MOOC Myths   - J. M. Wilson


(c) Jack M. Wilson 2013  see also MOOCs and Beyond  and other articles.   MIT and Harvard released a report covering 2012 and 2013 with interesting data. <My Link>

The sudden media interest in MOOCs, bordering on a kind of "MOOC Mania" has been startling.  The hype, which has been both positive and negative, is incredibly over-stated.   MOOCs, which are short for Massive Open Online Courses, are rather hard to distinguish from thousands of other forms of online courses.   The most worrisome aspect of the hyper-hype of the press coverage is that it leads to over blown expectations and overblown fears, and that can damage innovations that could have a far more profound impact on higher education.

What MOOCs (actually) do is to bring the hyper-prestigious universities on board a train that left the station long ago! While Stanford and Harvard did not notice, seven million students went online at other great universities -like U Maryland, Penn State, UMass, Illinois, SUNY, the University of Florida, and many others. Now the self-styled leaders notice, and that makes the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker, the President, and the Secretary of Education notice!

The Dozen Myths:

  1. MOOCs will bring free education to the masses.  Balderdash!  While MOOCs are interesting and delightful to contemplate, they really are not significantly different than other methods of presenting content like books, videotapes, TV lectures, multimedia or the other past over-hyped solutions to non-existent problems.  These are all useful (as are MOOCs), but they are not particularly revolutionary.

  2. Hundreds of Thousands of Persons have taken some of the MOOCs.  Poppycock! Hundreds of thousands of persons have looked at some of the early versions of MOOCs, but few actually finish and even those small numbers who complete the courses (~5% at Stanford) do not get credit and have not demonstrated any particular competence.  Mehran Sahami, Stanford University at SIGCSE: "the final course lectures have 5% the viewing rate of the earliest lectures".

  3. MOOCs threaten the jobs of all current faculty members.   Ridiculous!  Of course, if there are faculty members out there who can be replaced by MOOCs, they should be replaced by MOOCs -and sooner rather than later.   I am not worried.  Are you?  It was only twenty years ago when speakers all over higher education were predicting that multimedia versions of famous professors would displace all the "lesser" professors.  It did not happen.  Twenty years before that pundits predicted that video tape lectures would displace the "lesser" professors.  That also did not happen.  A wonderful (and long ago) cartoon once showed an empty classroom with a taped lecture running at the front of the room and a Dictaphone style tape recorder "listening" to the lecture.  To some this must have been the perfect classroom.  No teachers and no students.  There are indeed journalists and politicians who are hoping for this, while some faculty members are fearing this.  Everyone relax!

  4. MOOCs are created at no (or very low) cost.  Rubbish!  The cost of creating a MOOC is actually enormous.  To this point, most MOOCs have been created at the margin by professors (and others) who were working at the margins -on their own time.  In surveys of creators, few report being compensated or rewarded in any way for the work.  However, they were all employed  at the more traditional tasks in a University of teaching, research, service, and administration.  Creators report pouring enormous resources into the creation.  Pundits counter that since thousands of students can "learn" from MOOCs, the cost, however large, can be spread over large numbers of students and thereby lower the unit cost.  Nice theory, but the low completion rates, lack of credit, and absence of all the other components to an educational environment mean this does not happen.

  5. MOOCs are something entirely new that have been created by brilliant faculty at hyper-prestigious universities.  Bunk!  The "entirely new" part is pure bunk.  The second part is largely true -they are indeed brilliant.  Those who have worked in computer based education have seen similar things as far back as the Plato Computer Education system in the 1960's.  While the technology was expensive and crude, by today's standards, the general outline of computer based courses and their components of adaptive assessment, online testing, chat interactions, and other functions were largely established.  By the 1980's and 90's these had migrated onto personal computers and were in very wide spread use.   By the first decade of the 21st century, online courses were well established and are now being taken (and completed) by about 7 million students each year!  Welcome to the party MOOCs!

  6. MOOCs will drastically lower the cost of higher education and eliminate the student loan problem.  Bullroar!  MOOCs are generally another way to present content that will compete with book, video, and other computer based materials.  The online assessment and feedback is nothing new, but it does represent some things helpful to faculty who are teaching courses.  The enormous growth of online education to serve about 7 million enrollees has indeed been helpful in constraining cost, but the more important effect has been a dramatic increase in access and an elimination of obstacles to study for many persons.

  7. MOOCs will make tons of money for investors.  Folderol!  Venture Capitalists, led by Sand Hill Road legend John Doerr, have invested about $16 million in Coursera, according to press reports.  This is what VC's do.  They make a few risky bets and expect that only a few of those bets will pay off -but in a very large way.  This is really risky.  Coursera has not yet found a way to develop a reliable revenue stream.  It probably won't.  The VC money will be lost, but they will be on to their next big thing.   In some cases, the investors will recoup some of their investment through the "greater fool theory."   That states that "we may have been a fool to invest in this, but her is always a greater fool waiting to buy it from us at a profit."  The Coursera Brand itself may have some value to investors, but that was damaged a bit when Stanford decided to partner with the Harvard-MIT led edX instead of Coursera.  The VC's will be fine.  Coursera will disappear -or pivot in an entirely different direction using the name only.

  8. Students can study at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and other hype-prestigious universities through MOOCs.  Silly Goose!  No they can't.  Even those few (5-10%) of students who complete the course and get a certificate, get a certificate with a lot of fine print at the bottom that states quite clearly that the originating university does not grant credit and does not claim the student has learned anything in the MOOC.  These universities are not offering credit at their universities for these courses.  According to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey of the professors who created the MOOCs, they probably never will.

  9. Because the American Council of Higher Education (ACE) in 2013 has "approved" five courses for credit, you will get credit for them. Maybe, and then again probably not.  The Universities that originate these courses are not presently offering them for credit (to my knowledge at this writing).  Most have indicated that they do not plan to do so.  There are a few community colleges and universities that are indeed using MOOCs as part of existing courses in existing curricula using existing faculty.  There are also a few who are offering, or contemplating offering, credit for such MOOCs if they can establish a reliable way to assess how successful the student was and how much they learned.  This will likely be done in ways similar to the way that many institutions offer credit ofr outside or "life" experiences.

  10. MOOC creators believe so strongly in their courses that they think their Universities should offer credit.  Quel Dommage!  A survey done by and reported on by the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 72% of those teaching MOOCs did NOT think that students who successfully completed their MOOC should get academic credit at their own institution, and 66% believe that they NEVER would grant that credit. 

  11. MOOC creators believe that their work will significantly lower the cost of higher education. Malarkey. The same Chronicle report indicates that 75% of the respondents did not think that MOOCs would significantly reduce costs at their institution (35% none and 40% marginal)

  12. Universities as we know them will disappear. Fatuous!  "In 50 years there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot of being one of them."  Sebastian Thrun- Udacity Founder.   I'll take that bet!

This list of twelve myths is intended to be an entertaining guide to some insight into the phenomena of MOOCs.  It is not intended to be a scholarly work, although it is based upon reliable and widely reported and checked sources.  The talks linked above have additional information on many of these items and additional references to primary data. Over time, I plan to produce a more extensive and scholarly version with more detailed analysis and referencing.

I am a great fan and supporter of MOOCs, MOOC developers, and the other more established and potentially more useful applications of technology in education.  I do feel that they will have an impact, but it will be far more incremental than proponents hope and opponents fear.  I also strongly believe that the three C's of Computers, Communication, and Cognition will fundamentally change higher education, but that developers need to pay more attention to the last C which gives us insight into how human beings learn.


-- Jack M. Wilson  2013