Hapless MOOCs

I’m quoted today in a New York Times article on how the well-funded startups rushing to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs) are finding it hard to bring in much money, much less to turn a profit. None of their ideas so far—including licensing courses back to colleges, selling certificates of completion, or charging employers for access to students—has been a breakout success. My point is that we shouldn’t mistake the failure of MOOC business models for a failure of the MOOC educational model:

“No one’s got the model that’s going to work yet,” said James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor who specializes in computer and Internet law. “I expect all the current ventures to fail, because the expectations are too high. People think something will catch on like wildfire. But more likely, it’s maybe a decade later that somebody figures out how to do it and make money.”

I would add that it is possible that MOOCs will upend higher education even as no one makes much money offering them. Amazon is currently sucking lots of money out of the retail industry; that money doesn’t end up in Amazon’s coffers, it simply stays in consumers’ pockets. Online education could do to universities what Wikipedia did to encyclopedias, or what open source has done to many parts of the software industry, or what amateur shutterbugs are currently in the process of doing to professional stock photography. The prospect should both excite and terrify anyone who works in higher education.

I find it hard to believe that most non-lecture courses can be given free, because they require considerable specialized work on the part of the professor. For example, all those history seminars I took that consisted of detailed analysis of a handful of texts on one topic, with the professor patiently spending every class training the 20 or 30 students in the techniques of analysis, then closely reading the several 10- to 20-page papers every student had to submit during the course. In fact, all the social science and English courses I took not only required every student to submit a number of long papers, the professor had to read them.

In other words, you can certainly can a lecture, and some of my instructors had certainly delivered the same ones many times. But reading papers and doing significant personal interaction—not just students helping each other with their homework on a forum—is another story.

Aside from the personal interaction given in university courses, the other issue is credibility of the degree or certification of completion of the course. Forget about canned lectures: Many university professors have written excellent books on their areas of expertise, and that has been so for a very long time. Anyone can read the full set of books assigned for most university courses at a much lower cost than university tuition.

Anyone can set up an online or brick-and-mortar forum for in-depth, serious discussion with others on any academic or scientific topic. In fact, many people have set up serious online discussion forums for various sciences. There is no reason why no one could set up a forum, online or offline, where 20 or 30 people set themselves the same “course” as in a university, reading the course material in a structured way, writing papers on schedule, and commenting on each others’ work. This would provide the structure, the schedule and discipline, that many people want from a course as opposed to self-reading. Furthermore, they would learn a lot, though probably less than with guidance from a professor who has superior knowledge and who has guided students through this process many times.

And laudable and useful as self-teaching is, it has very seldom taken the place of a formal university degree for job seekers. Furthermore, a degree from certain prestigious universities is worth more in salary and career terms than a degree from many perfectly competent state universities.

This certainly argues that the work world feels supervised education is more valuable than self-education. I think the personal teaching aspect is very important, but there is also the fact that some students cheat on their exams, have others write their term papers, and other deceits. Their goal is the degree, not learning. I would argue that the opportunities for online cheating are greater, which would cast the online course process in doubt even for honest and hard-working students.

And again, as for the “revolution,” you can probably buy excellent academic books on those subjects already. It’s not like the knowledge has been locked up.