  Never mind that the Aztecs were a predatory empire founded on constant warfare, genocide, human sacrifice, and cannibalism.  They are now celebrated by some scholars for maintaining “low density” urban areas (see “Sustainable Agrarian Urbanism” by Christian Isendahl and Michael E. Smith, in the journal Cities); they practiced sustainable farming including floating gardens; and they were pretty good on population control.    The United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability celebrates Aztecs for being a “zero-waste society.”

‘Your World Is Unraveling’

The new cult of Aztec sustainability was on display at the People’s Climate March of September 21st, where a contingent of  would-be Aztecs drummed and danced their way down Sixth Avenue with a float decorated with sculpted human skulls.

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MOOCs Will Cost You

The debut of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in 2011 created high hopes. The cost-free, admissions-free courses defied administrative oversight and were expected to make education accessible to those least able to afford it. As thousands signed up for classes, course sizes swelled to tens, even hundreds times the size of their counterparts on campus.

However, the MOOC model may soon change, according to John Mitchell, the head of Stanford’s MOOC platform, Stanford Online. Mitchell recently told the Times Higher Education that maintaining a zero-revenue model in the long term was infeasible for any college or university involved in MOOCs, and that they would need to explore pricing mechanisms. “MOOCs have started out as a free opportunity – and free is a great way to get people interested,” Mitchell commented. “But traditionally, students in the US pay tuition to go to college or university and I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask people to pay a little bit for education activities that help them to move forward in their careers.” What will Stanford’s offerings look like instead, if not free? “I think [Stanford] will have low cost, high volume, but non-free courses online,” Mitchell projects, in order to “make our online programs sustainable.”

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Is This The Future of MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) provider Coursera wants to change the way we think about the revolutionary learning platform. In response to arguments that MOOCs are too impersonal, in November it announced partnerships with nine institutions that would create thirty “learning hubs,” where students taking the same MOOC could physically meet to discuss the course with each other and with an appointed group leader (often a professor, graduate student, or otherwise “expert” person). In May, after the hubs’ early success, Coursera rolled out eight more learning hub partnerships. Though Coursera seems to think this plan is innovative, it’s reminiscent of a book club—and of the brick and mortar classrooms MOOCs intend to replace.

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Climate Activism: a March of True Believers


The New School prides itself as an epicenter of progressivism, so it’s fitting that its 31st annual Social Research conference focused on a beloved progressive cause: sustainability. Sustainability pairs environmentalism with social activism. It takes aim at the free market, which it holds responsible for destroying the environment. It also takes aim at traditional social structures (especially “the patriarchy”) and social norms (especially gender roles), which it believes deprive society of the full value of communal human resources and entrench capitalism’s detrimental effects.

Environmental responsibility is of course a good thing. But sustainability goes beyond stewardship to encompass a full-scale ideology. Last October, a cohort from NAS slipped in on the “Campus Sustainability Day” festivities at The New School, where sincere sustainability believers advocated divesting the college endowment from fossil fuels because “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage.” That same moral imperative was on display here, where the conference description bemoaned that, “There is no more urgent issue than climate change, yet government, corporations, and the public are reluctant to change.”

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MOOCs Are Not the Future


If you take a train from Spain to France, you’ll halt at the border, exit the train, and board another train on the other side. The stop isn’t an exercise in border security. There’s a much smaller reason: 237 millimeters, to be exact.

In Spain, most trains run on a gauge of 1672 millimeters, while in France, the gauge is 1435. It turns out that for most purposes, the more efficient track width is the broader one, but because most of Europe operates on the 1435 gauge, it’s Spain, not France, that’s converting.

The explanatory theory of “path dependence”–maintaining inefficient systems because modernizing the infrastructure proves too costly–underlies an argument often leveled against higher education. The primary mode of instruction, the lecture, hasn’t changed substantially since medieval universities popularized the format. Despite technological advances that have made most other industries much more efficient, higher education is stuck in the past.

Continue reading MOOCs Are Not the Future

Why MOOCs Are Bound to Disappoint

This week I watched the eighth and final set of lectures for “Introduction to Sustainability,” the Coursera MOOC I’ve been taking and chronicling over the past few weeks. This week’s topic was “measuring sustainability.” Seated before a camera, a photo of Utah’s Arches National Park behind him, Professor Tomkin opened his lecture just as he’s opened every lecture for the past seven weeks: “G’day. I’m Jonathan Tomkin from the University of Illinois,” pronounced with a smile and an Australian accent.

I’d like to meet Professor Tomkin. He seems friendly and fair-minded, the kind of professor whose office door would always be open. Periodically glancing at his notes on a computer screen to his left, he explained a slew of metaphoric footprints: carbon, water, and so on. He spoke clearly, if a little less articulately than in previous lectures. I wonder if all eight weeks’ lectures were filmed in one day. This week, he seemed tired and a little worn out, and, for the first time, less scripted. But he successfully led his audience through the various ways to measure the “sustainability” of particular actions, as he condensed the technical jargon we read in our open online sustainability textbook. Every few minutes, his image would give way to slides showing charts, definitions, or photos as he spoke.

