Blog Post

Are MOOCs Really the Worst Threat to the Future of Universities?

MOOCs are the video games of 2013.   Everyone is talking about them, there's a lot of hysteria and a lot of nonsense surrounding them.  (Remember back when "Grand Theft Auto" was the end of civilization as we knew it?).  Pundits and media analysts are having a hyperbolic field day over MOOCs.  Nervous administrators are making rash decisions and excited VCs are making huge investments without evidence that MOOCs are an effective way either (1) to educate students or (2)  to save costs--or, for that matter,  (3) to make a quick return on your investments.  

Over and over, MOOC Mania is swamping lessons learned over the last decades from all the other kinds and forms of creative, interactive online learning, distance  education, continuing education, and open peer-to-peer learning.  Faculty are freaking out because suddenly MOOCs are the only thing anyone seems to be talking about.  It's a takeover! The zombie apocalypse comes to academe!  The problem is that, as with the video game hysteria, all the excitement over MOOCs distracts us from the seriousness and the range of problems and exciting possibilities for open, online, and classroom learning that deserve our serious attention as well as the serious problems facing a society that is under-funding public education.

Too much hype, too much overgeneralization:  So, for my own satisfaction and that of anyone who wants to play with me, I’m teaching a MOOC of my own beginning in January 2014 on "The History and Future of Higher Education" in which MOOCs are one of the subjects we'll be discussing.  Further, many of us around the world are planning face-to-face courses, workshops, seminars and events on some version of that same topic in order to offer as many possibilities for critical thinking about education today and to posit some creative contributions to the store of ideas about MOOCs.   My own face-to-face students will  be studying what is happening in the Coursera MOOC and participating in the global forums. 

In addition, a team of face-to-face doctoral students and faculty members will be doing research on the MOOC and on the face-to-face co-located offerings (students, costs, labor, numbers, learning outcomes, assessment methods, responses, feedback, interaction, and the overall impact of the MOOC on the institutional structure of the universities: do they replace, substitute, duplicate, extend, undermine, or reinforce what happens at the universities that offer them? are they a serious threat to present and future professors or something else?).  We don't know the answers.  We don't know what we will find out from our research but that is the difference between research and punditry:  we will be studying and posing questions and not simply reacting (and over-reacting).   [If you want to know more about this project, you can read about it here:  and here:  ]


Here’s what I believe to be true so far in my initial wading into MOOC waters.


1.  MOOCs are not the real threat to the future of higher education:

·      Whose labor? Figures we’ve seen that it takes about 150 hours of work to prepare 1 Week’s Coursera lessons are holding true for us as well.   Coursera’s model is elite profs at elite universities teaching the masses.  How many of those profs really are going to spend 150 hours shooting video from a DIY webcam?  Really?  It’s taking as much time to do this course as it would to write another book.  How many profs will choose the course over the book?  Really. Think about it.

·     What pedagogy?  To be responsible as a teacher, you have to interact with the students. I am told it will take even more time (uncompensated, by the way) once the course is actually running if we do a responsible job and actually respond to the students who participate in the Forums and so forth.  This is not a viable labor model and it doesn’t get faster in the future.  See first bullet point above.  This is not the model that will put public universities and small private colleges out of business and steal jobs from current and future professors.

·     How much does it really cost?  It costs a lot.  Perhaps even too much to be attractive to VC’s in the long run if all those VC's want is a quick return on investment rather than a serious investment in quality higher education.  It’s not clear how some of the models are even a sustainable business model.  Quality online education is not free.  Chris Newfield is asking questions based on the Udacity contract with Georgia State and, whether his figures or Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun's turn out to be more accurate, it is clear that online education is not as free as people once thought it would be.  Having run the peer-to-peer online network for a decade, we know that online interactivity does not run by itself but requires labor, hardware, human and physical resources and is anything but "free."  It is not clear that the current models of MOOCs will offer sustainable, alternative, massively free education that is a replacement to f2f education or if it will offer some other kind of relearning enhancements to a very different audience than is currently served by higher education. 

  • Magical thinking:  We need to stop seeing MOOCs as the "silver bullet" that will solve the very real problem of escalating costs and diminishing public support and the worldwide educational shortage and think about what MOOCs can and do offer.  We need to get past the ridiculous panic, such as that last summer by the UVA trustees, and think about where, when, why, how, and how much MOOCs offer to the tool kit of distance education and who should be offering it.  The new Big Ten + U of Chicago Consortium--non-profit--might be a good model for those students; what is a good model for addressing the education shortage worldwide?  .

·      Which students?  The audience for Coursera-style MOOCs is not the traditional college audience nor the traditional “returning student” model.  From what I’ve seen so far from others and from the research, 70-75% of MOOC students would not take any kind of standard college course for reasons of cost, time, schedule, location, mobility, access, ability/disability, prerequisites, prior degrees. 


