Blog Post

Clearing Up Some Myths About MOOCs

There are so many myths out there about MOOCs that I decided to teach one in Winter/Spring 2014.   I've been an advocate of open, peer-to-peer, collaborative online and face-to-face learning, research, and resource-sharing for a long time.  HASTAC is dedicated to this project.   Please note, world:  MOOCs are not open, not  peer-to-peer learning.   There is a huge difference between a "collaboratory," where (according to HASTAC's mottos, we are "learning the future together" and where "difference is our operating system, not our deficit"), and a MOOC where a handful of professors at very elite schools lecture from a computer screen to tens of thousands of students.    So that's why I decided to teach a MOOC of my own:   because my knee jerk response is critical and negative. . . and I am always self-critical knee-jerk responses (especially my own).

We're doing a Coursera-Duke-based MOOC on "The History and Future of Higher Education."  And we are documenting everything: all the questions we ask, answers we have and don't have, all our time, all our expenditures, everyone who is helping us, everything. I want to be informed before I pronounce (imagine that!) and will try to communicate what I learn as I learn. I'm hoping in the process that I'll learn not only about the mechanics, costs, posibilities, and limits of MOOCs but also gain some interesting insights about learning and teaching that I might also pass on. 

I am also hoping that my MOOC on "The History and Future of Higher Education" will be a bit "meta."  A MOOC about MOOCs and instilling the principles of open learning and creating a world-wide forum on behalf of (a) increased and restored funding for public higher education and, simultaneously, (b) a clarion call to rethink the possibilities, forms, apparatus, assessment, silos, and the mission of higher education---all of which have been inherited from the Taylorist Industrial Age and are not well suited to the requirements of educating us for the current social, financial, and professional arrangements that have been radically changed since April 22, 1993 and the opening of the Internet and the World Wide Web to a general public.

My MOOC will focus some on the financial and other arrangements of MOOCs but will mostly be about pedagogy.  However, side-by-side with this MOOC, the HASTAC alliance is supporting a series of face-to-face and ad hoc classes, workshops, conferences, and events on any aspect of "the history and/or the future of higher education" and the business and legal arrangements of commercial, corporate MOOC enterprises such as Coursera's will be part of the research and critical thinking in all these co-located supplementary endeavors.  You can read about those here:   In the HASTAC manner, this co-located project is community-driven.  If you decide to teach a course and write a workshop, blog about it on and then we will add your name and institution and course and workshop title to the curated director.  Anyone is welcome to contribute.



The current version of the MOOC that is commanding public attention (as in the Coursera version I will be teaching) is a commercial, for-profit, hierarchical, online set of courses that students can take for free and without prererequisites so they often draw in massive numbers (hence the acronym:  Massive Online Open Courseware).  I share all the fears of so many colleagues about whether or not these corporate or even nonprofit (but heavily VC funded) MOOCs, emanating from Stanford, Harvard, and MIT and private corporations like Google, will further erode the already desperate state of underfunded public education in America.    Will professors at underfunded state universities and small liberal arts colleges all be replaced by a few dozen elite profs blabbing away from some laptop?  Are MOOCs a "game changer" for higher education that, in fact, spells "game over":  Will MOOCs destroy the financial structure of the professorate and the very fiber of learning---all that is interactive, immediate, human, loving, and great about learning? That's a short form list of many of the MOOC fears.  

The flipside or positive view about MOOCs tends to center on students, the digital divide, and access.  We now have an appallingly exclusionary system of higher education  worldwide, where only a tiny fraction of those who need some form of advanced learning have access to actual, formal higher education.  There are 450,000 students on the waiting list for California community colleges right now.  The average GPA of a student entering UC Irvine this fall is 4.1 on a 4.0 scale.  Only the top 2% of the tiny fraction of students allowed to take the entrance exams to South Asian technical colleges get in.   MOOCs may (or may not) help this crisis but the terrible worldwide problem of access is the expressed motivation many give for wanting to teach these courses.  I love being able to offer training, skills, and even education to massive numbers of people who may otherwise be excluded or have no access at all to formal education.  Half the world's population is under 25 and, by John Seely Brown's estimate, there are about 50-100 million qualified students worldwide who clamor for and cannot have access to education.  

