MOOCs: Isolating the Hype

Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version.

“Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.[1]

~ Thomas Friedman

             The story became legend almost immediately: In 2011, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, decided to teach the course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online, and make it available for free to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. 160,000 students enrolled and 20,000 completed the course. Within weeks of the conclusion of his class, Thrun resigned his tenure-track position and founded Udacity, a for-profit provider of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, with substantial investment from the VC firm Charles River Ventures.  Thrun’s stated objective was to have 500,000 students in his first Udacity class.

            There followed an immediate flurry of announcements of new startups offering free access to MOOCs. Thrun’s Stanford colleagues Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng launched their own startup, Coursera, announcing that they would offer fourteen classes beginning in February and March 2012. Professors from Stanford, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of California at Berkeley would teach the courses. Not to be outdone, MIT launched MITx, built upon its popular Open Courseware system. That effort quickly blossomed into edX, a non-profit partnership between MIT and Harvard, with each school contributing a combined $60 million to build what Harvard’s announcement billed as “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.”

This spike in startups prompted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to declare it “a college education revolution.” The Wall Street Journal similarly declared that the “nation, and the world, are in the early stages of a historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.”

And with that—in a matter of a few months—MOOCs became the topic of the year in higher education.

The press coverage was not lost on college and university presidents and trustees around the country. Institutions faced increasing pressure to board the MOOC bandwagon with little regard for the actual value of MOOCs. Most infamously, The University of Virginia Board of Visitors (temporarily) fired its president for adhering to a thoughtful program of “incremental, marginal change,” in the regents’ words, rather than participating in the coming MOOC “transformation…legitimized by some of the elite institutions” in the nation. (The president was reinstated after a highly publicized, campus-wide protest by faculty and students.)

Despite rumblings about the lack of a sound business plan for MOOCS, their massive dropout rates, and the lack of college credit for participation, the proclamations kept piling up.

MOOCs Threaten the Traditional Business Model of Higher Education

In a June 2012 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bill Gates suggested that the ideal modification of the credential system would involve disconnecting representation of the range of an individual’s knowledge from the current metric of college degrees conferred. (Gates himself has a high school diploma and makes substantial use of available resources to deepen his personal knowledge.)  He noted that MOOCs and changes in credentialing are a valuable step in aligning educational infrastructure with employment and business needs. The following September, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would award ten grants of up to $50,000 each for MOOCs offering “high-enrollment, low-success introductory-level courses.” That same month, Stanford appointed John C. Mitchell, professor of computer science at the university, as its vice provost for online learning, the first new such position in twenty years. Days later, Moody’s Investors Service released the report, “Shifting Ground: Technology Begins to Alter Centuries-Old Business Model for Universities.”  The report further inflamed media frenzy by declaring that MOOCs may elevate the financial stature of elite institutions while simultaneously increasing financial challenges to less-wealthy institutions.

As colleges and universities grappled with constant pronouncements that MOOCs will either save them or challenge them, publishers saw potential profit in the rise and delivery of massive online courses. MIT Press director Ellen W. Faran announced that the Press was “actively tracking the development of MOOCs and believe they do represent a promising market for university-press titles.” The trend seemed to lend weight to some of the strategies of startups like Flat World Knowledge, a textbook publisher experimenting with business and pricing models.  Flat World Knowledge was advertising its innovative business model as “free online and affordable offline.” (However, in November 2012, citing financial concerns, the company announced that it was forced to drop free access.)

The MOOC wave rolled on. By fall 2012, Coursera had doubled its number of participating institutions, Wesleyan University had become the first liberal arts college on Coursera’s roster (one of its courses was taught by the school’s president), and Colorado State University became the first school to offer brick-and-mortar credits for MOOC course completion. By the end of 2012, Wellesley, UC Berkeley, and the University of Texas system were all working with edX, 100,000 students were taking Harvard’s edX classes, there were two million registered Coursera students, and the American Council on Education (ACE) had committed to reviewing designated MOOCs for the purpose of certifying them for transferrable course credit.

The portrayal and reception of MOOCs, intentional or not, as an inspired innovation springing from the heads of a few talented and clearly brilliant educators and entrepreneurs brought on a rash of highly publicized expectations and concerns. Proponents cited MOOCs as a solution to the current crisis in higher education, with its ever-rising costs and ever-lessening value to newly minted graduates entering the job market. Detractors eyed them as destroyers of institutions delivering an invaluable higher-education experience made up of face-to-face instruction and the ineffable benefits of living and learning in a campus community. Reaction on both (or all) sides of the issue has been disproportionate, characterized by considerably more heat than light.