2.  Here’s an array of factors that pose more significant and extensive threats to the future of higher education:


External threats:


  • Neoliberalism's determination to shrink the middle class.  If you want a society of the so-called 1% (more like .5%), a shrunken middle class, and a large lower class, education will shrink as will the long-standing conviction that education is the ladder into the middle-class. This is a social tragedy.
  • The concomittant focus on de-funding public education (K-22) is a real and significant threat to the future of the university globally.  It represents an appalling social disregard for the productive future, not only of youth, but of the elderly whose increasingly long retirements will be sustained by a prosperous workforce.
  • The techno-cratic (and neoliberal again) conviction that corporate interests will make up the gap left by public funding by delivering education more efficiently, with more innovation, and less overhead than universities (public or private) can do.  (Really--I've not heard of many former CEOs who come to head up universities at a reduced salary or whose tenure as university president reduces either tuition costs or overall operating costs.  There may be some but I've not heard of any.) The global financial collapse of 2008 and continuing shaky state of the economy should have made us more skeptical that corporate solutions are the best solutions.  But it hasn't.  Administrators and trustees are as prone as the general public to believe that corporations deliver services more efficiently and inexpensively than governments.  So far, the jury is out, but unbridled faith in for-profit education still seems high (witness Moody's recent decision to extend more credit to universities with MOOCs than to those without MOOCs).
  • The over-reliance on STEM, without stressing the importance of the humanities and social science in contributing to our understanding of an era of extreme and rapid change (including the lessons of history, the powerful analyses offered by artists and writers and filmmakers to our ability to understand our world and its many cultures and social forms).  This division of knowledge into STEM and non-STEM subject matter is an archaic aspect being promoted by policy makers, a carry-over from an older silo'd knowledge-structure (see below).


Internal threats:

  • The intransigence of university administrators and professors in rethinking the system and apparatus and assumptions of education inherited from the Industrial Age for this era is a real and significant threat.
  • Archaic institutions that fight for the status quo do not ensure their own future success.

o   Silo’d, discrete, disciplinary divisions of knowledge (going back to Diderot and institutionalized by the founding of the post-Humboldtian research university) does not map onto current ways of working or living in the world.  (NB: is a “web developer” someone with a degree in computer science or design or cognitive psychology?  Is an “event planner” a website designer?  Is an art and art history prof a webmaster? Is a geneticist trained in ethics?  You name a field today and it is likely multidisciplinary.)

o   Many fields—from Computer Science to English—act as if the Internet hasn’t been invented yet.  Many CS departments consider web-based programming (HTML, HTML 5, Javascript, or Content Management Systems such as Drupal) irrelevant to their students.  Many English Departments take no responsibility for the everyday reading and writing of their students online (who is teaching privacy, security, identity, IP, and other “digital literacies” in an era of everyday self-publishing)?


  • The bloated administrative costs of running universities today is a real and significant threat to the future.  

o   Former corporate and government officials serving as top university administrators with very large salaries has forced all universities to compete by redistributing resources to the top, without evidence that this corporate recruitment trend has proven beneficial to universities. Has anyone done a study of the operating budgets and tuition costs of those universities with former CEO's in charge versus those run by academics?

o   But it is not just CEO salaries--it’s also the cost of running innovative new programs that are relevant to students’ future lives while also sustaining the traditional silo’d disciplines. 

o   Parallel administrative structures are costly.

·       The investment of huge research universities in enormous research facilities partially funded by corporate, federal, and state grants with indirect costs coming back to central administration may have been cost-effective in the 1990s but the rapid withdrawal of funds from those sectors makes these costly investments with very high overhead.

·       The non-educational social apparatus of universities (sports teams, recreational facilities, extracurricular programs, outreach and in-reach programs) contributes to high tuition costs and may or may not (this is a subject worthy of serious critical thinking and research, not knee-jerk punditry) have long-term educational and learning benefit.

·       The technologizing of every aspect of education costs far more than people ever think it will and requires more not less human labor than previously.

  • The reliance on circular metrics for success, excessive regulation, standardized testing (SATs, GREs) and the lack of clarity about what really constitutes learning (in all fields) compromises higher education’s effectiveness and adds to costs.

What else?   What do you think are the real and serious threats to the future of the university?  Or perhaps you think it's a rosey future?  Let us know in the Comments section below--or on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere. 




I really love a piece (I've noted this before on by Joshua Kim that really puts these points together persuasively:


In addition to what MOOCs mean for instructors and administrators, we also need to determine what students are learning when they take a MOOC class, specifically how closely the learning they obtain (if they take the course seriously and take it to completion) matches what they would receive by being enrolled in a traditional class on the same subject.

I've been researching this subject at my web site where I'm tracking my attempt to learn the equivalent of what I'd get from being enrolled in a four-year degree program in philosophy in just twelve months using only MOOCs and other free learning resources.  I'm witholding final judgement on what these new tools all add up to until I complete my "degree," but so far many of the courses have provided significant edification and challenges (especially in liberal arts subjects).