But are MOOCs the answer?  Really? Is this the only pedagogy that can reach massive numbers of students otherwise excluded by wealth, location, jobs, other duties, prerequisites, age, disability and other other factors that impede taking actual, traditional courses?   I really do not like hierarchical, top-down silo'ed and centralized face-to-face teaching---the so called Sage on the Stage model--so why in the world would I like that model automated, the Doc on the Laptop?    

My knee-jerk reaction to these kinds of MOOCs is critical, cautious, even condemnatory.   Whenever I find myself having a knee-jerk reaction, especially on a subject I care about, I like to get first-hand information. 


I know it's a bit George Plimpton-esque, but I learn by doing . . . so here's an account of what I've learned about the MOOC myths from what I've done and learned first hand.  I don't know what of these things is true beyond my experience but the point of first-hand experience is to counter myths with at least some substance and reality, however limited.




I began by taking a bunch of MOOCs and quickly discovered the very wide range of types and quality.  I rarely make it past a few weeks in a MOOC, even the ones I love, because, well, life intervenes and I have other priorities.  

Myth #1:  MOOCS have a horrendous dropout rate.  True, in most (not all) cases.   And the problem?   When I now read that 90% of people drop out of MOOCs, I have to think, well, they may have a life too and probably their life intervened and they had other priorities.   I took about 20 lessons of the web programming (basically HTML 5) class I took with Udacity and really enjoyed it.   Do I know HTML 5 now?  Not on your life--I haven't programmed anything with it since I stopped the course.  But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and know a lot more about how it works.  I was also very impressed by the CMU statistics course that several colleagues take to supplement the pretty poor face-to-face teaching of some statistics profs.   Like my Udacity HTML5 class, it gave me problems to solve and my right or wrong answer generated another problem, geared to either take me forward (if I did it right) or to go back to something a little more easy and exemplary.  It even changed the kind of challenges it gave me based on the ways that it could tell I was learning and even informed me of patterns I wasn't aware of myself (i.e. I learn better when I try to solve a problem, then get an explanation, than if the explanation about what I did wrong comes).   Also, in cases where the MOOC is accompanied by real attention to student response, real human feedback and interaction, and the whole tradition of peer-to-peer learning, including real-presence study groups, the completion rate goes way up.   Let's hear another one for open peer-learning!    (It is my wish, of course, that the version of online learning is free, open, nonprofit, and peer-to-peer, plus hybrid and community-based... but anyone who reads HASTAC knows that.  The whole point of this exercise is to try to find out what I don't already know, not to reinforce my deepest convictions.... )

Myth #2:   MOOCs make for terrible pedagogy.   Sometimes, they are terrible.  I've taken some ridiculously bad MOOCs ("taken" is not quite the right word; I dropped out before the first lesson ended.)   But in some cases, especially certain kinds of problem-based work, they may offer a more successful model than the prof with chalk at the blackboard (the "technology," by the way, that caused Yale students to riot--literally--and be expelled for their protest when blackboards were introduced as a technology in Yale classrooms in the 1830s).   I found some of my problem-based coding and statistics MOOCs offered me a pretty granular level of knowledge about myself and my own learning patterns.  Most of us do not know that much about our students even teaching a seminar, let alone 300 students in a lecture.  I didn't know it about myself.



I love the medical school adage, "See one. Do one. Teach one."   So, as a pedagogy, when Dan Ariely and I taught "Surprise Endings:  Social Science and Literature" to thirty students last year, we had them turn the course material into a MOOC of their own.   They worked in teams, designed assignments for the rest of us, peer-graded, and then turned their unit into a final project that anyone could learn from.  This summer, Malina Chavez, an MFA student here, is redesigning our site from an inward-looking Duke course site into a public site, but, even before then, you can view their final projects here:   