From the early days of the new “revolution,” although reasonable people tried to articulate both the values and challenges MOOCs might offer, their questions tended to be drowned out by the volume of heated argument.  Yet the questions remain viable: Why would colleges grant course credit to students who take MOOCs without paying tuition? How would an institution evaluate MOOC credits on the transcripts of students applying for admission? Are MOOCs even sustainable? What is the actual cost of hosting and delivering them?  How will we balance support needs for existing programs with the potential that MOOCS represent? What exactly is their inherent value to both institutions and students?

Conversation about MOOCs now gives way to more thoughtful reflection and recollection.  The idea that MOOCs are profoundly “disruptive” to the traditional paradigm for higher education echoes pronouncements about earlier technological innovations. The telegraph, for example, was declared a world changing “instantaneous highway of thought”; the radio, “the University of the Air” that would eliminate the need for physical attendance at institutions of higher learning. In 1961, Buckminster Fuller, in his essay Education Automation, described his vision for massive and individualized learning systems, predicting that nothing would be “quite so surprising or abrupt in the history of man as the forward evolution in the educational processes.”

There is a conventional picture or concept of school that is very powerful in most men’s minds, and I think a great surprise is coming. I don’t think that what is going to happen in education is apprehended or anticipated at all by the political states. I know that there is awareness of coming change amongst the forward thinkers of the educational ranks, but, I feel, even they will be astonished at the magnitude of the transformation about to take place in the educational processes.

Similarly, in his 1962 Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, Douglas Engelbart developed and proposed a new research agenda to the Stanford Research Institute, emphasizing the potential of computers for extending the human intellect.  More recently, during the bubble of the 1990s, colleges and universities wrestled with the need to be online and embrace and integrate the new World Wide Web.

Seen in the light of this history, the breathless pronouncements that MOOCs are world changing can seem silly at best. But MOOCs should also be viewed not as overhyped, unprecedented, and revolutionary developments so much as nodes in a decades-long trajectory of innovation in learning and open education resources. MOOCs were not invented out of whole cloth; rather, they are built upon previous, less-publicized breakthroughs in online learning and open educational resources, and thus are an incremental step forward in the movement toward delivering education online:

Since its founding Sloan-C has evolved into “an institutional and professional leadership organization dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education, helping institutions and individual educators improve the quality, scale, and breadth of online education.” As a direct of result of the Foundation’s investments several significant online learning programs have been implemented, including The University of Maryland University College, Penn State World Campus, and the UMASS Online Learning Network.  In addition, the State University of New York (SUNY), the University of Central Florida and other large state university systems have developed online learning programs. Many institutions and individuals have been at this for a long while and in November of 2012 Sloan-C held their 18th Annual International Conference on Online Learning.

At the conference Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the University of Massachusetts who also founded UMass Online in 2001, offered remarks that gave voice to the irritation some online learning veterans felt in the wake of media reports about the upstart MOOC startups. Some of these veterans’ irritations bubbled to the surface as a result of remarks that MOOCs might replace all other forms of online learning and maybe even traditional higher education itself. Many expressed concern that the recent involvement of high profile, high-risk startups and elite colleges would diminish the work of agencies already in the field. “They’re certainly not the first movers; they’re not even the fast followers,” Wilson said. “It’s great to have them on board. But that is not who has led online learning, or who is going to lead online learning.” Sebastian Thrun presented a keynote address at the conference. His comments illustrated the chasm between the veterans and the newcomers when he acknowledged to those present that he was “pretty much ignorant of your work” when he began to conceive of what since became the MOOC provider Udacity.

If MOOCs are to be as influential and ubiquitous as many predict, the effort of colleges and universities (and organizations and associations) not on the roster of elite campuses must be acknowledged and supported.  Here is a brief enumeration of less well-known MOOC predecessors:

Fathom. In the late 1990s, Columbia University established Fathom as a for-profit effort to leverage the Web as a strategic resource for extending higher education’s reach to a public hungry for access to educational resources. Ann Kirschner, now Dean of Macaulay Honors College at The City University of New York, was retained to develop the program. Kirschner architected Fathom as an online learning community of practice for public audiences interested in the experience of “being at a great university or a great museum.” Regarding Fathom and its place in the developmental trajectory of online learning, Kirschner noted that “learning is not limited to the classroom, and the many other types of content provided through Fathom will provide a more complete and accessible context for knowledge. We believe that Fathom will define the transformation of the online learning category into a broader interactive knowledge marketplace.” Columbia invested $25 million in the venture, and 65,000 people created accounts, but few participants paid for any of the courses and the effort failed to turn a profit. Columbia closed Fathom in 2003, retaining the site’s online content was retained until mid-2011.

Sunoikisis.  Sunoikisis is a national consortium of Classics programs that began in 2000 as an initiative of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS). Sunoikisis provides inter-institutional courses for students of the Classics.  Since its beginning, it has demonstrated how to leverage technology to create extended curricular offerings across multiple campuses. The Sunoikisis program offers a wider range of disciplinary coursework, interaction with student peers and faculty than would ever be possible at a single small liberal arts college.  Faculty and students from thirty-five colleges have participated in Sunoikisis programs since its inception.

