Blog Post

Schadenfreude for the MOOC Is Not Joy for the Higher Ed Status Quo

Two important things happened this week in the world of Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOCs) and the larger world of higher ed: 

  • first, came the announcement (not very well contextualized) of a more than 50% failure rate of the for-credit students in the pilot Udacity-San Jose State University program offering three introductory and remedial courses (algebra, intermediate algebra, and statistics) online to both traditional and non-traditional (not admitted) SJSU students.  While the courses had a remarkably high completion rate of 83% (most MOOCs have a 10% completion rate and even most face-to-face remedial classes at community colleges and state universities have about a 25-55% completion rate), the failure rate  is, of course,  unacceptable.  SJSU and Udacity have announced a six-month hiatus in the program while they study the data, interview the students and the profs, and redesign instruction to address this problem. The announcement of the six-month hiatus in the program brought a lot of  schadenfreude (triumphant joy in someone else's misfortune) from some who are pleased the Udacity-SJSU partnership has stalled.  I too believe it is good to slow things down and re-evaluate MOOC Mania.  However, for some, MOOCs, especially when offered by for-profit corporate vendors, are the single biggest threat to academic jobs, tenure, and the quality of learning. I think that's too narrow a focus.
  • second, came a speech by President Obama suggesting that funding and investment in higher education had to come with cost-cutting measures and regulation (parallel with his health care plan that both intended to universalize health care and bring down runaway costs).    Online learning was one area he implied could bring down the costs of higher education currently escalating at 5-7% above inflation a year and thereby excluding more and more students from the fruits of higher education. And I fear that is also too narrow a focus and worry the President will propose a technology solution to what is a far larger problem.

How might we look at these two things together?  And, perhaps more important, how might we think simultaneously about a range of issues for higher education, MOOCs being only one and part of a much larger picture.   The interconnected issues we need to think through together are:

  • lowering the cost of higher education (public and private, at prestige private schools and at less prestigious ones)
  • making higher education available to far more students
  • addressing the high school drop out rate and making an array of specialized educational options available (including in vocational training, programming, and the arts) available to non-college bound students while also offering more support for students who would like to go to college
  • increasing the number of professors and ensuring a standard of living that allows teaching to remain a middle-class profession in the U.S. (which is to say increasing the number of full-time professors with health care and other benefits)
  • addressing the problem of adjunct labor
  • maintaining or, I would advocate, improving the quality of higher education
  • improving the forms of assessment and accreditation we have now to account, dexterously, for the full range of thinking not for the one-best-answer
  • focusing on learning not lecturing: real world experience, learning by doing, problem solving, study groups, learning teams, peer-teaching, exploration, and innovation with society as well as commerce being the wider "vocational" goal (in Amartya Sen's sense of "vocation" of human, engaged, social "well being" and not only being well heeled) where research is also part of learning and learning in society
  • bringing down the costs and making more education available to more students (currently there are 450,000 students on the waiting lists for community colleges in California alone.  The college-age population dip that will continue until 2016 or so will allow for some adjustment here but it comes with other problems that will jeopardize students' futures:  the population decline will cause terrible destruction of many four-year colleges and financial crises even at wealthy institutions; it is not clear what it will do to community college and state university budgets and ability to accept more students)
  • focusing on students, especially those excluded by reason of cost and availability.   The current media GPA of a student at the University of California Irvine is 4.1 on a 4.0 scale--with perfect test scores to match, AP courses to boost the GPA above "perfect," and lots of community service and other activities to "round out" this perfect student.  (This one is not a bullet point but an aside that is just about a scream of pain:  You have to be better than perfect to get into your state university?  What are we doing to our society?  What are we doing to our children? What are we doing to a future that demands creativity and adaptability to change and innovation if you cannot even go to college unless you learn how to perfectly master the master's forms?  It's shocking that we are doing this to the best of this generation--and we are simply ignoring and excluding those who are not academically perfect.   Appalling national crisis here.)
  • requiring corporations that profit from basic research to invest in higher education's research agenda more broadly, not simply as relates to "tech transfer" but as part of larger social good that, in the end, benefits them as well
  • thinking about the costs of higher education not just in terms of teacher salaries but in terms of the overall budgeting of universities, the complex accounting that requires buildings, technology, and an increased workforce (including staff and administrators) necessary to run a modern university and maintain a range of often complicated and highly regulated programs, grants, external funding, accreditation, and other factors
  • shifting from an emphasis on testing for right answers and the concomitant emphasis on teaching/content/comprehensiveness to emphasizing preparedness for the challenges of this world, with an emphasis on learning/methods/innovation/the ability to think critically and creatively in all fields and with multiple cultural and social perspectives
  • paying more and insistent attention to diversity of all kinds in a world that is becoming more diverse while leadership, in the technology industries and in corporate boardrooms, may well be coming less diverse, less representative, and more out of touch with society (a complaint I hear more from CEOs lately than from faculty--really!)
  • reconsidering the semester or quarter and other forms of "seat time" as the only way to organize learning, especially for non-residential students with jobs, childcare, and other responsibilities
  • rethinking higher education's relevance for the world we live in now (and, anyone who knows me knows I think the humanities and social sciences are absolutely relevant to preparing students for the complex world we all live in)--curriculum, pedagogy, disciplinary structure, accreditation, everything.
  • getting rid of the magical thinking that privatization/and commercialization always bring down costs (it didn't for the privatized prison system by any means), always lead to improvements (again, the prison system), have no social cost (again, the prison system), and are the only way to effectively solve big problems (you guessed it:  again, the prison-industrial complex)
  • realizing (this is common sense, people!) that technology is not always cheaper and not always better; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, and often it means displacing (not reducing) costs from people to technology and that can have its own dire social, human consequences that must be considered if our justification for investing in education is to improve human well being and society (and that includes but is not limited to business, innovation, a stable middle class for prosperity and investment, etc).