As I watched the final videos, I couldn’t help comparing those lectures to the close of a semester at my alma mater. I’m not too long out of college, so the exercise didn’t tax my memory too badly. On the final day of class, seated at a desk, my classmates and I would listen to our professor’s closing thoughts, ask a lot of questions about the final, and exchange mutual thanks and farewells in case we lacked an opportunity at the exam.

In the MOOC, not much of that was the same. I sat at one end of my living room couch with headphones in while my college-student roommate sat at the other studying for midterms. Whether any of my classmates were watching those lectures simultaneously, I don’t know. Professor Tomkin didn’t talk about the final–which I appreciated, since that left more time to discuss ideas rather than logistics–but he did summarize the course and express his hope that our taking the MOOC proved as worthwhile as his making it. The main difference, though, between the presentation of my college classes and this MOOC was that I couldn’t reciprocate. I couldn’t tell Professor Tomkin what I appreciated about his course or ask him about the times I respectfully disagreed with him. Nor could I say goodbye.

So will I miss the MOOC? In some ways, yes. I became familiar with a host of sources I might not have otherwise perused, from an open textbook to United Nations reports to TED talks. I read about depleted fish stocks in Alaska and demographic transitions in Asia. I took two multiple-choice quizzes each week–painfully complicated, presumably to make it harder to cheat–that drilled into me the significance of j-shaped and s-shaped growth curves. And I had some valuable discussions, too. After my third post here last week, in which I mentioned a discussion thread I started on fracking, I learned that discussion thread struck a nerve. That thread on fracking eventually attracted 27 posts and 182 views–making it one of the most popular threads in the course–and remained active more than a week after I started it. I heard from residents of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, the United Kingdom, and South Africa who explained their experiences, a number of interested parties who overwhelmed me with links to surveys and studies, and a “Community TA” who intervened to make sure everyone knew that I was wrong and that fracking was too environmentally dangerous to advocate.

But in other ways, I won’t miss it. Typing out questions late at night to students rather than asking them in class or over lunch wasn’t fun, and corresponding with strangers I’ve never met whose personalities I can’t discern was hard. The conversation took on the tone of students pretending to be experts rivaling each other in the number of sources they could amass; I couldn’t read and evaluate every study that got cited in that fracking discussion, nor could I always tell who really knew something about the subject and who was just linking anything that came up in a Google search. On the other hand, nor will I miss the frustration of starting a forum post on a topic I wanted to discuss, only to find few students interested in the same question. But my main regret is the stymied interaction between professor and student. I wish I could knock on Professor Tomkin’s door.

(This is part 4 in Rachelle De Jong’s series on taking a MOOC. You can find Part 3 here, Part 2 here, and Part 1 here.)

MOOCs Can’t Build Student Community

One of the biggest challenges MOOCs face is facilitating community and conversations among students. The MOOC I’m taking, “Introduction to Sustainability,” has three main kinds of discussion forums where students can start conversation “threads” and respond to others: 1) one for general discussion in which people post about anything they think is relevant; 2) video lecture forums where students respond to each individual lecture; 3) forums devoted to each week, sorting comments by syllabus chronology rather than by recurring themes.

The comments range from self-interested (an advertisement for one student’s start-up wifi provider) to helpful (advice to Mac users whose operating systems can mess up some comment formatting) to inquisitive (does cap and trade reduce carbon emissions?). When I started a thread asking students if they thought environmental devotion was an ethical duty that trumped economic analysis, I found that the act of writing and citing sources made my question and its responses more thoughtful than either one might have been otherwise. But I also found that the anonymity of the Internet can make it easier for some to ignore civility. The three discussion “conduct standards” in the forum instructions remind students to be polite, be sensitive, and post appropriate content. (Nothing about a student’s duty to post true statements or logical arguments, incidentally.)

This week, Professor Tomkin is giving extra credit to those who post a recommendation for a particular environmental policy and who respond to other people’s recommendations. Usually, though, there’s no reward for commenting; to post or not to post is up to the student. This lack of incentive makes conversations worse than they might be in person, where professors’ expectations and the instinct to defend one’s opinions can drive students to participate. Online, everything depends on the student’s own initiative. But that laissez faire policy also creates better outcomes than in most online courses, where students complete trivial commenting exercises yet have little interest in their distant classmates. In the MOOC, students comment only when they have genuine questions. Thus there are fewer discussions, but the students who participate care more about them.

That can also mean, though, that more students are posting questions than are responding. Indeed, most of the posts have been viewed by about 30 students, according to the running counts shown next to the thread titles, and many have only one post, the original question, per thread. Several have two to five posts as a couple of students interact. The longest thread I’ve seen has 46, and the second longest, 30; that thread was titled “I’m finding the quizzes difficult. How about you?”

Professor Tomkin himself is beyond the students’ reach, though at the end of each week we get an email from him recapping that week’s content and summarizing what he considered the most interesting student exchanges. There are notices posted on the course page reminding us that “the instructor is not able to answer emails sent directly to his account” and “all questions should be posted to one of the above forums.” Instead, a number of “community TAs” from the University of Illinois monitor the forums and post occasional responses.

(This is Part 3 of Rachelle De Jong’s series on taking a MOOC. You can find Part 2 here and Part 1 here.)

