Blog Post

Let's Talk about MOOC (online) Education--And Also About Massively Outdated Traditional Education (MOTEs)

I get really annoyed when people tout Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOC's) as the future of higher education and the solution to all the problems of education today, from content to cost . . . and then show as emplars of MOOC's videos of talking heads, famous profs giving the same old lectures they give in their outdated face-to-face classrooms.  Really?  We think THIS is preparing students for the 21st century?  Talking heads do not equal an educational paradigm shift.   That's about as ridiculous and outmoded in its conceptions of education as turning all the interactive, collaborative, voluntary, free, open potential of the World Wide Web into the tablet form of screens, with all the apps loaded and available for purchase. Paradigm shift?  No.  That's squandering a technology, not taking advantage of its particular affordances that cannot be duplicated elsewhere in the analog, pre-digital world.


At the same time, I get equally annoyed by educators who are rushing to embrace traditional higher education when, a minute ago, they were eloquent in their  protests about everything wrong with higher education.  Now,  in the face of the MOOC challenge, some educators act as if they want to defend  everything we do within our embattled departments, our silo'd forms of learning, our ridiculous "cost center" version of grant funding of higher education, our tired forms of lecturing to hundreds of students and testing them via standardized forms of assessment (that test very little learning), and our over-paying of very expensive executives to manage our endowments (at private universities) or to cross-subsidize commercialization of our state universities, all that.  


No. You don't have to suddenly become  a reactionary to protest  the hyperbole of the MOOC.


When Mark Edmundson (whom I often admire on the virtues of liberal arts education, btw) writes in the New York Times:  "Internet courses are monologues.  True learning is a dialogue," it is clear to me that he has never taken an online course.  Lots are dialogues. Extremely effective ones. At the same time, he romanticizes a bit too much about the dialogical nature of traditional higher education.  Lots of what profs do in the classroom is so monologic as to be narcissistic.   There are bad versions of MOOCs, and bad versions of traditional education, or Massively Outdated Traditional Education (MOTEs).   We have to make distinctions. 


You can be infuriated by the erosion of the taxpayer support for higher education, its commercialization, and the profiteering, and still embrace the most inventive aspects of the most creative and humanitarian MOOCs.  Many of them do  offer educational benefits to a world of college-age, under-educated students that are desperately to learn.  That is not the only reason for MOOCs but it is one and there's no reason to deny that one, even when you protest others less altruistic in their design.    And you can do all of that and also (you really can) be informed enough to envision a better way to learn that takes advantage of the best and imagines the future of higher education as some combination of face-to-face and online education, some different alternative to the TED talk as college lecture, and that also thinks about engaged, participatory peer communities of inspired collaborative, interdisciplinary global learning.   Handwringing will never get us to that bigger, bolder, better vision.   We need to be informed, and we need to rethink higher education.  Now.   



I am not against online courses at all. In fact, I've taken half a dozen or more myself, individually, so I can see what they are like, how they work.  Some like the CMU challenge-based statistics course or Code Academy's Java course certainly do a better job of actual real learning than someone lecturing a huge lecture hall and scrawling on the blackboard with a multiple choice test at the end---an ineffective way to teach which is intolerable to real learning theorists. But the overpromising, lack of informed understanding, and just plain hyperbolic silliness (and hypocrisy, in some cases) of what some people are saying about MOOCs is astonishing.


When we just protest "online learning" and get all sanctimonious about our own face to face teaching (esp large lectures or absentee teaching, phoning it in style mechanical stuff, etc), we do our profession a disservice. Some online learning is so smart, really brilliantly researched and designed. Some stinks. Just like f2f. But we have to understand the assumptions about and behind learning, not just the historical contingencies of the particular system of higher education we happen to inhabit in 2012.   It is not just about defending our turf.   It is about understanding what we teach, why, to whom, how that has changed, and what we need to change about what we do to be urgently needed and relevant to this world.  Now.



Below, I've listed all the pieces I've done so far in a series on the @coexist Fast Company  blog.  My series is called "Changing Higher Education to Change the World."   Eventually, there will be ten or a dozen pieces and then HASTAC will be reblogging each one and crowdsourcing the best examples of people around the world who are actually making creative, imaginative, engaged, important changes already, now.   Enough handwringing.  We need constructive examples.  If we are not willing to change ourselves, we will be changed by commercialized MOOC's where the motive is profit, not learning.  But we educators need to be a lot more educated about what we do, why, how, and how we can do it better--the pedagogies of our world that have been laid aside for a long time in the march toward tenure and reputation.  


As I said in an earlier blog post (from here on, this is a reblog, for convenience of readers, to avoid links to more links):  This fall, there will be plenty of opportunity for HASTAC network members to use the Comments section not just to give feedback but to add their own pedagogical ideas, classroom tricks, insights, syllabi, programs, and other content.  The point is not just to talk about educational reform but to model it realistically, by highlighting innovative work we are already doing.  Sharing ideas about where education is already for many of us helps others to see what it needs to look like not just in the future but right now.   And helps pave the way . . .   To me, that is the key. 


  • Media expert and prognosticator Clay Shirky likes to say that "institutions tend to preserve the problems they were created to solve." 
  • Thomas Friedman has written recently that "big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary."  
  • David Theo Goldberg and I (we cofounded HASTAC together in 2002) have said, in the Future of Thinking, that "institutions are mobilizing networks. 

All three are correct.