Myth #3:  Students require rigorous, expert top-down control and teaching.  Nah, I gave up that myth long ago.  My students give harder and longer assignments when they are in charge, and more creative ones, and are tougher on one another, and do better work.  (There's lots of research, actually, that peers perform better when peers judge than when teachers do, retain better, etc etc.)  Plus I learned a lot.  I will forever be grateful for the group who worked on obedience, evil, and resistance and assigned us to read not only the sixteen experiments that Milgram did (the one where students blindly follow totalitarian leadership and pull a lever that, if it were real, would do permanent damage to their "captive"), but the fifteen leading up to it that show human resistance, rebellion, independence, and morality.  In their hands, the topic became "why do we tell stories of those who succumb, not those who disobey? how can we tell better stories?"  



Here's what I have learned so far from agreeing to teach a MOOC of My Own in Winter/Spring 2014.

Myth #4:  Elite profs are agreeing to teach these MOOCs because they are making huge sums of money, tens of thousands of dollars.   I don't know what arrangements are at other universities, but, for teaching this six-week Duke-based course on "The History and Future of Higher Education," I receive a stipend of $10,000 dollars, none of which will come into my own pocket. Literally.   A colleague who taught one last year received a $20,000 payment and used all of it on teaching assistants, technical assistants, and equipment.  Similary, I am using 100% of my 10K stipend to support the time of some of my HASTAC colleagues who are helping me mount this extremely complex enterprise, plus permissions for copyrighted material, some equipment, travel to film segments and conduct interviews, and many other costs, and I'm told Duke is paying for more support help this year than last (which is why I'm getting 50% less) but it's still not a way any prof should be moonlighting.  In fact, it is ridiculous to think of this as a way anyone would feather one's nest! And talking to other MOOC profs, this is not untypical.  I've not yet met anyone who has received anything like adequate or even ordinary (compared to f2f teaching, even as a badly paid adjunct) compensation for their time.  I am less worried than I used to be about this kind of MOOC replacing actual college professors in their actual jobs.  So far as I can see so far (and I'm looking skeptically), this could supplement and add on to what a university does; it could augment what it does not have the funds or staff to do; in a consortial model it could allow universities to exchange expertise in highly specialized areas where they lack it and have never been able to offer a full array of courses (lesser taught languages, very advanced mathematics, etc), but it won't replace the core.  It can't.  At this point, I am pretty sure that, as a replacement for core educational costs (even when designed from the most cynical central administrator's point of view) MOOCS do not offer a sustainable business model. 

Myth #5:   It takes about 150 hours of back-end preparation for every one hour of a MOOC.   This is turning out to be true.   The storyboarding, the permissions, the questions, the queries, are insanely labor intensive.   There is no way I could even do this without the brilliance of my HASTAC associate Kaysi Holman, who has the ability to wrangle million of bits of complex information into comprehensible plans (she made and printed out one index card for every minute of the six hours of screen time of this MOOC and we are filling in every card.)  She is also trained as a lawyer and knows how to wield a video camera.  No summer vacations for us!   We work together on this MOOC every second we are not doing our regular work on our grants, projects, etc. No writing for me this summer either!  This is a major, major commitment.   I do not know how to use ScreenFlow video editing equipment, for example, and video editing is extremely laborious.  And during the six weeks the course itself will run, I've been told I will be online in the discussion Forums probably eighteen hours a day---and I might need five or six or a dozen TAs or other apprentice teachers there too.   Really.   When people are fearful that MOOCs will replace college teachers everywhere, I am, at this point, skeptical.  How many profs are crazy enough to do this?  And the hard part--teaching the course itself next Winter--hasn't even begun yet!  If I didn't have a professioinal interest in the process, as well as a conviction about how important it is to offer alternative methods of learning given how exclusionary education is now, there is no way I'd do this for free!    How many professors would? 