I Go Deeper into the MOOC

Last week, in the first post of a series chronicling my experiences in the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign’s MOOC “Introduction to Sustainability,” I noted the Darwinian structure of the course. Now more than half-way through the class, I tweak that statement slightly. Survival of the fittest isn’t the right metaphor to describe the winnowing of MOOC students. It’s more like survival of the most determined.

The MOOC isn’t hard. Each week, I watch approximately 45 minutes of video lectures broken into 5- or 10- (sometimes 15-) minute segments, each beginning with the reintroduction of Prof. Jonathan Tomkin and ending with an ad for the UI’s digital media program. The lecture would flow much better in intact segments, but the short lengths are intended to appeal to those with short attention spans or crunched schedules. I’ve found that I spend about 1.5 minutes for every 1 minute of footage, adding extra time to pause and take notes–a task that’s harder when the lectures are scripted to make every word count.

From there I read 1-3 assignments, ranging from Economist articles to UN population studies to chapters from Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation, the open online textbook that Tomkin helped compile and write. (I admit that I’m biased against the textbook:  It cites charts from Wikipedia pages.) This takes about 3-5 hours, depending on the texts. Initially I completed the reading before watching the lectures, expecting the lectures to expound upon the texts and challenge me to consider them in a new light. Two weeks’ confusion corrected that mistake. For the most part, the lectures introduce the readings, summarizing what Professor Tomkin deems most important and hinting at what he intends to quiz everyone on. If I want to analyze the texts, or the lecture, for that matter, I must do it myself, or head to the discussion boards.

The online discussions vary. Sometimes they’re lively, but I haven’t had great luck getting any conversations started. Luck seems to be a relevant factor: much depends on who else happens to be perusing the discussions and whether they were already wondering the question you’ve asked and are inclined to give your comment a thumbs-up. The most “liked” comments get the most attention. (More on the topic of communication and student interaction next week.)

At the end of each week’s content, I take two quizzes. Knowing there’s no way to enforce a ban on notes, Prof. Tomkin often asks minutely specific questions and directs students to return to the text and look up the answers. Often, he assigns another 1-3 readings within quiz questions taken from these extra texts. This makes the quizzes surprisingly (and painfully) long–often taking double the time of the lectures.

The toughest part is being diligent when there are no classmates present, the professor is out of contact, and the grades don’t count.

(This is Part 2 of Rachelle De Jong’s series on taking a MOOC. You can find Part 1 here.) 

The MOOC Chronicles, Part 1:
Are MOOCs Sustainable?

Does the college classroom have a “carrying capacity”?

The term refers to the theoretical maximum population that a particular environment can nourish (or carry) for an extended period.  I’ve been learning about it in “Introduction to Sustainability,” an eight-week MOOC offered on Coursera by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

I’m taking the MOOC both because I’m interested in the sustainability dogma on college campuses, and because I’d like to know if higher education can adapt to a digital environment as fluidly as humans adapted to the Ice Age. Can the classroom intellectually nourish masses of students? What are the limiting structures that have kept classrooms small, intimate, and discussion based–and are those structures important? Over the next several weeks, as I work through the MOOC, I’ll write a series of short articles chronicling what I find.

My thoughts so far: The MOOC is semi-Darwinian–not just in content, but in form. The completion rate for “Introduction to Sustainability” remains to be seen, but it’s clear the course offers none of the retention-conducive amenities of a brick and mortar institution with live, accessible advisors and professors. If I quit the course now, nobody but Coursera’s automated email system that sends weekly reminder emails would know or care. We shouldn’t be surprised when MOOCs dwindle to fractions of their original enrollments.

But if the MOOC weeds out the least-committed students, it also admits greater numbers. I don’t mean underprivileged or nontraditional students, who are significantly underrepresented in surveys of MOOC users. When perusing the introductory get-to-know-each-other forums (my first assignment for this MOOC), I randomly selected a handful of my thousands of classmates and found only one traditional college student, a young woman who was studying “social work and community organizing” at a private college in Wisconsin. I did see a number of working professionals, though, including a New York businessman starting a sustainability-inspired restaurant, a denizen of DC prepping for grad school, and a man from Bangalore, India, hoping to improve his prospects of getting promoted.

Besides the working professionals, my own post on the introductory forum highlights another subgroup that MOOCs reach: latecomers. I told my classmates I was starting the course three weeks late and playing catch-up, something I probably couldn’t have done in a regular class.

But here it mattered little whether I started late or on time. Past (but not future) MOOC lectures and quizzes are available online at the student’s convenience. Perhaps they’re too convenient; I could have taken all my quizzes without watching the lectures or reading any assignments, if I’d wanted to.

The only inconvenience of taking the MOOC at my own pace? I missed a few early discussion forum threads, the opportunity to join Coursera Signature Track (whereby I could pay Coursera toverify my identity and award me a “verified certificate” if I passed the course), and the deadlines to receive credit for the first few quizzes (which I took anyways). To catch up with the others, I could watch fifteen-minute segments of lectures over dinner and read my assignments online late at night.

Have MOOCs Replaced the Classroom?

Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, posed the question, why do good companies fail? In industries ranging from computers to telephones to cameras to stock markets, the companies that monitored market trends, tended to their customers, and invested in high-returning capital capsized in a sea of start-up innovations (PCs, cell phones, digital cameras, and online markets, in these cases).

Some say the same is true of higher ed–except that wise schools, perceiving the trend, can embrace the disruption before it disrupts them. So what would happen if colleges embraced the MOOC? That’s the question looming behind a number of starry-eyed op-eds that sing the MOOC’s upending powers to jolt academe into twenty-first century efficiency.
Continue reading Have MOOCs Replaced the Classroom?

The Future of MOOCs

The disappointing early performance of MOOCs has tempered predictions of academia’s wholesale collapse. So where will these behemoths find their place in the landscape of higher-ed? Well-financed by investors, relatively popular among administrators, and attractive to millions of course registrants, MOOCs are not likely to face extinction. Their future probably lies somewhere between adapting to a niche clientele and rebounding to capture part of the original demographic they targeted at their genesis two years ago. We can imagine three possible outcomes:

  1.  MOOCs will become advanced technical schools and outsourced employee training. That’s the conclusion of Walter Russell Mead, and it’s the direction Sebastian Thrun is taking Udacity, after reckoning that MOOCs had “failed” as rivals to brick and mortar BA programs. The new MOOC-ish master’s degree program at Georgia Tech is an example: AT&T is a major funder of the Georgia Tech initiative, planning to send its employees through the program and to hire additional high-performing program graduates. Forbes reports that a growing number of businesses are authorizing MOOC versions of their training courses. Others are launching MOOCs to educate their constituents. Maybe MOOCs don’t inspire rapt fascination with Tennyson the way a wizened literature prof might, but they don’t have to. Who said job training was interesting anyways?
  2. MOOCs will become a means of popularizing intellectual culture for a middle-class audience. As University of Michigan professor Jonathan Freedman writes in “MOOCs: Usefully Middlebrow,” we already had Reader’s Digest versions of books, game shows quizzing our history knowledge, and book clubs for the well-read but untrained literature enthusiasts. Now we have MOOCs. They disseminate content in respectable, if watered-down, versions of their counterpart college courses. Sure, it’s not college, but it’s not comic books, either.
  3.  MOOCs will encourage renewed interest in the humanities, their techie origins notwithstanding. The liberal arts are a lot harder to teach to big Internet classes, and student interest in taking and actually finishing these courses is pretty low (“You can lead a horse to water…” Edward Luce reminds us at the Financial Times). But MOOCs don’t need to be a magic bullet. If they can save students some money and pry at least some of them away from a false financial fascination with science BAs, they’ll be counted a success. MOOCs can become piece of a larger rebellion against the reign of STEM fields, where job prospects are shrinking.

It’s important to remember that MOOCs are mediums, not entities, and they can be used to convey anything from presidential biographies to personal finance techniques. Any of these three scenarios, or others, is still possible.

Are MOOCs Only For the Rich?


Is a MOOC more like an ATM or an American Express Centurian card? The former provides a service to everyone with a bank account. The latter serves a smaller niche of the prosperous few.

Like an ATM, MOOCs are automated dispensers providing accessible, on-demand service to thousands of users. They faithfully output course material, input student performance, and churn out a receipt of transaction at the end. MOOCs share another trait with ATMs: a sluggishness to capture significant market share. Automated teller machines, now a standard feature in drug stores and on street corners, initially faced suspicion. Could they replicate the human teller in reliability and accuracy? Could you be sure, after inserting your cash,  that the money really wound up in your bank account? What if your account number and identifying information got hacked?

MOOCs face similar skepticism. Can they replace classroom professors in delivering high quality education to individual students who have distinct needs and varying backgrounds? Will automated grading adequately assess student work? What about anti-cheating measures to verify the student’s identity?

Perhaps it sounds odd to speak of lethargic public response to MOOCs. In the two brief years since they were conjured up by a handful of Stanford computer scientists, MOOCs have attracted scores of universities eager to give away their course content and millions of students eager to take it. But while MOOCs have benefited from administrative agitation over the Internet’s potential to reinvent higher ed, and from media hype declaring “The Year of the MOOC” or “The Campus Tsunami,” MOOCs have accomplished few of their inventors’ initial goals. Drop-out rates are sky high, and MOOC usage is densely concentrated among college degreed professionals–not the underprivileged demographic that MOOCs intended to reach, and not the typical college students that MOOCs hoped to siphon off from the academic establishment.  These days the better analogy is the AmEx card. MOOCs are serving mainly the “haves”–though perhaps the ATM analogy may prove right in the long run.

Unintended Consequences

MOOCs came onto the education tech scene with two major objects: to pry open expensive, elite education for the underprivileged in the U.S. and abroad, and to reshape the default medium of that education for everyone else as well. The idea was that students previously unable to go to college would jump at the opportunity for free online education. Simultaneously a significant share of the regular college demographic would opt for high-quality free courses over pricey credentials at campus. That exodus would undermine admissions in brick and mortar institutions, many of which would collapse. Stanford president John Hennessey warned of the coming tsunami about to batter academia to bits. Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford prof and Google engineer who invented the self-driving car before launching his MOOC company Udacity, predicted that within fifty years, the higher education establishment would crumble to a paltry ten institutions, with MOOCs becoming the dominant model.

