What Can’t Moocs Teach?

by Harry on July 30, 2013

How optimistic faculty members are about the educational value of MOOCs seems to turn largely on what they think of as the status quo classroom experience. Colleagues at elite institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges, are generally skeptical, because they think of what they do in their classrooms as being very intellectually alive, and cannot see how that could be replicated online. But most of the credit hours at my institution are not taught in small, intellectually lively, classes. My own department keeps our classes small for majors, and offers very few classes larger than 100 students — still, I am pretty sure that in any given semester most of our credit hours are taken in rooms with 50 or more students. I know of one social science department which offers no classes with fewer than 70 students, even for majors, and many departments in which lectures with 300 or more students are commonplace. It is easy to see how MOOCs could replace such classes.

What seems irreplaceable is the small, discussion-heavy, course.[1] What do students learn in those courses? Not information, but skills — especially skills like being able to articulate ideas, and reason, in public. This excellent piece by Jennifer Morton at the Chronicle notes how much more valuable small classes can be for lower-income, or first generation, students:

For students from low-income families who manage to overcome the tough odds, college is the first place where they will be asked to defend a position and to engage in vigorous intellectual debate. It is also likely to be the first place where they have to consistently engage with middle-class students and professors and navigate middle-class social norms.


The differences in these social skills can be quite subtle, such as variations in when and how to make eye contact, or how deferential to be when speaking to authority figures. But their impact can be significant. And because children growing up in poverty in the United States are more likely to grow up around and go to school with other poor children, they have fewer opportunities to interact with the middle class and “pick up” the social skills valued by the middle class—and middle-class employers.

A SLAC dean recently told me about the debate at her (well known highly selective) college in which the faculty overwhelmingly decided not only not to offer, but to allow no transfer credit for, MOOCs. But most of the students at said college are not in need of learning the skills Morton is committed to imparting: the students who most need classroom experiences that foster these skills are in institutions which are under pressure to produce and give credit for MOOCs.

And, as she also says, making classes small is not enough. Administrators have to manage the budget as best they can to ensure that class sizes are small (and MOOCs etc can help with this, by freeing up faculty who would otherwise be lecturing in large halls to teach smaller classes), but faculty, too, have responsibilities:

our priority should be to offer students, in particular those who are not already part of the middle class, a classroom in which they can learn to navigate middle-class social norms, be comfortable with and develop relationships with students from different backgrounds, and speak their minds. The onus here is not just on the administration to lower class size, but also on college professors to foster the kind of classroom in which students can develop those elusive practical skills.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

[1] Note that I say seems. I’ve already been surprised by the ways that online elements can enhance smaller classes, especially for students who already have a fair amount of experience in the classroom. So, I’m generally ready to be surprised. I just don’t see how online interactions can effectively replace embodied interactions when it comes to learning and developing the skills Morton is concerned with.



Matt 07.30.13 at 8:21 pm

Also irreplaceable: laboratory based courses, any course that requires materials or equipment not commonly found at the student’s home. Or is this too obvious to mention?


Matt 07.30.13 at 8:36 pm

Now after reading the whole thing: I didn’t really disagree with her, but I cringed that the whole thing centered around what employers want, skills for job interviews, and skills for middle class employment. The only reason to learn to speak one’s mind, in public, in an ordered and persuasive way (or at least the only reason worth mentioning) is that it will better prepare you for finding future employers and pleasing those employers once you have been hired. There’s not even a hint of what a zero-sum game this is if pure “skills” inequality diminishes but there are still more people unemployed than employers with unfilled positions.


Alex K. 07.30.13 at 9:33 pm

Generally valid points, but consider:

1) The median science and engineering student does not take more that one year’s worth of humanities and social sciences classes. If we grant Jennifer Morton her entire argument, it still leaves about three years worth of classes that could be potentially more accessible to disadvantaged students via MOOCs.

2) I fully agree that a form of offline social interaction is crucial for learning. I don’t disagree much with Randall Collins when he sees “ritual chains” virtually everywhere — and learning does have its rituals that require local social interaction.

However, God did not make it a Law of Nature that the only possible form of learning via social interaction is the classroom. In fact, the professors themselves don’t go to classes in order to perform the social ritual part of learning — professors go to conferences (I suppose professors can also learn from students, but that only goes so far.)

There are other empirical examples of social interactions outside the classroom that have excellent results on the learning metric: the various national and international Olympiads. It’s true that the students participating in the Olympiads are mostly self-selected and are among the best. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of learning done by participating students and they learn material that goes much further than anything taught in the classroom.

Given those successful examples, I’m moderately optimistic that regular online interaction (e.g. discussion threads) coupled with periodic, shorter, but intense offline social interactions, can be a successful model for teaching science and engineering MOOCs.


Greg Weeks 07.30.13 at 9:56 pm

If colleagues at elite universities are skeptical, then why are they the ones creating the MOOCs for the “lesser” universities to use? See the San Jose State University letter as example.


Elemenop 07.30.13 at 10:16 pm

I think this experiment is very interesting.



This makes you question the primary structure of a MOOC, where a lot of learning takes place by watching passively.

I also think this shows that experimentation is critical in teaching. Many of the people I know are engaged in a long term process of improving teaching via experimentation and innovation. What kind of questions work? What kind of discussions work? And so on. Understanding the culture of one’s own college and university is also critical to teaching.

As someone very familiar with online discussion and who enjoys it, I question whether developing critical thinking and speaking skills will as readily be the result of online discussion as of classroom interaction. There are better and worse ideas (and sometimes only one good idea) that a professor is trying to move students toward and online discussion often moves toward consensus, or will get derailed by misinformation. The professor’s role as guide will be very watered down and you can’t have a fully engaged, fully collective discussion because it tends to take place in terms of replies, which are one on one.

There are so many ways MOOCs can go awry but what I find most troubling is that MOOCs are proposed for the hoi polloi–not the elite students, who are still deemed worthy of contact with real experts.


Cranky Observer 07.30.13 at 10:54 pm

= = = 1) The median science and engineering student does not take more that one year’s worth of humanities and social sciences classes. If we grant Jennifer Morton her entire argument, it still leaves about three years worth of classes that could be potentially more accessible to disadvantaged students via MOOCs. = = =

Are you implying that engineering classes in particular don’t require intense personal interaction and practice therein? I would respectfully disagree with that analysis.



Alex K. 07.30.13 at 11:08 pm

“Are you implying that engineering classes in particular don’t require intense personal interaction and practice therein? I would respectfully disagree with that analysis.”

I do think that face to face interaction is less important in STEM fields, yes.

That is something different than collaboration not being important (you can collaborate online), and I think periodic face to face interactions are helpful. But they are not needed to the degree that they are needed in humanities.


Cranky Observer 07.30.13 at 11:36 pm

Alex K,
Speaking as a one-time engineering manager and hiring person (and now parent of a Cranky engineering student), I must respectfully but strongly disagree with your 11:08.



Alex K. 07.30.13 at 11:58 pm


A more expansive answer would be helpful. What are the specific needs of engineering learning (what kind of engineering, exactly?) that require continuous face to face interaction that can not be replaced by online interaction (including video chat)?