Myth #6: You cannot teach the humanities and interpretive social sciences, or anything dialogic, imaginative, discursive with a Coursera-type top down MOOC.   I thought so too.   In fact, this weekend, the Los Angeles Time Book Review will publish a debate with four of us about MOOCs and I say something brilliant like "we don't yet have a good method for teaching the humanities and interpretive social sciences with a MOOC."   I don't want to spoil the suspense of our debate but, let's say, two of my co-debaters exploded that myth to heck.   You'll be able to read about it this week but,well, I'll make this sure:  after reading Round 1 of the debate in order to get on the boxing gloves for Round 2, I was so impressed by Penn professor and poet Al Filreis's Modern Poetry MOOC that I signed up to take it this Fall.   You can teach a great online MOOC, even with all of the technological impediments the Coursera platform offers, to 45,000 students worldwide.  He's been teaching an online version of his course since 1994!   Here's his video on the subject:


Myth #7:  Anyone can teach a MOOC.  Not.   After a conversation about Al about his course, I realized that, for all my aspirations, I have a lot to learn.  My bar just got reset about ten feet higher.  Back to the storyboarding . . .


Lots of questions and myths still remain (Kaysi and I have several pages of them), including the very confusing and changing area of "intellectual property" and who owns what and for what purpose. I also have no more clarity than I began with about how Coursera itself will sustain itself, whether this is a boom business that will be sold, like Instagram, for a cool billion . . . or if the bubble will burst and this will be one of those silly episodes in the history of technology (like the ridiculous "advanced math" class I took in 6th grade with other math geeks in Chicago, huddled around a tv in a windowless classroom while some Famous Math Prof circled above us in a small plane lecturing us on pre-calculus.  Really.  It was stupid then. And quickly the experiment failed.  Are MOOCs like the circling Piper Cub?  We shall see and we shall see. . .    I'll write subsequent posts as the mists surrounding these and other myths clear . . . if ever they do. )


Myth #8:  MOOCs exploit faculty.  I've already said I fear this on a general level. I don't like the implications, the assumptions.  Not at all.  Since this blog is about my personal first-hand experiences, I will say I am underpaid as a Coursera teacher and I'm often dismayed by the "start up" mentality where everyone at Coursera is making it up on the fly.  I'm daunted by the amount of work (it's basically like writing another book, I think), and, having said all that, I also have to say:   I. Am. Having. A. Blast.    I love teaching.  I love challenges.   I love working with my amazing team.  And, as frustrating as start-up mentalities and expediencies can be, it is also fun to be trying something new, experimenting, seeing if it has any value, any lessons that might be applied in more typical situations--or not.  I don't know yet, and that's the fun, after decades of teaching.   And I think we're going to be creating a pretty fabulous educational experience for tens of thousands of students and, given that we're also doing a series of face-to-face co-located courses and events, I hope we will even be able to create a national conversation, with urgency and importance, about society's  need to re-invest in public education.  


Investing in public education is the single best investment in all our futures that any of us can make, and we're hoping this course and this movement (see: will help.  It would be pretty cool if the Massive number of students in this Online Course could be galvanized as a force to articulate the urgency of reinvesting in higher education.  That will be the final exam. 


And that passionate mission is my personal myth motivating this effort.


I hope this has been helpful.  If anyone else has first hand experience teaching a MOOC, and has other myths to elucidate or dispel, please use the Comments section below to help us all understand this better.  Or if you have ideas you would like to share (whether you've done a MOOC, open source peer-to-peer teaching, or not), please let us know.   I am happy to say that I just found out I'll be able to Creative Commons license everything in the Coursera course so, if nothing else, there will be plenty to share when this is all over.   And that, after all, is the point!





Cathy- Thanks for the thoughts around being a participant and as someone preparing to teach a MOOC.  I was excited to see mention of MOOCs not being open or [involving] peer-to-peer learning, but was a bit disappointed by what followed.

The widely understood meaning of the "MOOC" acronym is Massive Open Online Course, not Massive Open Online Courseware, as you have stated.  See the Wikipedia entry here:  Current offerings from the big MOOC providers is very much a widely-broadcasted distance course, and only vaguely resembles the original cMOOCs, which were significantly more "open" than the current xMOOC offerings.  What value is there in pointing out the lack of openness in current (popular) MOOCs, but then leave out explaining what features of "open" would make them moreso? And to top it off, then go on to to talk about (advertise?) your own upcoming MOOC being delivered on one of the MOOC platforms that allows for essentially no student/participant reuse of course content? 