Thrun’s predictions were probably the most radically optimistic of the group, but the idealism of the others wasn’t too far behind. “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few,” reads Coursera’s vision statement. “We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.” EdX, the Harvard-MIT partnership, governs itself by three goals, the first of which is, boldly, to “expand access to education for everyone.” The other two goals, “enhance teaching and learning on campus and online” and “advance teaching and learning through research,” get to the heart of the MOOC movement: figuring out how to make massive Internet courses realistic for higher ed at large.

But while millions of students have registered for MOOCs, and some classes continue to draw tens of thousands of students, MOOCs haven’t yet graduated to full college market status. Last week the University of Pennsylvania released a study showing that most MOOC users don’t fit the model student that colleges vie for: They’re college graduates looking for specific career training or refresher courses, not recent high school grads seeking the liberal arts. The study looked at 34,779 students enrolled in MOOCs offered by Penn via Coursera, and found that more than 80 percent had a two- or a four-year degree, and 44 percent had completed some graduate education. Even in developing countries, which have significantly fewer college educated members of the population, 80 percent of the international users had already graduated from college. Nor are these data points from the Penn study recent outliers. An early survey of MOOC users in June 2012, shortly after Coursera and Udacity launched, showed that most students already held career-track jobs and almost all of the remainder were currently attending college.

Perhaps college grads are the people most likely to have the requisite self-discipline for online classes. San Jose State University partnered with Udacity last summer in a high-profile pilot to provide credit-bearing MOOC versions of introductory and remedial courses to a pool of largely at-risk and first-time college attendees. Drop-out and failure rates outpaced those in regular classrooms, even as Udacity added course mentors and tutors to help students persevere. Though one recent study has concluded that some students can perform better online under certain conditions such as long-term commitment to the courses and fewer interruptions in enrollment, in most courses under most circumstances, online drop-out rates are significantly higher than in-person classes.

San Jose’s trouble can be partly attributed to a technology gap among lower income levels, where high-speed Internet service and regular access to a reliable computer aren’t always ready. But even with adequate computer access, online courses can feel isolating, especially when college is a new and daunting prospect.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, lead author of the U Penn report, summarizes: “MOOCs seem to be reinforcing the advantages of the ‘haves’ rather than educating the ‘have-nots.'” That kind of social-justice ideology reinforces a victim mentality that may stymie student participation, but Emanuel’s concern points to a chasm between MOOCs’ ideals and realities. Once conceived as a way to level the more and less privileged by stripping away prohibitive costs and commute of going to college, and instead letting individuals compete solely on merit, MOOCs have instead found it vastly easier to attract well-educated professionals.

Course Correction?

In other words, MOOCs are gaining a following, but that following is among a distinct, newly expanding market for continuing education. That realization led Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun to turn a 180, retreating from his goals to educate the world and replace the university. Two weeks ago he told Fast Company that Udacity is bracing for “the biggest shift in the history of the company” as it regroups to narrowly concentrate on technical, vocational fields, often at the advanced level for students who already have a degree in hand. Thrun’s new vision is on display at Georgia Tech, where Udacity is working to launch a new MOOC master’s degree in computer science.

But others take the ATM approach, holding out for the day when MOOCs garner wider student appeal. Walter Russell Mead has suggested that historically, new technologies appeal first to the highly educated, and later gain more widespread acceptance. Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, says that his company is still analyzing how they can better reach students in developing countries and at-risk students in the United States. Coursera and EdX both remain committed, at least for now, to offering the liberal arts and general education courses akin to those offered in undergraduate programs.

Playing seer is tough, but the future make-up of higher-ed and the role that MOOCs play in it depends on how we as a society view education. Is it a transaction or a relationship? The history of higher education suggests that, at its best, it’s a relationship founded in discourse and intellectual mentorship. In that sense, I suppose, education’s not much like ATMs or like credit cards.  If we need a metaphor from the world of finance, it is perhaps like a rich uncle who may leave you a splendid legacy, but only if you take the trouble to get to know him, and to develop respect for what he knows. That’s the sort of thing that can’t be automated.

Is the MOOC Revolution Over?

One of the architects of the MOOC revolution has decided that the movement should go in a different direction. In a lengthy interview with Fast Company, Sebastian Thrun, the inventor of the MOOC platform Udacity, announced that he’s shelving his original goal to displace traditional higher education by delivering free online courses to millions of students worldwide. Instead, Udacity is moving towards offering credit-bearing, priced courses (likely smaller in size) that focus on technical, vocational skills.

Thrun pioneered massive open online courses in 2011, when he turned his Stanford artificial intelligence course into an online video series that attracted 160,000 registrants. From the start he struck a pose of bold confidence, telling Wired that within fifty years, MOOCs would decimate brick-and-mortar colleges to a mere ten in number. The name “Udacity” is Thrun’s portmanteau drawn from “university” and “audacity.”