Guest 07.31.13 at 12:15 am

I think it’s a terrifically bad idea to provide cover for MOOCs on the ground that they will enable people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go to college to do so. Is that why they’re being offered? No, of course not. They’re being offered to legitimize degree-milling. If you want more people to go to college, put more money into the public school system and hire-produce-hire more qualified teachers. MOOCs are not college. They’re a “cost-efficient” way for professional bureaucrats to justify their existence.

Are they actually going to “free up” the “real” teachers for smaller classes? Of course not, has that ever happened? It’s laughable. Online “learning” does nothing but undermine the professional class of educators. You can’t destroy college to save it.

Finally, it’s just weird that you’re valorizing the humanities at the expense of engineering and science (based, apparently, on nothing but crude and outdated stereotypes). Talk about divide and conquer.


Jim Harrison 07.31.13 at 12:30 am

The current economic system doesn’t produce enough opportunities to justify sending so many people to college. Since simply cutting back on enrollments would require admitting what’s really going on, MOOCs provide a convenient way to pretend that every one can get a college education that leads somewhere. A pasifier, however, is not quite the same thing as a breast or even a bottle, even if it does shut the kid up for a while.


Alan 07.31.13 at 12:31 am

Any data available about how face-to-face vs MOOCs influences decisions about majors? Not to mention a meta-evaluation of that (no doubt too recent to gauge).


stubydoo 07.31.13 at 12:48 am

I’m a bit puzzled the idea of college as a place to pick up middle class social norms. I must’ve gone to the wrong college (it was a largish fairly decent public school). The years I spent there involved a very rapid erosion of the middle class social norms I had acquired from my middle class parents. It took many years away from that environment to recover a semblance of the attitude expected amongst the bourgeoisie.


RSA 07.31.13 at 12:53 am

I’m okay with the idea of MOOCs, but I hate the rush into them. What’s missing from the MOOC story, currently, is data. (This is ironic, in that I heard a talk from Daphne Koller last summer in which big data was described as one of the unique advantages of MOOCs. That should be true, but it hasn’t happened yet, as far as I know.)

That is, although we have intuitions and anecdotes, we don’t know which courses MOOCs are good/bad for, which kinds of students they work/don’t work for, and how well they work in comparison with ordinary courses for specific student populations. MOOCs seem to work for highly motivated students, which is consistent with research on computer-aided instruction. They may work for students who already have at least a bachelor’s degree and have seen comparable coursework in the past. They may reflect existing demographics in the population of students, not expanding opportunities to underrepresented groups (a special concern for engineering). My impression from talking to MOOC students and instructors is that they seem most effective for discretionary, elective courses. Even that’s just an impression. It seems hugely premature to try to substitute MOOCs for conventional required courses; we just don’t know enough about them.


Donald A. Coffin 07.31.13 at 1:23 am

Having done this myself (in order to have some background for a conference presentation on MOOCs, I would encourage anyone who is interested in the promises and pitfalls of MOOCs for higher education *to take one* and see how it actually works. What I took away from the one I took was (a) the course content, as prepared and presented by the instructor, was equivalent to what I would have expected to find in an on-campus course; (b) the discussion forums were more civilized, but less intellectually interesting, that would be optimal; (c) participation (especially in the discussion forums) was extraordinarily low; and (d) the assessment of learning (peer evaluation of written assignments) was wholly inadequate (too little of the course material could be covered in the assessments–there were only 3–and too many students had too little background in performance evaluation, and too little guidance within the course, to do it well).

But I think MOOCs will survive, and evolve, in ways that are likely to make them at least somewhat effective, if only as a substitute for large lecture sections (takling heads with power-points in a classroom aren’t all that hard to replace with talking heads with power-points on a computer screen). Here’s what I think it will take: A strong on-campus component. By which I mean (1) a faculty member on campus who supervises the course, designs the course learning objectives, prepares the assignments, and supervises course assistants; (b) discussion sections or on-line discussion forums with course assistants (read teaching assistants) as active participants; and (c) on-campus grading of all the assignments. The latter two of these three conditions will require adequate training of the course assistants wo be effective.

And, doing it this way won’t save a boat load of money.

MOOCs may also have some role as supplemnetary material in other classes.

And see this for a discussion of what I am now calling SPOCs–small, private on-line classes: http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/3-universities-will-grant-credit-for-2us-online-courses/45143


Omega Centauri 07.31.13 at 2:36 am

I was thinking along the lines David @1:23am stated. There may be a place for a hybrid model. I can recall classes that consisted of both big lectures, and “lab” sessions. You could replace the lecture with a MOOClike component, and offer the course at a discount (to current practice). What I haven’t heard mentioned here, is significant face to face peer interaction for the students. This is where taking strictly MOOCs from say home really falls down, the student is unlikely to develop a network of somewhat like minded students to have longtern interaction with. But, perhaps ten percent or so of the cost of a campus education/degree could be trimmed, by having some courses be hybrids?


Fu Ko 07.31.13 at 4:06 am

We’re being asked to accept the idea that the university — as opposed to the internet — provides the opportunity to argue? HMM.

Anyway, certainly, you can’t learn eye contact conventions on the internet. But it goes both ways. You can’t learn how to collaborate via mailing lists and bugtrackers in a meatspace discussion group.


Fu Ko 07.31.13 at 5:58 am

Just to make that more explicit — the very same technological trends that are bringing in the MOOCs and making the in-person university obsolete, are also making the in-person production form obsolete by replacing it with internet-mediated production. So, the obsolete university is where people learn to collaborate in the obsolete ways…


GRE 07.31.13 at 6:09 am

Donald, I concur with what you took away from the MOOC experience. I enrolled in the same course from down under. Whilst the lecture presentations were first rate, the additional context for deep learning were thoroughly lacking (discussion forums, assessment process). I have a friend who convenes a large open university course (distance + online learning) and his experience is that he has become more of an administrator of a platform than a teacher/researcher.


Tim Worstall 07.31.13 at 7:59 am

A question: what’s the difference between MOOCs and correspondence course degrees that people have been doing for the past century or so?

Sure, I understand that the technology is different. But in all of the above I don’t see any criticism of an MOOC that couldn’t reasonably be applied to a correspondence degree.

Yes, I know that some of those ain’t that great: but the U of London has been offering economics degrees from the LSE, philosophy from, I think, Birbeck, etc etc for ages now. Are those degrees as bad as MOOCs are said to be, or are they just fine and if they are then why are they different from what people think MOOCs will be?

On an entirely different point, my guess is that MOOCs will unbundle the relationship between teaching undergrads and research work. That will be more of a change to colleges than anything else.


Phil 07.31.13 at 8:42 am

my guess is that MOOCs will unbundle the relationship between teaching undergrads and research work. That will be more of a change to colleges than anything else.

My guess is that universities lower down the food chain will seize on MOOCs as a way to do just this, drastically reducing the number of academics employed in the process.

My reaction to MOOCs is frankly Luddite. It seems to me that they threaten my job and my friends’ jobs, and I don’t like ’em.


ajay 07.31.13 at 9:30 am

I was really surprised to read 18 because I have grown accustomed to discussions about MOOCs not even acknowledging the existence of the Open University. I’m sure the staff there would be fascinated to hear that they’re incapable of teaching liberal arts courses, and that their students don’t learn how to articulate their ideas in public.