The facts and figures you shared are staggering, and represent a need for access to education opportunities for many many people.  Still, I'm baffled by your choice of MOOC platform and lack of concern about creating educational content that is truly open.  Assuming you (or your department) will own rights to the content you're creating for your "History and Future of Higher Education," would you be willing to openly license it so that it can be reused, built-upon, and shared as an Open Educational Resource? If so, others would be able to borrow your content and expertise, sharing valuable educational content with others.  Now, that would be open. No?

Looking forward to your reply.


Disclaimer: I work for Creative Commons, but these views and opinions are my own.



Hi Billy, I've been doing open peer to peer everything for way over a decade.  I'm doing this precisely because it is NOT what I believe in and I want first-hand experience of pluses and minuses because there are so many myths out there.   That's the whole point of this blog.   Continuous with this Coursera enterprise, I'm teaching courses that will be open and online and coordinated with many others, open on Wordpress.  I'm not losing the faith, but making my self informed so I can be an even better advocate for open education, for reinvestment into education, and many other things I hold dear.   Best, Cathy


Hi Billy, I've been doing open peer to peer everything for way over a decade.  I'm doing this precisely because it is NOT what I believe in and I want first-hand experience of pluses and minuses because there are so many myths out there.   That's the whole point of this blog.   Continuous with this Coursera enterprise, I'm teaching courses that will be open and online and coordinated with many others, open on Wordpress.  I'm not losing the faith, but making my self informed so I can be an even better advocate for open education, for reinvestment into education, and many other things I hold dear.   Best, Cathy


I think the introduction of MOOCs is going to be great for the community, however, I see them as a supplement to higher education – not a replacement. The open courses (although run by some Ivy League and world class institutions) are not reproduction of the universities original course and do not offer academic credit or recognisable qualification. I think they will be around in the long-term future, but see their primary function being as a means of self-development.


Thanks for putting this out there. I am writing here bec in your blog you wanted comments from people who've done MOOCs or have other myths or such. I don't, but I wanted to register some thoughts: In general I think we are in the middle of something that is changing pretty rapidly. I think looking back we will see our comments as snapshots of a fast-moving train. The drop-out rate may change a lot depending on if students become acclimatized to online in this format. The pedagogy will also both diversify and then reconsolidate around workable and popular formats. Students do not need top-down management but for many of the kinds of courses I teach they benefit from both expert and non-expert criticism and guidance. It is most often the teacher who needs to guide discussion after a point, and press students beyond what they have arrived at thus far. Right now the incentives are not there for profs to do this, but who knows what will happen in hard or soft ways? That is why it is critical to have these discussions and debates. What Stanford is mostly concerned about is both growing the brand name and also quality control, protecting the brand. But we are in a privileged position. As is Duke. The real issue for me (and you) is the effects this has on non-elites, and public universities, and, more broadly, education at all levels, and, fundamentally, public attitudes toward education, democracy, public good. As MOOC-speak loves globality, we need to be conscious about how MOOCs may help, but also how local national elites can betray that promise. MOOCs are, after all, no matter what the myth, looped into transnational systems. And the profits and costs will pop up as more and more middlemen and "consultants" take their chunk. That is way we need a serious best-practices doc, and oversight system. The problem is that in this neoliberal age, our governments have no interest in that. And corporate universities don't either. That is why it's important to organize activism globally, which I hope our course can do in a very modest, inaugural way.


Thanks for a great post and for raising these issues.  One of the issues, as David Palumbo-Liu says, is "the effects this has on non-elites, and public universities, and, more broadly, education at all levels." The concern that's often raised is not so much how professors at all universities will teach MOOCs--clearly, not all universities can afford it--as it is the issue of how MOOCs from other universities might be used to supplant existing courses.  I'm glad that you raised this in your image of the "circling Piper cub" and look forward to hearing more.