In the Fast Company interview, however, Thrun highlights his disappointments with MOOCs’ record: 90 percent drop-out rates with only half of the remaining 10 percent actually earning a passing grade; the student demographic overwhelmingly populated by well-educated, college-degreed professionals rather than the underprivileged students he had hoped to reach; the San Jose State University debacle, in which San Jose students taking Udacity-delivered MOOCs performed significantly worse than their peers in physical classrooms; and the unexpected failure of Thrun’s interventions intended to raise passing rates. Thrun tried adding mentors and TAs to provide personalized attention and interaction with students, incorporating immediate feedback and rewards in the forms of badges and progress meters, and partnering with schools such as San Jose to provide college credit, which Thrun expected to ramp up student interest. “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished,” Thrun remarked. “We have a lousy product.”

Like a good engineer-entrepreneur, Thrun isn’t calling it quits. He is refocusing his efforts to develop a new MOOC niche for a different demographic. He predicts a complementary rather than rivalrous relationship between MOOCs and their classroom counterparts, as MOOCs shift towards professional development in technical fields while classrooms retain their market for most academic disciplines, most degrees, and (thus) most of the students. Besides, Udacity is evidently profitable: the article quotes one of Udacity’s significant investors, who remarked, “The attitude from the beginning, about how we’d make money, was, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ Well, we figured it out.”

Udacity has been at the forefront of many MOOC developments, partnering directly with undergraduate programs and Georgia Tech’s master’s degree program in computer science scheduled to launch this spring. Udacity’s self-reinvention may foreshadow developments to come in its competitors EdX and Coursera. “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you,” Thrun admits, though he still sees room for MOOCs to influence the university towards more vocational, utilitarian ends. “The medium will change.”

Why Do Students Drop Out of MOOCs?


The perceived threat of a MOOC tsunami presumes that vast numbers of students will opt for supersized online courses in place of smaller, traditional classrooms. And so far, millions have already enrolled in MOOCs. The platform is versatile and the course offerings broad. Mid-career professional development? Check. Remedial classes at community colleges? Check. Elite DIY-Ivies for self-motivated unschoolers? BA courses available for transfer credit? Master’s-level courses for distance learners? Check, check, and check.

Plus, MOOCs are cheap (for credit) or even free (not for credit)–two important qualifications in a time of ballooning student debt. What’s not to like?

But, as I’ve written previously, MOOCs are a lot more popular with the media and with college administrations than they are with faculty or, more surprisingly, with credit-seeking students. Faculty opposition makes sense: MOOCs represent a direct competitor threatening to replace them in the classroom. Student hesitancy is less intuitive. Don’t students want flexibility in their courses, autonomy in choosing their curriculum, and cheaper options for advanced training? Yet in most MOOCs, 90 percent of enrolled students will fail to finish the course.

Dropping Out

Andrew Ng, the Stanford computer scientist who co-founded Coursera in April 2012, offered his first MOOC in the fall of 2011, when he adapted his Stanford “Machine Learning” course into a free online hub for the 104,000 students who registered. Ng hailed the numbers as a lifetime achievement: “To reach that many students before, I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.” But only 46,000 (44 percent) even attempted the first assignment, and 13,000 (a slim 12.5 percent) finished the class.

That was an experimental course, but the numbers haven’t improved since then. The average MOOC passage rate is about 10 percent, according to most estimates. One doctoral student calculated an average completion rate as low as 7 percent, ranging from 0.8 percent in Princeton’s “History of the World since 1300,” to 19.2 percent in the “Functional Programming Principles in Scala” course from Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.

Those numbers might sound as though they indicate quality and rigor–that MOOCs are serving up difficult courses passable only by the elite few. But many MOOCs rely on multiple choice quizzes that can be automatically graded, and often give students multiple attempts at passing these assignments. More in-depth MOOCs (usually those offered for credit), requiring more papers, harder and proctored exams, and in some cases even professor interaction, are outliers, not the norm.  MOOCs lose most of their students not to outright failure, but to attrition.

Last fall, Duke launched its first MOOC with Coursera. The bioelectricity course started with a relatively small but still sizeable group of 12,700 students, of which 350 completed the course–a drop-out rate of 97 percent. That course elicited a response from Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology, which echoed several researchers in criticizing the way MOOC completion rates are measured. These MOOC proponents dismiss the dismal rates as artificial inflations, because a good number of those who register for a course do not participate in a single lecture or assignment. Calculating course completion rates relative to the number of participating students yields a much higher completion rate at approximately 25 percent. The Chronicle of Higher Ed estimates that number is higher–perhaps even as high as 45 percent.

But such recalibrations are at best mildly encouraging. Those numbers still indicate that a majority of students who began their MOOCs chose not to finish, and that a sizeable percentage of those who registered neglected even to start.

Investigating the Reasons

It’s surprising that MOOCs, offering the flexibility and the low price that students purport to want, suffer such low ratings.  Does the drop-out rate indicate a failure of MOOC providers to deliver courses that meet student needs? Or does it point to a finicky free-spirited set of students unwilling to stick with a course? That is, is the problem one of low-quality supply or of noncommittal demand?