It is daunting to think about all of these things together but utterly necessary.   I have no schadenfreude for the rethinking of how courses can be successfully delivered online.  I would love to believe there is a way to teach the target audience of the SJSU/Udacity students less expensively.  Many of these students were not admitted students, and the waiting list is very long and, for many, coming physically too class means not being able to take classes.  Remedial and high-quality, effective education of larger numbers of students at low cost in a format that meets the demands of everyday life is an entirely worthy and important goal.  Is it attainable?   What is the best way to achieve that goal while keeping in mind all the other factors listed above?  

This is why I do not participate in the schadenfreude over the Udacity-SJSU reset following upon the high failure rate of their students in three introductory or remedial classes: 

First, I am impressed that, at six months, they are willing to study, experiment, redesign, and try something else. I like that spirit of experimentation and won't be surprised if they come up with something better next time. There is good online learning and bad online learning just as there is good face-to-face teaching and bad face-to-face teaching.  You can take advantage of the professoriate online or in face-to-face adjunctive positions.   These are not binaries and it is foolhardy to blur all the different points above into a simple "MOOC" versus "No MOOC" opposition.   I am interested in seeing what Udacity comes up with next.  I personally have taken a statistics course online offered by a university  (this was before MOOCs existed) and think there are some significant advantages to learning-by-doing in online practice over, for example, listening to a lecture.  I know many undergraduate and graduate students who skip their tuition paid-for lecture classes,   take statistics free or at low cost online, and then ace the face-to-face college class for which they are paying high tuition dollars, at elite private and at public universities.  

In some cases, it is possible online learning is an improvement.  In which cases?  And how?  Where?  Why? and How?  How can more non-profit and university-based online educational opportunities be explored to improve education and bring down costs?  Why have we ceded this as a possibility to for-profit companies.  (NB:  a new consortium made up of Big Ten plus University of Chicago is seeking to do just that).

Second, my fear is that, being pleased that the SJSU-Udacity commercial partnership failed, too many educators will now think the matter is closed and done with.  It is not.  The problems listed above all remain and remain at the same time.   All educators need to be addressing these.  It should not just be for-profit companies and it should not just be the President of the United States.  

And it isn't, I'm happy to say.  All over America I find other academics who are dedicated to finding solutions to all the problems above, to rethinking all of them at once, while also being open to innovation--online, face to face, peer learning, open learning, interactive learning, restructuring disciplines, rethinking assessment, reconsidering time to degree (undergraduate and PhD), rethinking teacher training for a new world, and rethinking the exasperating and defeating  "two cultures" intellectual divisions between "human and social sciences and the arts" on the one hand and "science and technology" on the other.   In the complicated global world we all inhabit every time we go online, those industrial age divisions no longer pertain.   We have to be rethinking education for our era--with ALL of those bullet points above in mind.

All the MOOCs could go away tomorrow and most of the problems above would remain.   That is the point--and our call to action.

Joshua Kim has succinctly listed some of the real threats to higher education:   He argues that MOOCs are valuable, if for no other reason, than that they push us, as dedicated educators, to think about what we do  do well, to consider  how to do that better, and to address the kinds of issues outlined above. 

If we just make MOOCs the problem, we can too easily assume that getting rid of MOOCs is the answer.  It is not.  Taking control of all of the aspects of education at once in order to come up with the best solution is the imperative, now.   These two events, this week, thought together in tandem, should be inspirations to think about how to do what we need to do, together, wisely, well, and now.



Hello Prof Davidson,

I will post on my new HASTAC blog (thank you) in greater detail why I believe this to be the case. but I am working on a model for the provision of higher education that meets the demanding (and necessary) scope of the interconnected issues you identify.

My profile links to a blog on the model.  I recommend, A New Tender for the Higher Education Social Contract, as intitiation.

Cherry-picking a line through the issues I believe that the professional model found in law, engineering, medicine and others is a viable alternative to the current one of institutonal service providers (universitiesand colleges), public funding and union representation. It promises to:

  • reduce the total cost of HE by as much as 75% (without further exploitation or reduction in quality and access)
  • increase student access to education from the remedial to the doctoral (by introducing many more academics/educators, not new technology)
  • reduce labour exploitation (from academics to TAs and RAs), while impoving the material and working conditions
  • improve the quality and variety of education that can be made available to all segments of the population (with a real possibility of free higher education)
  • improves HE access and quality in regions not now adequately represented (e.g., the BRIC)

If you have the time and inclination I would appreciate your thoughts on this alterantive.

Thank you.



This is true that this hiatus is not necessarily a bad thing- there is no point in the industry rushing the mooc revolution/evolution. However, the possibilities for technology to affect education are vast. Blended learning-that is learning in the traditional sense of the brick-and-mortar university mixed with online learning is already showing its benefits. Although is a lot of talk about the US mooc providers, i'm disappointed not to see more mention of the European mooc scence. A big player in this area in Europe is These MOOC providers work with pedagogy experts to provide an interactive and engaging learning experience, along with peer to peer learning (which in my view is hugely important). Sure, with online only courses you are not in the same physical classroom as the lecturer-but these norms and expectations are changing by the day.