MOOCs are dead, but why not online classes?


For a solid 20 years of my career, I’ve dealt with admin drooling to “get into the online education market.” Every college, every university, has infinite interest in the hot fad of online education. From an admin’s point of view, online classes are great: minimal overhead and maximum profit.

I actually thought there was something to it, even created one of the first online courses (in the previous millennium), but I had reservations about how to do it—admin politely listened to my concerns, and ignored anything that would dampen their sales model of growth, growth, and growth.

My opinion of online education, insofar as it’s offered at the university level, dropped sharply and quickly for two reasons:

First, online courses have a potential for cheating that is simply unmatched in “traditional” classes. It was completely obvious, very early on, that cheating would be a big problem. Naturally, getting rid of cheaters would cut into those sales figures, so admin didn’t care 20 years ago and doesn’t care now. There are at least a dozen “we’ll write your paper,” “we’ll take your course,” or “we’ll do your math homework” sites more than willing to facilitate cheating, and when I revisit the sites every year, I see they’re still in business; their traffic numbers indicate business must be pretty good. I grant not wanting education to be more about cheating than anything else might be a somewhat self-important view of education—most of what we teach in higher ed is far removed from practical applications or, nowadays, common sense, so what difference does it make if someone cheats to get a Bachelor’s in Deviant Sexual practices?

The other reason I’m against online education in universities is more practical: why charge for it? 20 years ago, YouTube didn’t exist, but it sure does now, and anyone who wishes can get a fine education, practical or otherwise, by devoting time to appropriate videos. Similarly, internet resources are many magnitudes greater than they were a score years ago, with appropriate material available for just about every conceivable subject…how can a university charge, and often charge exorbitantly, for information already quite available for free?

MOOCs, massively open online courses, address all my concerns. These courses are put together by faculty who actually care about education, and the coursework is appropriate (finding such is a bit of a problem with a YouTube/online education, I concede). They’re free, and, because they don’t really count as coursework like “paid” classes, the cheating factor is pretty minimal. I suppose there are cheaters, but why would anyone pay a cheating website a few hundred bucks to do free coursework which doesn’t count for anything but personal edification? I’m sure it happens, but I reckon it’s minimal.


Dollar signs in their eyes, admin have been raving about MOOCs for years. The gentle reader might find this surprising, but many institutions have a “butts in seats” model when it comes to pouring money into administrative pockets. MOOC enrollments are in the thousands, so we’re talking potentially many butts in seats here even if nominal tuition for the courses is low, if anything.

Trouble is, that potential has never come close to realization. Because admin has no control over those free courses, these college courses are legitimate…that means it takes real work, real understanding to pass them. This makes course completion rates low, ridiculously low, sometimes a fraction of a percent—far lower than administrators, who often order faculty to see to it 85% or more of students complete, i.e., pass, a course.

Udacity has been the major advocate of MOOCs, and it was only few years ago that they were predicting itself to be one of only a handful of educational institutions that would even exist in the near future, thanks to the awesome power of MOOCs. What do they think of MOOCs now?

<em><a href=””>Just last week, Udacity declared an intention to move away entirely from open access courses. Company Vice President Clarissa Shen said MOOCs “are dead.”</a></em>

Look, they’re a business, they have to go where the money is, but there are two dogs not barking here that should be heard all the same:

First, why do these open enrollment courses without administrative control, but legitimacy, have much lower passing rates than comparable online courses, taught by faculty completely under the thumb of admin? The answer here is obvious.

Second, and this is a larger dog by far, is why do we have millions of people signing up for expensive courses when MOOCs can do the same thing, for free? I mean, if you had a choice between paying $20,000 for a car, and paying $0 for the same car, it’d be a pretty easy decision, right? The student loan scam, of course, presents the illusion that both cars cost the same, since, as near as the student can tell, he can buy the car now, and not pay until much later, when his worthless online degree gets him a job riding unicorns from goose to goose, collecting golden eggs. Or something.

The student loan scam is the only thing keeping all our online universities and colleges afloat. It really should be obvious that a product you cannot give away, you should not be able to sell for thousands of dollars, either. I reckon it’s every bit as obvious as how prevalent the cheating must be in online courses…but such concerns are above my pay grade, apparently.

Udacity is moving on to corporate-training style MOOCs, and I hope it works out for them. A <a href=””>few comments from Inside Higher Ed</a> are worth mention:

<em>“…in 1922, Thomas Edison announced that the motion picture industry will revolutionize education and textbooks will disappear within ten (10) years. Then it was television that was going to revolutionize education.</em>

<em>Now, proponents of technology [read “those financially invested in technology] insist personalized and blended digital learning will revolutionize education. And so goes the limited thinking of most Americans.</em>

<em>The best, most beneficial education has always been, and will always be, through in-person teacher-student and student-student interaction.”</em>

Much like with the failed Sunrise Semester (which was when you used the hot, new, technology of VCRs to record taped classes broadcast at 4 am), it does seem like every few years there’s another new fad that’s supposed to revolutionize education, only to quickly fade away.

<em>That is why “chalk” and “talk” are two of the most reviled words in the edtech sector.</em>

<em>–I’ve had admin sneer this phrase at me a few times because it’s how I teach. I like proven methods. I also think human beings are too precious to gamble with using questionable new education fads.</em>

Bottom line, however, humans just don’t change as fast as technology, and so the best education methods today are the same as they were a few millenia ago: you have an actual human teacher in close proximity to actual human students teaching actual skills and knowledge. I mostly teach in auditoriums now, and, as I sit grading yet another mountain of tests, I do consider that maybe it’s time I just go to non-interactive PowerPoint presentations and fill-in-the-bubble tests like most all my peers now.

Maybe the next time class sizes double because the $200,000 a year Dean (or one of her three $150,000 a year assistants) tells me “we don’t have the money for smaller classes” I’ll give in…but until then I’ll stick with methods providing proven results, and keep my hands off the latest fad.

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