The answer is, to some degree, both.  In a recent study conducted by Instructure and Qualtrics (two education and “insight” technology providers) looking at student motivations for starting and for leaving a MOOC, two responses tied as most popular reason to quit. Twenty-nine percent of those who registered for a MOOC, and then stopped participating, said that their reason for leaving was that “the learning experience didn’t match their expectations,” and the MOOC had failed to supply what they wanted. But another twenty-nine percent said they quit the course because they were too busy, and found their own enthusiasm weakened by other competing interests.

But my guess is that if MOOCs managed to provide opportunities for thriving discourse and flourishing interpersonal relationships, more of those students would be inclined to find the time to persevere. One of the main defects in MOOCs is the sterile, disengaged character that afflicts many online courses,  especially massive online courses. If a course is to be more than an intellectual IV dripping raw facts into the mind, it requires articulation of questions and synthesizing of answers, discussion and debate over claims and analyses, and some form of intellectual community that helps turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. Mere physical presence doesn’t guarantee any of these things, of course, but they do depend in varying ways on personal connection, which is much harder to replicate online.

MOOCs find this challenge aggravated by the sheer number of students. I’ve taken two MOOCs, one that I finished by dutiful determination (Intro to Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh, Spring 2013), and another that I quit in frustration (Intro to Sociology from Princeton, Summer 2012). Both were painful.  The pre-recorded lectures felt anonymous and distant, and meager student interaction didn’t remedy that alienation. The sociology course did feature a weekly video group discussion between Professor Mitchell Duneier and five select students–but this meant that the other 39,995 of us had to merely watch, sidelined by the size of the class. For the philosophy class (which didn’t have the discussion via video option), I tried joining an in-person discussion group with a few other students who lived nearby, but the group fell apart before we met even once. In the online discussion forums, some students brought up insightful questions and helped each other understand the material–but the site got swamped and the number of posts overwhelmed meaningful conversations.

Sans professorial interaction, these groups cannot in themselves make up for the guidance and leadership that a professor supplies. UVA professor Mark Edmundson, writing in the New York Times, sums up the problem neatly:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can.

The MOOC platform is itself aloof and impenetrable. The Qualtrics study found that for 35 percent of MOOC registrants, their interest in the topic was their primary reason signing up, while 24 percent listed professional development as their main motivation. The study also found that 77 percent already had bachelor’s degrees. The typical MOOC user is a capable, well-educated individual genuinely interested in the topic the MOOC covers–not an inexperienced student new to the disciplines of studying. Yet these are the students who leave the courses, estranged by the platform itself.

Flexibility is convenient–unless it undermines the course’s very foundation and structure. Choices are empowering–but too many can lead to choice paralysis or, alternatively, unrealistic over-commitment. Free means saving money–but sometimes the prospect of getting something for nothing proves too enticing for students who neglect to examine what they’ve signed up for. And in this case, they’ve signed for a relatively faceless lonesome education, and until that changes, MOOC drop-out rates will likely remain high.

Is the MOOC Moment Now?

As Georgia Tech gears up for its new MOOC-like master’s degree program slated to launch this spring, the Wall Street Journal reports that applications from would-be students are dramatically outpacing fall ’13 applications to Georgia Tech’s residential program. Offered jointly by the Georgia Institute of Technology and Udacity, with financial support and “advice” from AT&T, the two-year, wholly online master’s degree program in computer science parallels Georgia Tech’s well-regarded campus-based program. Proponents say this watershed initiative could spur further innovation.

Because the courses aren’t open to everyone, they aren’t truly MOOCs (massive open online courses). Perhaps we should dub them “MOCs.” Credit-seeking students had to apply to Georgia Tech during a three-week period that ended October 27th (acceptance notifications go out December 1st) and will have to pay tuition (a total of about $6,600, versus $44,000 for the regular program). Zvi Galil, the dean of the College of Computing, says the school hopes, eventually, to register 10,000 students–more than 60 times Georgia Tech’s typical 150, though smaller than many MOOCs. Students will take proctored exams and complete other steps to prevent cheating. To make online discussions manageable and provide more teacher-student interaction, the school plans to hire one teacher for every 60 or so students–an improvement over regular MOOCs, though a departure from earlier talk of  maintaining a 30:1 student:teacher ratio.

According to Georgia Tech’s admissions department, 2,359 students applied for the spring’s online distance learning program, versus 1,371 who applied for the current fall semester’s residential program. The school will admit every bachelor degreed student with a 3.0 GPA or better, conditional on the student earning at least a B in the first two courses. Those plans have raised concerns from campus-based students about the new program’s rigor and the dilution of their own program’s reputation. The policy also raises questions about the reasoning behind online admissions, since the school originally planned to admit only 200 students per semester. Perhaps the decision indicates Georgia Tech’s financial considerations. As some researchers have noted, once AT&T’s one-time $2 million grant runs out, Georgia Tech will need over 8,000 full-time students in order to recoup costs and deliver the profit that it and Udacity hope to secure.

It’s unclear if the 2,000-plus applicants represent a new niche market in higher ed, or if Georgia Tech’s new program will cannibalize existing computer science master’s degree programs. Prior surveys of MOOC users indicate that MOOCs primarily serve a unique clientele and thus don’t rival traditional colleges and universities in attracting students. If Georgia Tech succeeds in capturing a substantial market share of students already bound for grad school, it may indeed rouse the forces of creative destruction. If it opens opportunities to new students, though, the program will find its function in complementing, not undermining, higher-ed as we know it.