It's hard to change institutions.   But when the possibilities for change are as strong as the need for change is desperate, change happens.   And it is those of us who are part of the institutions of higher education--as teachers, as would-be teachers, as students, as concerned parents--who are brought together by the specificities of our shared passions and who can use those points of shared commitments to mobilize towards institutional change.   I think, together, we can crowdsource the future of higher education!


Here are url's for the current pieces that have appeared as part of my "Changing Higher Education to Change the World" series on @CoExist at Fast Company: 




(1)  "Reinventing College to Prepare Us For the Future, Not the Past"College was designed to prepare students for a 20th-century economy, and it’s not catching up fast enough to the realities of the modern world. How can we overhaul the entire system?

(2) "Going From One-Size-Fits-One to One-Size-Fits-All"We need to teach students individually, and in a way that doesn’t emphasize memorizing the right answer, but more realistically reflects how we learn and succeed in the real world.

(3)  "Why Flip the Classroom When We Can Make It Do Carthweels?":  Adding some technology to the educational process is one thing, but truly revolutionary learning experiences take a deeper sort of innovation, which you can see at a program at Duke working for change in Haiti

(4)  "Can We Replace Professors With Computer Screens?"  Quite possibly, but an education just from YouTube videos would miss the true point of a college education.


(5) "A Core Curriculum to Create Engaged Entrepreneurs":    It’s time to transform the focus, mission, and rhetoric of liberal arts and combine its focus on cross-disciplinary critical thinking with real world experience. Here’s one proposal.


**How We Measure Determines What Counts and What We Value    If universities don't change their methods of assessment, the rest of education is stuck with early 20th century forms of impoverished, high-stakes, end of grade testing that misses the point of true learning and eductaion

**Webmaking as the Fourth Literacy with Mozilla Executive Director Mark Surman     Isn't it time we added "webmaking" to reading, writing, and arithmetic as a basic literacy we need now?   Require it in college and it will be part of kids' learning games from preschool on--and it has the added advantage of helping with the lack of women and minorities in the high-tech world and erases the "two cultures" problem: webmaking is creative, fun, empowering!

**Why Does Higher Ed Cost So Much--And What Do We Want to Do About it?    An attempt to unravel the different ways educational expenses are rising in the public and private sector and what we, as individuals, a society, and as educators, want and need to do about it.

**Conclusion:  How Does Changing Higher Ed Change the World?:  Where Do We Go From Here?




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, .  

The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 :




First, they are a renewal of the "correspondence course" boom of the 1930's (not coincidentally another cost-saving tactic) where many, many of the high prestige colleges started offering what later became "extension courses" and even degrees. The hidden secret at Harvard (beyond their role in the Massachusetts constitution as the first state college in the country) is still Harvard Extension, where, if you can breathe, pay enough, and/or stay long enough you can get a Harvard degree. That's one of many residues of a movement that offered paper correspondence courses to thousands of pre-WW II students in lieu of on-campus residency. For many post-secondaries this isn't different enough to require a new administrative mechanism.

Second, and this is probably more profound, there is no application form, and so there is no barrier whatsoever to high school enrollment on a large scale, and high school early-college enrollment for at least high school credit, and probably negotiated Advanced Placement or its equivalent, depending on what a student submits. It is hard to imagine a high school denying credit to a decent grade from a high prestige college course, just as it's not very reasonable for a college to demand redundant coursework later.

What I think is more interesting is that none of the higher ed proponents seem to have recognized this. They presume, quite presumptuously (not to say redundantly), that students won't succeed without "all the prerequisites." Well, there aren't any formal pre-requisites, and a bright student, with a decent high school or college mentor, could "catch up" to or with most MOOC's if they really wanted to. And, with tactics like Comcast's cheap internet access for low income students, itself a result of Comcast's acquistion of NBC, virtually any student with any ingenuity could enroll, manipulate, and negotiate participation. If that participation is successful, they could negotiate credit. Even if it produced only partial success, they could probably negotiate some "common core" equivalents.

That colleges only speak to themselves is - or should be - embarrassing to any serious educator, since sequence is not sacrosanct. Places like Olin College abolished pre-requisites at their foundation, and readily acknowledge entry skills as "a jump ahead." When postsecondary presumes that only college students or "adults" have interest, skill, or energy to jump hurdles no longer bound by residency, they are remarkably vulnerable to a smart 12 year old or manipulative 68 year old. What fools they make themselves.


Joe, you are totally correct about the long history of extension courses.   I've seen penmanship ("fine hand") correspondence books, sent by mail and even by Pony Express in the U.S.) that go back to the early 18th century.  And, like MOOC's today, require no prerequisites.   This year, as I have traveled around lecturing on new forms of interactive learning, I've made a habit of taking everything from Moonwalking to Human Computer Interaction, with nary a pre-requisite in any case.   That's the beauty of it all.   If it replicates the crazy system of pre-requisites, majors, minors, and all the silos of current education, the MOOC is pretty silly.   And, indeed, some of the MOOC's really are pretty silly---talking heads saying what they've been saying anyway, but now doing it on line.  By contrast, the best use challenging new learning methods that are enlightening and exciting.  The naysaying by people who know nothing about the topic is as embarrassing to me as the hype (often also by people who know nothing about the topic).   Thanks for your informed contribution.   It's valuable.



Anonymous (not verified)

Many institutions have developed a online education program. The problem is that many employers do not trust a online degree as much as a normal one. I have followed a masters degree online and it happened to me at a employer even if I was better he picked someone with a normal degree.