Connexions. “Connexions,” its web site declares, “is a dynamic digital educational ecosystem consisting of an educational content repository and a content management system optimized for the delivery of educational content.” Connexions was launched as a non-profit start-up by Rice University in 1999, with the explicit aim to “reinvent how we write, edit, publish, and use textbooks and other learning materials.” Connexions is a repository of open educational resources that can be described in four words that borrow from an Apple advertising slogan and a book by Lawrence Lessig:

Create – in Connexions, everyone is free to create educational materials and contribute them to the repository;

Rip – in Connexions, everyone is free to copy the material and customize it;

Mix – in Connexions, everyone is free to mix the material together into new books and courses;

Burn – in Connexions, everyone is free to create finished products like e-learning web courses, CD-ROMs, and even printed books.

Although Fathom was discontinued a decade ago, both Sunoikisis and Connexions remain viable.

These are but three examples of projects and programs that represent significant components in the development of online learning. MOOCs are the most recent and most heavily publicized, and are themselves evolving. Ultimately, each generation’s wave of hyped arguments promoting the disruptive nature of technological progress necessarily matures, growing from provocative visions of Apocalypse or Paradise into a more prosaic real-world application.

Today, confronted with various “flavors” of MOOC, we have the opportunity and obligation to determine exactly how they make sense for higher education, and to recognize that they are here to stay in some form. It may be that MOOCs will eventually play a broader social, economic, and cultural role than one that is higher-education-specific. Whatever the case, we in higher education must take this opportunity to examine how MOOCs might fit into the broader context of twenty-first-century higher education—an exercise requiring not that we assess MOOCs in and of themselves, but that we assess how they can be made a meaningful part of an institution’s overall strategy.

Recommended Readings     

Azevedo, Alisha. “In Colleges’ Rush to Try MOOC’s, Faculty Are Not Always in the Conversation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2012, sec. Technology.

“Columbia Digital — Fathom Disseminates Knowledge from Columbia and Other Members of the Fathom Consortium to a Global Audience.” Columbia Digital. Accessed April 9, 2013.

“Connexions – Sharing Knowledge and Building Communities.” Accessed April 9, 2013.

Davidson, Cathy. “If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Ed, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and We Won’t Like It).” HASTAC, January 13, 2013.

Engelbart, Douglas C. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework – 1962 (AUGMENT,3906,) – Doug Engelbart Institute,” October 1962.

Fain, Paul. “ACE to Assess Udacity Courses for Credit.” Inside Higher Ed, January 16, 2013.

Fain, Paul, and Ry Rivard. “California Bill to Encourage MOOC Credit at Public Colleges | Inside Higher Ed.” Inside Higher Ed, March 13, 2013.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Come the Revolution.” The New York Times, May 15, 2012, sec. Opinion.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Education Automation: Comprehensive Learning for Emergent Humanity. Edited by Jaime Snyder. 1st ed. Lars Müller Publishers, 2009.

Howard, Jennifer. “Publishers See Online Mega-Courses as Opportunity to Sell Textbooks.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 17, 2012, sec. Technology.

Lederman, Doug. “ACE Deems 5 Massive Open Courses Worthy of Credit.” Insisde Higher Ed, February 7, 2013.

———. “Online Learning Group Hears from MOOC Pioneer.” Inside Higher Ed, October 12, 2012.

Mangan, Katherine. “Gates Foundation Offers Grants for MOOC’s in Introductory Classes.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Wired Campus, September 11, 2012.

“Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).” Accessed April 6, 2013.

“MOOCs Could Hurt Smaller and For-Profit Colleges, Moody’s Report Says.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Wired Campus, September 12, 2012.

Moody’s Investors Service. “Moody’s: Massive Open Online Courses Carry Mixed Credit Implications for Higher Ed.” Accessed April 9, 2013.–PR_255083.

“Moody’s: 2013 Outlook for Entire US Higher Education Sector Changed to Negative.” Moody’s Investors Service, January 16, 2013.–PR_263866.

“Moodys_Shifting Ground- Technology Begins to Alter Centuries-Old Business Model for Universities.pdf,” n.d.

Nikias, C. L. Max. “Online Education—Hype and Reality,” August 27, 2012.

Rivard, Ry. “California Academic Leaders Oppose Outsourcing Plan.” Inside Higher Ed, March 28, 2013.

Young, Jeffrey R. “A Conversation With Bill Gates About the Future of Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 25, 2012, sec. Technology.

———. “At Conference, Leaders of ‘Traditional’ Online Learning Meet Upstart Free Providers.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Wired Campus, October 11, 2012.

———. Bill Gates on: The Meaning of MOOC’s, 2012.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “Come the Revolution,” The New York Times, May 15, 2012, sec. Opinion,


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