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Stubborn Problem with MOOCs

June 05, 2013

Kevin Carey has a great new piece on his experience taking a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). If you have any interest in blended learning, online education, and higher education policy, I would consider this a must read.

He carefully addresses many of the common concerns to online only course work. Can it be truly rigorous? Yes. Do you lose the “magic” of taking a big lecture course in person? Maybe, but there’s more magic in pressing pause and rewind on a video. Can you assess 40,000 students in a rigorous way? Yes.

Carey concludes that the cost of attending an institute of higher education, and of paying so many PhD instructors for lecture courses, is astronomically high considering the small value-add that arguably exists between the best online version of a course and what most professors and lecturers offer.

The implication for Carey is clear: online education done extremely well can be as effective as some university courses today, and most university courses tomorrow.

I agree that lectures in person are not better than online lectures. I also agree that intellectually stimulating conversation about content/material can happen online in forums, over video chats, using popular social networks, etc. I even agree that it is possible to do rigorous assessment in many domains 1. I am quite confident that a well-implemented MOOC could replace the typical college lecture course today on many campuses. The problem with MOOCs is not their ability to replicate the quality material aspects of a college course.

What is the Problem with MOOCs?

Carey spent 15 hours a week watching lectures, working through problem sets, and communicating with fellow students to complete the course work with satisfactory outcomes. Think about the amount of perseverance it takes to work that hard independently from a computer in your home. There is an entire world of books and webpages dedicated to helping upperclass, knowledge economy employees work productively from their home offices because while some thrive, many struggle to be productive. Professionals find they have to be careful to close their doors, set clear boundaries with family members around work hours, put on a suit and a tie like they are going into work, and not use the office for non-work activities, to name a few techniques, to ensure they are productive working remotely 2.

Non-traditional students, first-generation college students, and poor students are all likely to face challenges recreating effective work spaces. This is not a matter of bandwidth, quality computer access, or digital skills. All of these things are real challenges, but will disappear within the next decade. What’s not likely to change is the need for quiet, comfortable space to work seriously for hours on end, uninterrupted.

But these students will also miss out on another key part of what makes college an effective place for learning– you’re in a place that’s dedicated to learning surrounded by people dedicated to the same pursuit. When you see people every day who are walking into class 3 there is a sense that you are a part of a learning community. There is a pressure to succeed because you see the hard work of your peers. I truly believe that making going to class and studying a habit is greatly supported by being surrounded by that habit. Look no further than group study areas and coffee shops around universities to see tons of students, outside of their dorms and in pop up communal office. This is true even at Research I universities, even among students who do not share classes. Those students know how to use forums, social networking, instant messages and more.

I am not saying that college is about unexpected collisions of people or ideas in some nebulous way. I mean quite literally that being a good student is partly possible because you’re surrounded by students.

These supports are not irreplaceable. They do not require $50,000 a year. On this, I completely agree with Carey. But the reality is the students who will easily adapt and find substitute supports, regardless of cost, will not be the ones to use MOOCs at the start.

Community colleges are the major target with MOOCs. They are already struggling to stay low cost institutions, their faculty are generally less credentialed and have substantially less power than tenured faculty at research institutions. They also are less likely to be able to make the case that their lecture is world class. However, their students are the ones that have the most to lose.

Community college students are about to lose a critical support: the culture of being students with other students.

Academic preparation is frequently discussed when trying to predict college success, but I don’t think we should dismiss the importance of social integration. Only an extreme classist view could believe that MOOCs remove the need for social integration because the “institution” of traditional universities and colleges no longer exist. We will simply accomplish shifting the burden of a new, challenging integration to those who are already struggling.

A World of Free, Decentralized Higher Education

I am also concerned with a future where MOOCs are broadly available, very inexpensive, and degrees are not considered important. This may seem like an ideal end stage, where skill and knowledge are what is rewarded and the “gatekeepers” to traditional power have fallen.

Yet, this highly market-driven future is likely to continue to exacerbate the difference between the haves and have-nots, a decidedly poor outcome. Education markets struggle from information failures. Need more here

Proceed with Caution

I am honestly thrilled about MOOCs. I just feel more cautious about their public policy implications in the immediate term. Let’s start with rigorous experiments and lowering the costs at our most elite institutions before we decide to “solve” remedial course work and the higher education system writ large in one fell swoop.


  1. Certainly in the STEM fields. It may be more challenging to address humanities and social sciences that are heavy on writing. [return]
  2. Yes, many people think it’s crazy that folks find it challenging to work from home. I promise you, this is a real thing, mostly experience by people who have actually tried working from home. Hence, coworking and other solutions. [return]
  3. Not just your class, and not just from dorm rooms but also from cars. [return]