Alex Bollinger 07.31.13 at 10:35 am

I agree that many college classes in the status quo aren’t taught that well. But I don’t see how the solution to large lecture classes is to put the lectures online. Lecture is the least effective way to teach, and well-taught classes rely less on lecture and more on problem sets, group work, reading, discussion, papers, and lots of feedback, and most of these can’t be reproduced online (I have done online courses and the “discussions,” such as they were, were not as rigorous as even a comments section of a blog).

So I disagree that it’s only small discussion classes that can’t be reproduced online. Feedback from professors is key, and the way these online classes are run there is very little of it for students. In the best class I took this past year had no discussion, but the professor had us writing 5 large proofs a week and he was reading them all, commenting on every step that didn’t make sense, and I cherish that feedback. There is no online replacement for that (unless a professor marks up a Word document, but that’s less efficient than using a pen and paper).

Also, supervision is key in traditional classes. 18- to 22-year-olds are still kids. They need weekly homework and to be told to turn in their assignments and to have fellow students to keep them going. They need regular tests and quizzes so they don’t leave everything to the last minute. This is my theory about why online schools have such terrible graduation rates – no supervision.

On the other end of the spectrum is lecture. Lecture is about as stimulating as watching TV (as MIT found last year) and any actual learning from straight lecture will be from notes being reread later. So why do MOOCs focus so much on lecture when lecture sucks anyway? Is it just because it’s the first thing people who don’t understand education think of when they think about education? And it’s cheap to put online? There is some good software for learning basic math and econ and other basic subjects out there that does teach (infinite practice problems because the computer can just switch out the numbers), but that’s been available for years while the MOOC obsession is more recent.

With that in mind, it’s a cute idea that administrators would use the money freed up by MOOCs to offer smaller classes where needed. Considering how tuition costs have risen much faster than professor salaries have, while professors are being replaced by barely-paid adjuncts faster than ever… yeah, I’m sticking with “cute.”

The whole MOOC thing, as it’s being done now, seems like a scam to me, to get students to fork over money for an inferior product with zero marginal cost. That they’re focusing on delivering part of the product – lecture – and the part that only people who don’t know understand how education works will think is important, just seems like a con to me. The business model depends on people not understanding what made the product valuable in the past.

Videos can’t tell you where your proof doesn’t make sense, but they can replicate what your parents think college should look like, especially if your parents didn’t go to college.


matt 07.31.13 at 12:03 pm

I wouldn’t recommend anyone spend that much money on a “middle-class” finishing school. If the face-to-face collaboration doesn’t have a powerful relation to the intellect and to the imagination, it’s not worth it.


magistra 07.31.13 at 12:13 pm

The key difference between online teaching/distance learning and MOOCs is the “Open” bit, i.e. having them for free. The Open University, University of London etc have been doing these kind of courses for years (my husband’s been involved with distance learning legal courses, for example), but it takes a lot of time and effort both to produce courses tailored for distance learning and then to provide student support remotely. And neither of those come cheap. You can get some economies of scale with designing very standardised courses, but it’s very hard to scale up student support and still keep it good quality.

I’ve discussed possible courses that MOOCs might work for in more detail elsewhere. I think they might work effectively for taster courses and as introductions for some specialist fields (e.g. rare classical languages), but not in many other contexts.


RSA 07.31.13 at 12:37 pm

Tim Worstall: [W]hy are [distance learning courses] different from what people think MOOCs will be?

I think one difference is the M in MOOC, which has to do with scale, and scaling can’t happen without significant automation. It’s not surprising that the founders of Coursera, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, have backgrounds in artificial intelligence (probabilistic reasoning, machine learning, and so forth); Sebastian Thrun and Mike Sokolsky at Udacity are also AI people (robotics, pattern recognition, etc.).

In a conventional distance learning course, in my experience at least, it takes work to overcome the lack of face-to-face interaction both with me, the instructor, and between students. I spend more time writing email messages, for example, clarifying things for students; I’ve found that group student projects are much riskier; many kinds of coordination are more difficult not only because interactions are online but because my DE students have greater demands on their time than on-campus students (which is typically why they’re taking a DE course in the first place). My DE course has the same structure of a regular course I teach, though–I don’t have the resources to figure out how to translate my interactions with students into multiple choice questions that can be automatically graded and analyzed, or how well largely unsupervised peer learning would work as a substitue for individual meetings with me.

The MOOC leaders I mention above are making a bet that huge amounts of data, processed appropriately, can give enough leverage to make the approach successful. They’re brilliant, and I think the chances are good that MOOCs will work in one way or another. It’s still pretty exploratory right now, though.


Marc 07.31.13 at 12:54 pm

@20: That’s precisely the point. MOOCs are no different, fundamentally, from correspondence courses or learning by watching a video or reading a book. These methods haven’t been viable alternatives to a college education for most people, although they do work for some. And the basic reason is that they only serve certain styles of learning and that they are not as good for learning as interaction with an actual teacher.


Marc 07.31.13 at 1:02 pm

It’s also important to note that things like MOOCs really do represent a nice advance in lifelong learning and adult education. If you’re curious about the Roman Empire, or cosmology, you’ll get more out of a MOOC than out of reading a book or watching a TV series – if you pay attention and participate.

I also think that online tools can be effective aids for teaching, and in particular they may lead to replacing the traditional lecture class with more effective discussion groups supplemented with interactive online exercises.

But neither of these is a wholesale replacement for a college education. And that’s even before you start to deal with things like rampant cheating – far, far worse than that for in-person classes. As in, someone else can take your class or test for you, and who will know?


Barry 07.31.13 at 1:18 pm

This is in reply to points raised by several people.

I find it interesting that much of the support for MOOC’s is allegedly based on the idea that large lectures are bad, since MOOC’s are large lecture grown like the Blob.

In terms of ‘big data’, we do have some on MOOC’s – what’s known publicly is that the completion and pass (percentage) rates are in the single digits, and that university if California which tried them for actual courses got similar results.


Nathan 07.31.13 at 2:05 pm

I also worry about ‘flooding the labor market’ so to speak. Consider that many people in the 1980s did not have an MBA, which naturally made those that did have one valuable assets. Today, nearly every university offers some type of MBA, many more varieties of them are available, and many more people have them. I’m completely in favor of lowering barriers to education, especially those from low income backgrounds, but we’ve already seen how the value of a BA has been diluted for various reasons. If the bar is set too low, what does that do to the value of these degrees. If everyone has them, are they even worth pursuing?


Alex K. 07.31.13 at 2:13 pm

We do need more data to analyze the potential of MOOCs — but we need quality data, which can come only from further experimentation. It’s highly unlikely that MOOCs will stay in the form that they are now.

It’s a bit silly to compare completion rates at this stage, when the payoff for completing a MOOC is minimal, as there are no generally accepted accreditation mechanisms for them. Even beyond the lack of accreditation, the “let’s try it out a bit, since it costs me nothing” effect should be large anyway.


SamChevre 07.31.13 at 2:32 pm

I’m unconvinced that face-to-face interaction is necessary for learning discussion-based social skills. Over the years, I’ve practiced my discussion skills, and learned a lot, from online interactions. I think the discussions on (e.g.) Making Light, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, and my professional bulletin board (Actuarial Outpost) are at least as good opportunities to practice social interaction as most college courses.


