Blog Post

If MOOCs are the answer, what is the question?

The academic conversation on MOOCs is starting to polarize in exactly the talking-past-one-another way that so many complex conversations evolve: with very smart points on either side but not a lot of recognition that the validity of certain key points on one side does not undermine the validity of certain key points on the other.   I regret this flattening of online learning into a simple binary of "politically and financially motivated greed" on the one hand and "an opportunity to find out more about learning" on the other.  Some of both in different situations can be true.   It's always hard to be able to hold two complex and even contradictory ideas in one's mind at once but, well, that's life.  Both can be true.   And there is so much to be gained from a sustained conversation on every side and from each side's learning from the other without assuming the other side is being naive or callous in its concerns.

Here's a case in point:   although I've not done a data count, I would say that, about a year ago, the majority of articles on higher education in the mass media ran the gamut from snide to extremely negative, often springboarding off entrepreneur  Peter Thiel's offering cash rewards to students choosing not to go to college.   The rhetoric of so many articles seemed to be "is higher education really worth it?"    These articles (I bet there were dozens if not hundreds) were often filled with hard data about the soaring costs of higher education and horrific student debt pitted against anecdotes of unemployment among the college educated.   It was virtually a meme, that if you are fool enough to go to college, you end up deeper in debt and unemployed and therefore  college isn't worth it.   The tone in the press emphasized that latter point, demeaning the importance of higher education, laughing slyly at anyone who thinks higher education is a worthy goal.

Enter the MOOC: whatever else one may think about MOOCS, their vast popularity proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt that seemingly everyone wants--really, really wants--more not less higher learning.  Has anyone else noticed that the tone of the conversation has now shifted from "is college worth it?" to "how can we make necessary, important, invaluable learning available to the widest number of people for the lowest cost"?    I certainly have.  

Those who hate MOOCs and reduce them solely and only to a device by the neoliberal rich to diminish the role of the tenured professor should at least be using the vast popularity of online courses to argue the value of a college education.   It's demonstrable.  It's massive

And those same people who see MOOCs as a way to diminish the role of the tenured professor (from both sides) should also be thinking about who is actually taking MOOCs.  Often, they are not the same students who sit in the classrooms of tenured professors, themselves a constantly diminishing percentage of all those who teach in higher ed (a situation that existed long before MOOCs).  There is no evidence that students are dropping out of brick-and-mortar universities in droves in order to enroll in online courses.  On the contrary, the typical online course student is someone who would not otherwise have access to higher education.   The ridiculous (and pernicious) University of Virginia Trustees who forced a President to resign because she wasn't moving fast enough on MOOCs, as if that would drive down the tuition costs for UVA's elite public cadre of students, simply didn't know the numbers.   There is no evidence MOOCs will do much of anything to change the tuition costs of higher education except for those taking MOOCs.   Period. 

At the same time that there is a lot of bad economic reasoning by those who thinks MOOCs can solve the crisis of high tuition costs in higher ed, there is equally bad economic thinking by those who blame MOOCs for declining public support for higher education.   That process began long before MOOCs existed.  The University of Michigan, for example, currently receives only six percent of its funding from the state of Michigan--and MOOCs were not in that picture to make that happen.  

Nor are the MOOCs the source of the vast economic disparities that beset our contemporary higher educational (and K-12) system.  

If anything, MOOCs illuminate the terrible economic disparities of higher education (worldwide) by offering a cheap, massive alternative, not to those sitting in the classrooms of tenured professors, but for those who have no opportunity to be in those classes.   MOOCs work for those, for example, seeking to retool their learning to prepare for new professions when their own no longer exists, who are seeking a second career, or who want to simply enjoy the benefits of learning but are not able to participate in actual face-to-face classroom learning.   To have the time and be in a location where you can actually attend college physically is pretty rare in a world of two-career families, for example.  And community colleges (where tenured professors are rare indeed) do a great job but they too require f2f engagement and cannot begin to serve all the students who want to take courses. 

Sadly, higher education is more and more becoming priced for the global 1%, a trend that began long before MOOCs existed.   It is often noted that tuition costs have risen far faster than inflation.  True.   But they have not risen faster than the kinds of goods and services designed for the global 1%.  In fact, private university tuition costs (and, increasingly, out of state public tuition costs) are quite in line with the escalating costs of such things as elite tax services, financial advisers, hedge fund managers,  elective surgery, luxury travel, and luxury goods in general.   It is also in line with the cost of private preschool and elite boarding schools.  

Indeed, in many cases MOOCs  will not solve the cost of high tuitions at face-to-face institutions with soaring tuition costs; but, in the end, they may help more people who have never even conceived of attending a "real" college participate in  the higher education that, the numbers show, is coveted, prized, valued, sought after, and thus---for MOOC lovers and MOOC haters alike---an important rhetorical point we should all be emphasizing, in every conversation:   In the complex, changing world we live in now, advanced learning is necessary.    Not a luxury.  A necessity.   It deserves the public support of other necessities.  Period.  Advanced education is far too important to price out of the market of all but the global 1%.      