What Do MOOCs Cost?


The “Massive” in MOOC refers to class size, but one might think it stands for cost savings as well. MOOCs are free for students who register and cheap for those who seek credit. Few colleges and universities plan to grant credit for MOOCs, but of those who do, the cost to the student is typically a few hundred dollars per course; sometimes, it’s only the price of paying for a proctored exam.

But MOOCs are not terribly cheap for the colleges and partner platforms producing them. Building a MOOC is tricky work. It involves writing lecture scripts, rethinking course structure, creating a slew of multiple choice quizzes, adapting grading software, filming lectures and (sometimes) discussion groups, editing footage, and building a course page. Once the course goes live online, someone has to pay for chat feed monitors, glitch repair, and a squad of tutors and administrators. All this for a product that’s supposed to resemble a frozen dinner: pre-packaged, simple to prepare, and consumed in front of a screen.

Adding it Up

So what do MOOCs actually cost the producers? Some are cheap, like self-produced off-the-cuff lectures delivered in front of a webcam and uploaded via an open source platform like Google’s Course Builder. However, MOOCs that professionally shot and edited and then spliced with interactive features can cost on the order of a quarter-million dollars.

For most MOOCs, three different entities help pay for production: the school volunteering the content, the platform that hosts it, and external third parties.

Udacity budgets $200,000 for each course it makes. For many technologies, production costs decrease after their initial development, but Udacity’s costs are likely to keep rising as it launches MOOC 2.0, a modified version that includes more personal interaction with professors, tutors, and mentors. In its partnership with Georgia Institute of Technology’s new MOOC-ified master’s degree in computer science, Udacity expects to double its costs to $400,000 per course.

EdX gives its partners the option of producing a MOOC on their own and then submitting the finished product to EdX, or else paying for EdX’s design and consulting services at a rate of $250,000 per course plus another $50,000 each time the course is re-run. EdX is run jointly by MIT and Harvard, who have each fronted $30 million to create the program, though EdX president Anant Agarwal emphasizes the need for EdX to generate sustainable sources of money to avoid becoming a drain on its university parents. Georgetown, when it announced a partnership with EdX, planned to invest $2 million in the Harvard-MIT brainchild, while Amherst College expected to spend a total of $2.2 million, though the faculty voted down the proposal. Meanwhile the University of Texas shelled out $5 million to join EdX.

Coursera’s costs are less public, though its partner schools have spent tens of thousands of dollars on their own course development. The University of Pennsylvania spent about $50,000 per course, while the University of Edinburgh dropped approximately $45,000 on each of its six courses. U Penn and the California Institute of Technology, when they joined Coursera, invested $3.7 million, justifying the expenditure as an investment in branding and a jumpstart for future online possibilities.

In addition to schools and platforms, a hodgepodge of third parties help to pick up the tab, sometimes obscuring the true cost of MOOCs. Private donors, including alumni eager to see their alma maters splashing the covers of technology journals, fork over substantial donations. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent millions of dollars promoting MOOC use, especially advocating for MOOCs in remedial education. (Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun credits Gates with making remedial ed MOOCs a reality.) Gates has also provided EdX a grant of $1 million. Then there are the venture capitalists, who have backed Udacity with $22 million and Coursera with $65 million. Sometimes governments help to foot the bill, too: the state of California awarded $16.9 million to California community colleges, asking them to further develop online initiatives, including MOOCs.

Many of these investors, of course, hope to make money on MOOCs, most likely not by selling the courses directly to students, but by renting them to small schools that then pair the outsourced lectures with proctored tests and, in some cases, group discussions and extra assignments. Udacity and Coursera have also experimented with doubling as paid headhunters; they sift course participation and assignment grades to identify promising students, offering to match them with a potential employer who pays a fee for each introduction. They’ve also experimented with selling their own certificates of completion. But most college presidents don’t actually expect MOOCs to reduce student costs. And even if courses do generate revenue, large portions of that revenue will return to the platform, not to the school that supplied the MOOC.

Georgia Tech, in its much discussed plan to create with Udacity a MOOC version of its prestigious master’s degree in computer science, hopes to turn a profit of $4.7 million by its third year of operation, but it’s banking on a $2.1 million start-up grant from AT&T to do it. It’s also raised as many doubts as it has hopes about financial viability, such as those from critics who note that the first year’s course development will cost over $15,000 per student. Georgia Tech also counts on quickly attracting 8,700 full-time students–more than the total number of computer science master’s degrees awarded in 2009-2010.

Heeding Caution

Spending money on experiments isn’t categorically bad. If not for fearless financial backers, we wouldn’t have the personal computer, or the printing press–both of which have been great boons to the academic world. MOOCs are still developing, and since we don’t know yet whether they’ll succeed in facilitating learning, careful investment is healthy. What is worrisome, though, is the reckless abandon with which schools are investing in experiments that provide minimal value to their own students and do not yet offer much to outside participants. If anything, our ignorance of the effects of MOOCs on learning outcomes should gives schools and donors pause.