Alex K. 07.31.13 at 2:46 pm

Here is a classic warning about simplistic extrapolation from current data in highly dynamic environments — even when the extrapolation is done by experts.

In 1995, in an article called “The Internet? Bah!” Clifford Stoll writes:

“After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper

How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it’s an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure.

Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping—just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn’t—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.


Still hands-on 07.31.13 at 2:48 pm

In science, technology, and engineering, key skills come from the manipulation of actual materials in the real, non-digital world. No on-line course can give experience in, for example, pipetting, cell culture, DNA analysis, distillation, or a thousand other lab skills that are critical to success in most STEM careers. MOOCS are for the digerati only.


AcademicLurker 07.31.13 at 3:03 pm

In few years everyone will be buying their pet food online. The disruptive technology of the internet makes in inevitable. Only a luddite could disagree.

Better pick up some shares of Pets.com now before you miss out!


Alex K. 07.31.13 at 3:15 pm

As AcademicLurker and Clifford Stoll illustrate, grumpy refutation of the most extreme hype can make one blind to the possible or likely seismic shifts in traditional ways of doing things.

The Borders bookstore went out of business and Barnes and Noble is not doing too well — I doubt that bringing out over-hype about pet food stores is an amusing consolation for Borders shareholders.


Rich Puchalsky 07.31.13 at 3:18 pm

Borders went out of business for reasons that have little to do with the Internet.


Alex K. 07.31.13 at 3:31 pm

“Borders went out of business for reasons that have little to do with the Internet.”

Slate has an article whose title agrees with you ( “What killed the big-box retailer? Hint: It wasn’t the Internet.”) but the content of the article does not.

It turns out that it was not the internet that killed Borders — it was Borders’ inability to adapt to the internet. Ok then.

Here one quote from the Slate article:
“The very large assortment size was an advantage early on before Amazon,” says one former director of merchandise planning. “However, by its very nature the ‘internet’ was better at quickly and efficiently connecting customers with obscure titles and bringing the ‘long tail’ to market. Thus, competing on assortment size was especially vulnerable to internet retailing and Borders suffered disproportionately as the ‘long tail’ customers abandoned them.”


Paul 07.31.13 at 4:13 pm

Perhaps orthogonal to this point — and perhaps moot in the youtube era — is the idea of making lecture material available at the student’s convenience. Back in the Jurassic Era when I was a student, every section of Econ 101 was taught by a full professor — via the magic of videotape. He would tape his first meeting of the day in a small classroom, not a cavernous 1000 seat lecture hall, and that same “performance” was shown to the later class meetings that day.

Seems pedestrian now but it prefigured a lot of the touted advantages of online learning: full professors teaching 100-level courses, standardized delivery and content, access to the material after the fact. This is best suited for lectures/presentation of material, not interactive examination of it, as noted above. We think of higher ed as a component of social mobility, but generally only in terms of the hallowed diploma, not for the workaday social skills that one learns. I have assumed that one of the key attributes conferred by a four-year degree is the ability to make a plan/set a goal and follow through. But I didn’t face any challenges fitting into a middle class milieu.



Anarcissie 07.31.13 at 4:15 pm

@13, 24 — The point of class is not to be more competent, effective or virtuous, but to have power over somebody else. Teaching a individual prole how to imitate and deal with Yalies (small classes, personal interaction, sun-dappled grassy campus with attractive passers-by) will be of considerable advantage to the prole, but teaching a great mass of proles will simply move the goalposts. The higher classes will simply find new ways of differentiating themselves from the lower, and your privileged niches will be correspondingly restructured.


Omri 07.31.13 at 4:40 pm

The value of a MOOC to a conventional university has little to do with the MOOC itself.

1. It showcases the syllabus of the MOOC’s offline, non-massive counterpart, demonstrating that said course has substance to it.

2. It demonstrates the value of taking offline, small scale classes precisely because of the outcome discrepancy between the MOOC and conventional course.

3. It helps squeeze scams like the University of Phoenix out of business. (Why pay umpteen K to the U of Phoenix for something MIT offers gratis? For a certificate you can show to an HR manager, who will then immediately ask the question I just did?)

4. It helps the mission of the university by spreading knowledge, however inadequately, among MOOC takers (like me) who cannot at the moment enroll in anything else.


clew 07.31.13 at 5:48 pm

I don’t think the good comment sections could scale the way MOOCs expect to; they need constant and trained moderators, more than one, and at Making Light at least many of the moderators know each other from face-to-face interactions (some quite frequent). They seem more like the Open University courses as described here.

IRC channels, etc, are so great when they work, but lot of hackers try very hard to meet each other in person when they can anyway. Defcon, hackerspaces, hacker dojos, sprint weekend meetups, the venerable 2600 meetings, the continuing importance of Silicon Valley, all meatspace. Also, some channels become vile, I wouldn’t want to fling most of the population into them without moderation.

On the other hand, I think IRCs do do some of what STEM needs in personal interaction. Alex K, I am not an engineer, but my engineering classes have all discussed matters of judgement and ethics. Loosely, STEM automates what it can, so a lot of what engineers are *for* is what’s left — judgement. People pick these up better from other people, but it takes (in my experience) informal interactions, sometimes a lot of it.

(Things I am dubious about without further argument: that the lower classes never argue issues, that 18-22 year olds are necessarily children, that we would not increase the amount of useful work that could be done if we educated more people well. And finally, that lectures are always dreadful. Am I really the only person who has liked a lot of them? I like being told a story! Solving PDEs is a hell of a story if everyone in the room is interested in them! History is even better!)


Barry 07.31.13 at 6:18 pm

Alex K. 07.31.13 at 2:13 pm

” We do need more data to analyze the potential of MOOCs — but we need quality data, which can come only from further experimentation. It’s highly unlikely that MOOCs will stay in the form that they are now.”

There has been experimentation. The result still s*cks. Now, I expect MOOC’s to evolve, but right now they need tremendous evolution to get to the point where they’re worth anything.

” It’s a bit silly to compare completion rates at this stage, when the payoff for completing a MOOC is minimal, as there are no generally accepted accreditation mechanisms for them. Even beyond the lack of accreditation, the “let’s try it out a bit, since it costs me nothing” effect should be large anyway.”

Please re-read my comment with comprehension.


Marc 07.31.13 at 6:25 pm

@32: You’re acting as if we know absolutely nothing about the limitations of online classes and distance learning. The skeptics are pointing out that these new MOOC tools are actually an awful lot like the old tools in terms of pedagogy. That’s not a minor point or detail.


AcademicLurker 07.31.13 at 6:33 pm

I’ve might have mentioned here before that I’m currently running part of an online course in addition to my regular teaching.

Newsflash: doing online education right requires work, and not just during the initial setup. The folks who are under the impression that you just record the lectures and then sit back and rake in the $$$ are either delusional or grifters (or delusional grifters).


Clay Shirky 07.31.13 at 7:07 pm

Late to the party, but I’m consistently astonished at the criticism that “MOOCs are bad because they replicate the large lecture form.” (Alex #23 as an example here, et passim throughout the academic blogosphere.)

There are, I think, two separate problems here: hypocrisy, and inaccuracy.