Thanks so much for posting this, David.   Yes, I am hoping that our co-located course will consolidate and energize a lot of us to think about what comes next, in a far less hierarchical and centralized way than the MOOCs.  


I am also hoping that my Coursera course itself inspires the people taking it to think deeply about the meaning and importance of higher education, of all education, in a way that they can be informed activists too.    We're playing with having each of the assignments take a variation on the old medical school training practice:   See one.   Do one.  Teach one.     And we'll add Share one.     That is, instead of passively watching the videos and reading the assigned readings, the assignment each week will be to take some idea and actually turn it into a practice in one's own informal or formal teaching/learning, teach someone else what you have done so they can do it, and then return to the Coursera homework space to share what you've done in the world.    So, for one of the lessons, we're focusing on reinvesting in higher education----and some kind of citizen activism will be part of the See one. Do one. Teach one. Share one.    


Who knows what will come of this but, if we don't experiment, who will?   I think we know the answer! 


Thanks so much for posting and for being part of this huge and complicated and, hopefully, powerful and inspiring project.


I've designed and am teaching a MOOC, too: "Interactive 3D Graphics", through Udacity.

With the bits I know of the process, I can confirm some of your myth busting. I've written about my experiences on my blog (usually about computer graphics): find them here.

I utterly agree about the "but only 10% finish" myth, and write at length about this here. Short version: people haven't laid down money, so it's easy to drop out since there's no compulsion to "get their money's worth". I consider this time for MOOCs a golden age, in the sense that every student participating is there to learn what I can teach them. They're not there because they need 3 more credits towards their minor or any similar reason - how many professors ever have an undergrad class full of students so motivated?

The two bits that particularly ring true for me are your words:

it's basically like writing another book

My thoughts exactly. I wrote a script for every lesson, and for what I'd consider a 10 week course the page count reached 850 8.5" x 11" pages. Admittedly, lots of figures, since something should always be put on the screen (Udacity requires this - they don't use the "talking head and powerpoint slides" approach I've seen in some courses). But, it's definitely a book. And it's all downloadable for free, along with the YouTube videos (so that students in countries that block YouTube can get the lessons), source code, etc.

 I. Am. Having. A. Blast. 

Massive agreement. I've wanted to write an introductory text to the field, having already coauthored a more advanced one. Say I reach "only" 2400 out of the 24,000 people who signed up for the course. That's more than I'd reach in a few decades of teaching, and all of those students are there because they want to learn. 71% of the students are outside the United States; it's extremely fulfilling to get emails from students saying they could not have learned this material in their own country.


Thanks for this.  I very much look forward to reading your blog.   I'm very excited.   I have lots of scepticsm about corporate, for-profit education . . .  but all my anecdotal evidence suggests that this Coursera MOOC form is not replacing publicly funded state US education but extends what we do as educators to a whole new audience that is typically not college age, often has no prerequisites, is international, and includes many with disabilities or other impediments to taking face-to-face college classes (full time work, full time families, no transportation or child care, or physical or cognitive disability).    


The university administrators (that means you, Trustees of University of Virginia) who foolishly thought MOOCs would cut the cost of education at their university overnight were just falling into the same silly kind of "techno-Utopia" that pervades the rest of society (including, in reverse, faculty who are totally convinced that these MOOCs will be taking their jobs and that of their students).    There are reasons to worry.  The agreements are changing overnight.   But these courses are not competition for our major face to face universities.   On the other hand, they SHOULD be goads to all of us to think about new possibilties for teaching and learning.    


And I admit, as someone who has always spent a lot of time thinking about how I teach and not just what I teach, I'm  loving this.  I'm documenting it and plan to have my face-to-face students study it from every imaginable angle (researching the course from every angle).   But what a thrill for a teacher to have such an opportunity to reach a different kind of student and to see how they interact with one another.  


As I've said, if 90% drop out, that's fine.   I look at my bookshelves and realize I've only read about 10% of what is there.   Why would taking a class be any different.   And my publisher, Viking Penguin, is letting 50,000 PDF's of my book be available to Coursera registrants for free.   That is pretty generous and great.   I'm thrilled.