If the question is "is higher education worth it?" we know from the massive enrollment in online courses that the answer is a resounding, powerful "yes." It is also significant that world history courses are enrolling as many students as Python.  People WANT higher learning.  Period.   Whatever else one may think of MOOCs, that is an important game changer in the anti-higher education conversation that raged not so long ago.




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 10,000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Davidson teaches at Duke University where she 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.  In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC's cofounders, were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network.   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 :



I think - like you - there are very few "right questions" being asked. As a quondam historian of higher ed, it surprises me that no one seems aware of the history of "correspondence courses" among the most prestigeous institutions like Harvard, Columbia and Johns Hopkins. Mostly in the early 20th century, they were conceived as "extension schools" both to make money and improve prestige in the then largely rural America. They faded with the Depression, but some continue. And their history was remarkably parallel: high sign-ups, low completion, great part time work for grad students to see what they might (sometime) face as faculty, and not much direct impact on current students, costs, or mobility. Of course, they were targeting the 99%, and they did have some (very modest) impact.

More than extension courses, however, I'm concerned that you are only looking at the number of sign-ups and not at the number of completions, and then at the number who seek to use their coursework for some academic purpose - placement, equivalencies, etc. And I'm very surprised that none of the more traditional courses in traditional formats have exploited MOOC equivalents for reduced cost textbooks, comparative courseware, and parallel instructional improvement. And even more surprised that high schools are never mentioned, since they are the most likely vehicle for credit and placement and AP relevance. MOOCs are far more important for these options, where completion is only sometimes relevant, and where it should be lots easier for a kid to negotiate credit and, thereafter, placement. Few high schools would ignore a positive achievement at a high prestige college by a promising student. But none of the discussions seem to address this option.

And that is the real travesty of higher ed review. It is as segregated as the old pre-Brown vs. Board of Ed world: they simply never look beyond their walls. That's dramatically apparent in the ePortfolio world, where the national association talks gently - and most patronizingly - about portfolios by high school kids, and then segregates their meetings and relegates those discussions to the "kids." Typically, this means they freeze themselves out of a market five times the size of higher ed, and ignore - as they have with MOOCs - their most promising products.


When we start to consider the 'global' aspects, remember that there are those countries and national systems that provide free higher education, or very low cost, as a national political and economic policy, recouping the costs in the long run through progressive income tax systems. The US case is particularly extreme of course and there are other countries heading in the same direction (witness England, for example), but there are others that have moved in a different path such as Scotland and other European countries. Of course, they are not without problems, not least of which is the rising numbers of participants and economic pressures. However, there is a commitment in many of these countries that is deeply held and will prevail. They are sustainable. There's a danger in the international discussions that we convince ourselves that there is a single narrative. It's not the case. Students in Scotland, for example, may well be able to take a free MOOC, but their entire degree programme is free too.  

I totally agree that the popularity of MOOCs implies a demand, a hunger for learning and that is precisely why we can and should open up the debate about new forms of funding and structuring higher education to build a better system that will be open to all those who are capable and commited and not just those who can afford to participate. What better investment in the future (or 'stimulus package' if you prefer?) than providing a public higher education system that nurtures talent wherever it may be.  In essence, it is a political decision and as such it requires a concerted campaign built on an eloquent and convincing case. Yes in the US state funding has been in decline, but that's a choice. Is it better to spend on new weapons systems than new ideas for a better society?

And of course, as you and others hint, MOOCs might also usefully serve as a basis to question just what is an education? What is the appropriate mix between content delivery and educational activity? How much of the scaling approach can we take to re-energise institutions and the student learning experience? Flipping the classroom, cooperative models built on communities of enquiry, etc.




Thank you for these comments.   Yes, Jonathan, my friends who have taught online courses for over a decade are quite bemused by the MOOC hyperbole---including friends who have taught Harvard's famous extension courses previously.    And, Ian, yes, I hope this will really encourage thinking through education in exciting new ways.  Whether MOOCs exist or not, our educational system needs drastic revamping if we're going to serve students today.


I also want to remind everyone that MOOCs existed before the elite universities turned them into top-down ways of exporting their content to the world.  David Cormier's excellent 2010 videon on MOOCs are all about participation and sharing and networking . . . not about Sage on the Stage re-centralizing of a knowledge that, on Wikipedia and other knowledge-sharing sites, has been continuously decentralized.  Here's his important video:


That is a wrong question .


MOOCs are not answer to anything .


There are good MOOCs and there are bad MOOCs .

Sure bad MOOCs are not the answer.


But good MOOCs are the answer .

A good MOOC  edx

1.- Has wonderful partners MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown.

2.- All are non profits, they do not need to cheat you

3.- They rae the top schools of the world

4.- They have all the research facilities for learning, media, technology

5.- They have all the assets expand research

6.- They can improve the online quality everyday, they have the resources

7.- They are known globally, they can attract millions

8.- They know how to develop at less than $ 1 per course when they reach to certain enrollments .

9.- They do not need money, but they can finance the whole project bythemselves. It is selffinancing .

10.- They are not willing to cheat people with high fees .

11.- They just need times to provide more courses so that degrees can be granted too.


Please please  make distinction between GOOD and BAD  MOOCs .