Hypocrisy is normal when a privileged class is threatened with insurgent competition (as with Phil #21, in an “It’s funny ’cause it’s true” way.) In this version, we in the academy have recently and conclusively discovered that large lectures are a terribly bad, no-good way for imparting information to tender young minds, so MOOCs must never ever use these methods. Why, we ourselves are getting ready to ban lectures altogether, the Provost put a task force together just last semester, their hard-hitting report is coming out next Thursday…

Of course, all this hand-wringing will have no real effect on our own institutions. When you look at the economics of higher education, the large lecture for non-majors is an absolute cornerstone of the current economics. Of the hundred small liberal arts colleges at the top of various rankings, 9 out of 10 have classes of 50 students or larger. These are not state universities — these are places like Oberlin, Swarthmore and Pomona. For all the posturing and hand-wringing, if all the country’s colleges and universities banned large lectures tomorrow, they would implode financially by next graduation day.

So we’re left with people saying “We in the academy, knowing that lectures are pedagogically inferior to other ways of teaching, must deny our competitors the ability to offer lectures, in order to preserve the sanctity of real college teaching. We must, at the same time, maintain our own ability to offer lectures for credit, in order to preserve our salaries.”

Inaccuracy comes in when people assume that MOOC videos are just registration shots of a standard lecture, from the back of the classroom. Circa 2007, maybe, as with the videos lectures Yale produced in that year, but having just taken a MOOC on game programming in Python, taught by Scott Rixner and his colleagues from Rice, I can tell you (as someone who has designed Intro To Programming courses being taught today at NYU) it is a good class, and its good in part because they’ve figured out how to use video well. Rixner, in particular, has done a remarkably good job figuring out how to explain things on camera.

In a 50 or 75 minute programming class, you will typically cover 3-4 separate subjects (event-driven programming, breaking out of inner loops, what have you), and mark the differences while talking. The videos, by contrast, can be 12-20 minutes on just one subject, so a student can skip over what they get, and double down on what they don’t. They can start, stop, and repeat the video, they can watch it over and over, they can refer back to it when they get in trouble or when they are doing the problem sets, and so on. Contrary to the people assuming that an explanatory video is just a single-camera recording of an explanatory lecture, the form is becoming quite different, as people figure out what works and what doesn’t.

What’s more, the video is intertwingled (h/t Ted Nelson) with everything else in the course. The video chunks have elements of both classroom instruction and resource materials listed on the syllabus. The videos themselves have embedded questions, where it pauses to see if you did or did not understand something. The videos have embedded URLs to other resources, so Rixner can say “Now open your problem set” and tailor the lecture more closely to that.

In the fantasy world of people who think it should be OK to get college credit for learning cosmetology in a classroom, but not for learning Python programming online, the proponents of MOOCs are idiots about real-world education, who all think that college is just about information delivery, that video can only be used to capture real-world lectures, and that it will therefore be nothing more than a sham.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, people working on scalable education have junked the ‘Yale 2007’-style video in favor of uses of the medium that really teach, by doing what online video does well, not what taped lectures do badly.

This belief that somehow the people trying to figure out new ways of teaching things will only adopt the stupidest possible models, and will never ever learn from their mistakes, is perhaps the silliest belief in the whole debate. Before posting something about how MOOCs are just taped lectures or whatever, I wish the poster would say to themselves “The man who helped invent self-driving cars is now thinking about education. Does what I am about to post make sense in light of that fact?”


Dr. Hilarius 07.31.13 at 7:27 pm

MOOC’s are proposed as a means of providing quality education at competitive, market-driven rates. Actually, they are a cover-up for decades of underfunding public universities and colleges. Sure, some faculty at elite schools are participating in the creation of MOOC’s, but I’m certain their children will continue to obtain elite, non-MOOC educations. Even if, and I dispute it strongly, MOOC’s could offer the same quality as traditional modes, students are still being tracked into an education which will exclude them from mobility into the elite. Do you think that a letter of recommendation from a MOOC instructor will carry any weight with graduate or professional schools? MOOC students will have no opportunity to socialize with faculty or graduate students where face-to-face networking provides opportunities for internships, collaboration in research or feeling comfortable in the physical presence of smart, educated people.

Alex K.: Your comments about the lesser need for face-to-face interaction in the sciences is bizarre. I can’t speak for engineering but in the biological sciences students meet with faculty during office hours to discuss ideas, ask questions and seek guidance. Same with graduate teaching assistants. Students spend a lot of time in labs. Almost all topics require hands on learning. Plant taxonomy requires handling plants, anatomy requires dissections, ecology requires field trips, physiology requires … And in all of these classes as much learning goes on among students as ever takes place in a formal lecture. Hell, when I took matrix algebra and multi-variate stat, we spent far more time working out problems together than we ever spent in class. At the University of Washington, where my wife teaches and I once did, freshman students can opt for FIG (freshman interest group) participation. Students in these groups take classes together and work together outside of class time. The results are impressive in terms of student achievement and satisfaction. The idea that the social sciences and humanities require more personal interaction than the sciences is ignorant prejudice.

The point that higher education is important in introducing students to middle and upper class mannerisms is valid. If you come from a background where everyone in your family has a college degree it may be hard to understand that things you take for granted are foreign and intimidating to students from poor or working class backgrounds. Simply having the assurance to speak up and voice an opinion in class or to a professor is a class attribute.

MOOC’s can have value, particularly for students who already have degrees and want to supplement their education without having to enroll in a new degree program. But the push for them is a cynical attempt to distract from the continued underfunding of public education.


Alex K. 07.31.13 at 7:35 pm

“The folks who are under the impression that you just record the lectures and then sit back and rake in the $$$ are either delusional or grifters (or delusional grifters).”

That’s an odd characterization of the people doing the MOOCs, since quite a few of them had more lucrative ways of spending their time than getting involved in MOOCs.

Nor has anyone claimed that recording the lectures is all that should be done with MOOCs — I know I started commenting here by mentioning how periodic offline meet-ups could be helpful for MOOCs.


Ragweed 07.31.13 at 7:36 pm

AcademicLurker @ 43 – agreed. I have taken a few online classes, from actual, accredited non-profit universities. Some of the classes were great, other s—-d, and the difference was how much the professor was willing to put into it.

Fu Ko 07.31.13 at 5:58 am
Just to make that more explicit — the very same technological trends that are bringing in the MOOCs and making the in-person university obsolete, are also making the in-person production form obsolete by replacing it with internet-mediated production. So, the obsolete university is where people learn to collaborate in the obsolete ways…

I think that overstates the case a bit – in-person skills are still very important in many aspects of life and work. However, distance-mediated workplaces are becomeing quite common. I have been working the last couple of years with a manager I have never met, located on the other-side of the country from most of the work-group I belong to and communicating entirely by email and the occasional phone or conference call. Online classes were actually very comperable.

Online discussion groups are a bit of a crap-shoot. They really depend on the willingness and capability of class members to actually engage. I think the fact that the internet is so prone to flame-wars and the fact that you are not anonymous tends to make online-class discussions a little overly cautious. There is less tendancy to disagree.

What is nice about an online discussion is the ability to marshall facts quickly and easily, which is an important skill. If you want to disagree with what someone says about interest rate spreads and you can pull data from FRED and present a graph that makes your point, or go grab your source papers and actually back up what you say with references. This is an important skill and would be worth including in any online class, MOOC or otherwise.


Ragweed 07.31.13 at 7:38 pm

I meant online discussion sections should be worth including in any class, online or not (from what I can see they are getting pretty common).


Clay Shirky 07.31.13 at 7:59 pm

Dr. Hilarius #47:

“But the push for them is a cynical attempt to distract from the continued underfunding of public education.”

From where I sit, you have the sign bit wrong on that comparison: continued perseveration on the idea that any day now someone is going to give us billions of dollars, with no strings attached, is a cynical attempt to distract from the continued need to figure out ways of educating more students per hour of faculty input.

State funding for education in the US has been declining steadily since 1975 — we’ve had 40 years to adapt, and we haven’t done it. The cost of a Bachelors’ rises every year (over a thousand percent since the late 70s) while its value is declining. Waiting around to be saved by free money is really just a way of preserving the system as it works today for tenured faculty, than try to think of a way to produce an acceptable education cheaply.


peggy 07.31.13 at 8:09 pm

I’ll just reiterate the fact that many STEM fields require hands on, face to face interaction. Using only electrons, how does one build a soccer playing robot? Or grow cells in tissue culture and examine them under a microscope, picking up on abnormalities? Or make a bridge out of toothpicks, using the principals of structural engineering?

These are typical laboratory exercises that I have done or seen performed. One can learn to do calculations online, just as I learned calculus from a textbook. It’s much harder to become proficient in sterile technique without actual practice.


Marc 07.31.13 at 8:14 pm

@46: Christ almighty, this reeks of self-serving bullshit. It’s those deluded professors who are frantically attempting to preserve “privilege” in your screed. As opposed to pointing out, for example, that the model being offered is an inferior substitute being promoted in bad faith?

Your long-winded post is an extended exercise in bad faith argument. People are saying that there is no fundamental substitute for teacher-student interaction. They’re saying that online education has developed a dismal actual track record for educating students; that MOOCs have dismal completion rates, serious academic integrity problems, and don’t come even close to replicating a college major program. There is substantive research that MOOCs are the worst for the least prepared students. These are the actual arguments that you’re facing, which are not ones about the format of the delivery.

And people have been talking for a very long time about the limitations and defects of the large lecture format – so complaining about attacks on it as hypocritical are absolute nonsense.

Other countries manage to provide university educations at a fraction of the cost to students that we do, just as with medical care. There is nothing fundamental that demands that we replace face-to-face education.


Clay Shirky 07.31.13 at 8:47 pm

Marc #53:

Being a tenured professor at an R1 university with no financial interest in online education and publicly opposed to for-profit MOOCs, I’d say I’m quite a bit farther from ‘self-serving’ than the people opposing MOOCs because they might lead to fewer faculty jobs.

And not only would I never deny that new forms of online education (they are not all MOOCs, often being neither massive nor open) are an inferior substitute to a good classroom experience, I’ve made that point myself, several times. But here’s the thing: that always happens.

When the printing press came along, it wasn’t the people who could afford hand-lettered vellum buying Gutenberg’s cheap knockoffs. The first steam-driven looms produced mediocre cloth, only bought by the people who couldn’t afford the hand-woven stuff. The press and the loom didn’t produce a great product for the same price for elite customers. They produced an acceptable product at lower price for everyone else. Those inventions only changed the world because the latter group outnumbers the former ten to one.

As to the counter-arguments you raise:

* Some forms of online interaction have higher failure rates, as with the recent SJSU+/Udacity courses. Others have better rates. When SJSU replaced their Intro to Circuits class with lectures from MITx and TAing from locals at SJSU, student success rates went up, not down.

Most attempts to educate people using online tools won’t work, just like most attempts to do anything new. But some are working already.

* MOOCs have completion rates no worse than Harvard; the drop-offs just come at different points. Of all the people who indicate an interest in taking a class at Harvard, well over 90% are rejected before they see the inside of a classroom. With MOOCs, anyone can start a class. In both cases, the gap between “interested in taking a class” and “finished the class” is huge, but traditional colleges filter at different places than recent educational forms.

* Any MOOC that has a serious academic integrity problem shouldn’t be offered for credit. But the American Council on Education recently selected 5 it thought should be offered for credit? Are they wrong?

* MOOCs do not come close to replicating a college major. Agreed. But do some of them come close to being good enough to be worth offering credit for?

* MOOCs are worst for the least prepared students. Also agreed, which, I think, is why the SJSU experiment that had on-campus TAs and used class for work sessions worked better than pure online experiences. I suspect there will be more “Videoed professor/local TA” education for those students, especially as early results produce better outcomes than traditional classes.

As for lectures, here’s what I think is hypocritical: thinking that it’s OK for your institution to offer lectures for credit, but that’s not OK for anyone else to do so. For all the bluster about MOOCs and lectures (already an inaccuracy, as I noted earlier), I haven’t seen anyone also propose banning lectures on their own campus.

You could certainly suggest to your administration that, in order to be in line with good pedagogy, you must cancel all lecture courses forthwith. Just be sure to have smelling salts on hand for the VP of Finance.


Fu Ko 07.31.13 at 9:48 pm

Ragweed, I don’t mean to suggest that meatspace is already obsolete. However, it’s at least as obsolete in the productive economy as it is in the university.

In other words, I think we should expect the proportion of education occurring through the internet instead of meatspace to roughly reflect the proportion of productive collaboration occurring through the internet instead of meatspace. The two trends are actually one trend: things are moving onto the internet.


Chris Grant 07.31.13 at 10:01 pm

Using only electrons, how does one build a soccer playing robot?

If this could be done, it would be shocking.


Substance McGravitas 07.31.13 at 10:02 pm

You need tweezers for starters.


stubydoo 07.31.13 at 10:32 pm

What can’t MOOC’s teach?

MOOC’s can’t teach an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.

MOOC’s can’t offer sufficient lifestyle immersion to prevent reality from intruding on the comfortable flimflam that you prefer selling.

MOOC’s can’t inculcate the habit of being dismissive or outright abusive to people whose only flaw is a failure to unquestioningly adopt your comfortable assumptions.

MOOC’s can’t offer the opportunity to sign up for a lifetime as a member of a select privileged in-group that keeps the riff-raff at bay with arbitrary shibboleths.


Alex K. 07.31.13 at 11:34 pm

“Using only electrons, how does one build a soccer playing robot?”

As it happens, I did build a robot, for my son (or at least that was the excuse).

The way I did it was shockingly simple: I ordered the parts online and then I watched the Youtube video to properly assemble it. It doesn’t play soccer, as it has wheels, but the lesson is easy to generalize: if the materials are cheap enough people can buy them and then they can collaborate online to build whatever it is they want to build. When expensive equipment is involved then obviously MOOCs would need arrangements with brick and mortar institutions.

Surely this is not too hard to imagine?


Fu Ko 08.01.13 at 12:02 am

“Using only electrons, how does one build a soccer playing robot?”

A 3D printer is required to translate electrons into robots.

Thankfully one can be acquired for less than the price of a single credit hour at a top university.


matt 08.01.13 at 1:09 am

“I haven’t seen anyone propose also banning lectures on their own campus”

Some colleges have no lectures. Are they the best positioned to navigate the higher-ed disruption?


CSC 08.01.13 at 1:34 am

Tenured/tenure-track faculty make up about 25% of university faculty, and as Shirky himself admits (@46) they have nothing to fear from the rise of MOOCs–they’re already set. The current reality in academic labor is adjuncts working for less than a living wage.

Given that reality, I would be interested to hear Shirky’s thoughts about what the labor outlook might be like for the people who will administer these for-credit MOOCs. Surely at some point in many of these courses written work will have to be submitted that can’t be graded by a machine. The current system, where graduate students do a lot of that grading, is not going to be around for much longer given the lack of real academic jobs. Has anyone thought of a way to pay assessors a decent rate without breaking the bank? The current grading farm-model seems like one possibility. If there is a less dystopian option, I’d love to hear it.


Kaleberg 08.01.13 at 3:02 am

MOOCS sound attractive, but why burden people with having to deal with video. Why not just provide a transcript? You can read a 60 minute lecture in maybe 15 or 20 minutes, so why waste all that extra time? Besides, its easier to back up and re-read than dink with rewind and the like when watching a movie. Video is inherently a very slow, inconvenient way to learn unless there is something critical that needs to be visually displayed and cannot be displayed using a more modern interactive technology.

As best I can tell, MOOCS are just correspondence courses of the kind you used to find offered on matchbook covers back when everyone smoked and matchbooks were everywhere. Judging from the 6/33 article in Fortune on ICS, the biggest provider in the last century, MOOCS have a similar completion rate to old fashioned correspondence courses. As noted in the 1933 article, the fact that so few people complete the course helps pump up the profit margin, and my guess is that this is what the big MOOC backers are counting on.

I have always learned a great deal from lectures. I miss the old planetarium lectures that have been replaced by movies and light shows. Unlike videos, it is much harder to just drift off while listening to a lecture as one can when watching videos. Besides, if you really want to understand the material, you want the traditional combination of lectures and recitations. In the science and engineering fields, the graduate students teaching the recitations can provide interesting insights, tips, techniques and hints that are otherwise impossible to discover.


Barry 08.01.13 at 10:56 am

Clay: “You could certainly suggest to your administration that, in order to be in line with good pedagogy, you must cancel all lecture courses forthwith. Just be sure to have smelling salts on hand for the VP of Finance.”

Straw-man much?


Marc 08.01.13 at 2:06 pm

It’s also interesting that the MOOC advocates don’t actually demonstrate that their techniques would give any substantive savings. (Why should they? After all, they’re like Gutenberg, obsoleting reactionaries with quills!)

Typical student to teacher ratios in universities are of order 25-1. Allot 100 K / year for salary and benefits (this is well over the median); the labor cost is about 4,000 / student/ year. Add another 1,500 a year per student for graders (advanced undergrads) and a TA.

In the best case you minimize this cost – which is a fraction of what a university education is. The real costs are the physical plant, administration, and so on. And the cheapest current forms of instruction are – you guessed it – larger lectures. (50 students, by the way, is a group size where it’s perfectly possible to have real discussions – another straw man. The actual place where MOOCs are relevant are the 100+ student classes where there is less opportunity for in class discussions – and where the savings, if any, will be small.)

This means that you actually could afford smaller class sections – if you made other trade-offs, such as less administration and less spending on the physical plant. The fact that faculty salaries have barely changed relative to inflation pretty decisively implicates these other factors as the actual things changing the cost of universities. And, of course, the defunding of public universities overall.

There is a broader context here. The MOOC advocates aren’t addressing the real costs, they’re promoting a method with serious demonstrated problems, and they’re promoting a method (effectively, barely guided self-study) that works only for a minority of students. Those are real reasons to object. (By contrast, if the alternative is “learn about science by watching TV” they can be a huge advance. The goals matter!)


Lasker 08.01.13 at 3:11 pm

Marc @65,

While it is not perfectly on point as Khan Academy is not a MOOC, I thought you would be interested to know that initial, informal studies have supported your first paragraph above:


Integrating online learning into school setting where the criteria for success have to include helping everyone, not just the most motivated 5-10% can indeed be effective but requires at least as many teacher resources as traditional methods and so cannot be expected to save money without sacrificing quality.

MOOCs and resources like MIT’s OCW or Khan Academy are excellent textbook replacements*, and lousy teacher replacements.

*Of course, a good textbook can itself sometimes replace a class for some subset of motivated readers. The rapidly growing and improving online resources available probably enlarge this subset, which is a good thing – but that shouldn’t become an excuse to take away access to the resources that most students still rely on.


Alex K. 08.01.13 at 3:35 pm

“The real costs are the physical plant, administration, and so on.”

Which is why MOOCs, by unbundling actual teaching from the entire university administrative apparatus, has promising prospects for decreasing costs.

I actually agree that providing good TAs for a relatively small group of students is not that expensive — that’s why the scope for MOOCs experimenting with various online student to TA ratios, various frequencies of offline meet-ups, various certification procedures, etc. is enormous.

” The MOOC advocates [are] promoting a method with serious demonstrated problems, and they’re promoting a method (effectively, barely guided self-study) that works only for a minority of students. ”

Here’s where the completely irrational bias that treats the current form of MOOCs as the only possible form of MOOCs rears its head.

Ninety percent of start-ups fail — there is no reason why the current incarnations of MOOCs should be exceptions. Last time I took a Udacity course, which was about a year ago, they still had bugs in their grading software. Yet some people expect us to believe that all possible experimentation with using MOOCs for teaching has been exhausted. That argument is so bad that it barely deserves an incredulous stare as refutation.

I’m not at all above accusing current members of academia of selfish reasons for opposing MOOCs. I’m just fishing for more interesting good reasons for opposing them.
The fact that that established universities spend only a fraction of tuition on actual teaching is not one of those good reasons however.


L 08.01.13 at 4:31 pm

I recommend all those who criticize the pedagogical value of MOOCs take one (preferably not in their field). It isn’t that different than watching an extremely boring documentary and reading a book about the same subject.

This is something that’s always been possible with the current technology. Combining some form of message board/social media with it does not make it the printing press or the automatic loom @Clay Shirky.

It’s been shown the children do not learn much from watching Sesame Street–or from watching anything. Only the most extraordinary high school student would develop adequately from all online classes or a MOOC. Try teaching yourself to play an instrument from books and videos and see how far you get. It’s absolutely amazing what an actual teacher can do everywhere else. But somehow a MOOC is going to work at the college level. (What about the graduate level? I suspect there too, people will doubt it will work.)

MOOCs aren’t a massive technological transformation of anything since they use technology that’s long been available. The only reason they might be a threat to adjunct faculty in higher education is that there is a movement to gut higher education for working class to middle class students and MOOCs fit so well into that agenda–and that’s where you find most of the adjuncts.

“As best I can tell, MOOCS are just correspondence courses of the kind you used to find offered on matchbook covers back when everyone smoked and matchbooks were everywhere. Judging from the 6/33 article in Fortune on ICS, the biggest provider in the last century, MOOCS have a similar completion rate to old fashioned correspondence courses. As noted in the 1933 article, the fact that so few people complete the course helps pump up the profit margin, and my guess is that this is what the big MOOC backers are counting on.”


Everyone defending MOOCs please take one and see. (If you have a visceral hatred of professors like at least one of the above commentators seems to, you may find it comforting. Your intellect will not be threatened–it’s absurdly easy to get all the quizzes right. If that feeling of being judged or inferior is your problem or believing that San Jose State turns people into elitists, you won’t have that problem. The MOOC can’t and won’t transform your thinking in any way though–you will probably retain almost nothing from it.)

A printing press evolution in teaching is yet to be found–when we can download knowledge into the brain, THAT will be a printing press.


Marc 08.01.13 at 6:01 pm

@66: Good points. Online tools can be great ingredients for learning; for example, you can run simulations rather than staring at fixed static examples in a book. You can have hyperlinks to more detailed explanations elsewhere. This is a huge advance from what you get from introductory textbooks.

Most people, however, hit a place where things just don’t click, and they benefit tremendously from working closely with a teacher who can identify the stumbling block. And that is even before you go into things like writing, research, language or experiments, where the advantages of working directly with a teacher are even greater.


Martin Bento 08.01.13 at 8:38 pm

I’m with Clay Shirky here. We’re comparing primitive and mostly free MOOCs with what long-established universities can achieve. His lecture argument is not a strawman: if a lot of your objection to MOOCs applies to lecture courses generally, you should oppose lecture courses generally, but few universities can function economically without them, so the seminar classes you praise are being subsidized by the lecture classes you deride.

But the telling objection is Marc’s who tells us at length that most of the expense of University is not in payment to the actual teachers but to physically running the place and the bureaucracy and imagines this an argument against MOOCs – who need no physical place to run beyond a server farm, and no bureaucracy beyond a web development team and whatever may be required for accreditation.

If I’m running a MOOC, I figure I can easily give 80% of revenues to faculty salaries. Very conservative estimate, especially with scale. Currently, the things are free, so that’s 80% of zero unless I run at a loss, but we’re looking ahead here. Why should I not be able to afford more adjunct time per student – give students more one on one interaction with adjuncts or with full professors, just online. Virtually all other expenses of the university have been eliminated. First thing I do is go to Harvard and Princeton, find the best adjuncts, and make them a better offer. Scholars in far off countries who may prefer to stay in their far off countries – no problem, I can hire them and pay them American wages, which must be really nice in India. The interactive materials are persistent (till outdated) so I will either pay a good sum once or a royalty, but not actually a salary for that component, only for online interaction. Therefore the bulk of my revenue can go to paying qualified people to directly interact with students in small groups or one on one, just online.

Now I agree that in person interaction is better for some things. To a fair degree, though, I can swamp that with quantity, especially for undergraduates – you are effecting paying only for faculty interaction, so you will be able to get much more of it than at Harvard. It will be video-conferencing or forums like this. Some disadvantages, perhaps, but enough to outweigh getting vastly more actual attention? I don’t think so.

I see the advantages of traditional universities. I even defend eye candy. When you’ve been working a long time on something, I believe it helps productivity if, when you take a break, you can enter a beautiful environment. Beauty refreshes the mind. But it’s a subtle difference not a huge one. And if you’re studying online, you can move to Guatemala or Indonesia and get better eye candy than you ever will at Yale.


Substance McGravitas 08.01.13 at 8:43 pm

This seems like an effort to marry MOOC and classroom. I have no idea what to make of it yet, but the presence of Lawrence Summers and Bob Kerrey makes me queasy.


SamChevre 08.01.13 at 9:23 pm

I think this comment from Marc @ 53 is at the core of my attention to MOOC’s.

“People are saying that there is no fundamental substitute for teacher-student interaction.”

Right, that’s what people are saying. My hope is that MOOC’s make it so that we can (again) separate “demonstrating what you know” (credentialing) from learning.

I expect that for some subjects, and some students, face-to-face teacher-student interaction is the only way to learn. I would like it to be possible to get the credentials for what you know whether you learned it in that (very expensive) system or not. (And that is how universities historically worked; examiners and tutors were different people.) So, if you can learn basic programming using the Euler project, great. If you need teaching face-to-face, that’s fine too. At the end of it, you should have the same credential–one that demonstrates programming ability, not that you paid someone to teach you to program.

Discussions don’t scale for free, but near-synchronous discussions that are text-based seems to me to be a pretty important difference between online courses and correspondence courses. People played chess by mail for decades, but it was never a big part of the game; online play is a very significant part of chess today.


Collin Street 08.01.13 at 9:45 pm

One of the things that strike me here is that a lot of the problems with learning are with overcoming preconceptions; putting people into an unfamiliar/different/”special” environment and giving them the exact same information will help here. Theatrics and formalism and “bullshit” presentation issues matter, here.


Phil 08.01.13 at 9:55 pm

It certainly is funny to find myself – a 0.5 lecturer at a post-92 – enlisted in the ranks of the bloated professoriat by that bold disruptive insurgent Clay Shirky. Not in a “because it’s true” way, though.


Jerry Vinokurov 08.01.13 at 10:04 pm

It’s weird to me that people in the sciences are saying things like “In-person interaction doesn’t matter!” I don’t know, maybe that’s so for some narrow subset of “the sciences” with which I have no personal experience, but having majored in math and physics I can tell you for a fact that personal interaction matters a great deal for learning. I can’t tell you how many classes I had where in-person interaction with the professor or a TA made a serious difference in my level of understanding. People also underestimate the effect of in-person interaction between students. At Berkeley, there was (and still is) a large room in LeConte called the Reading Room, where physics students would congregate to do their homework. Collaboration and discussion with other students was a huge part of my education; if I hadn’t had that opportunity to share thoughts with other people working on the same material, my understanding of it would have been much poorer.

In short, setting aside the other serious questions raised about MOOCs, it just isn’t the case that simply replacing in-person lectures with video lectures suffices to provide the same level of education; not in science any more than in literature or history. There’s so much more to learning than just going to lectures, and MOOCs are not going to be able to replicate those other aspects.


Barry 08.02.13 at 12:01 am

Martin Bento 08.01.13 at 8:38 pm

” I’m with Clay Shirky here. We’re comparing primitive and mostly free MOOCs with what long-established universities can achieve. His lecture argument is not a strawman: if a lot of your objection to MOOCs applies to lecture courses generally, you should oppose lecture courses generally, but few universities can function economically without them, so the seminar classes you praise are being subsidized by the lecture classes you deride.”

The point is that there’s nobody worth mentioning who’d prefer lectures to small classes, or larger lectures to smaller ones. MOOC advocates are correct to point out that much (too much) of college instruction is lectures, and large lectures, as opposed to the ideal version of college, with professors teaching small classes with a lot of personal interaction.

However, what MOOC’s do is to take large lectures and to blow them up by a factor of 10’s or hundreds, and replace live lectures with pre-recorded lectures. When somebody’s ‘reform’ plans increase the worst features of the old system, it’s legitimate to question those reforms.


Fu Ko 08.02.13 at 1:34 am

Jerry, “personal interaction” might be important, but the idea that personal interaction requires geographical adjacency is quite mistaken. Freenode IRC is a vastly more valuable resource (for personal interaction) than a typical university, if you are a programmer. This is not because of something to do with programming, but just the fact that programmers are the early adopters of all internet communication technologies, so there is already a critical mass of users to interact with. (Of course it’s not as if it’s just programmers, although it’s mostly people who are connected to that world in some way.)

Even at the time I was studying math at a university, and living on campus, I found it far easier to find people with whom to talk about math on IRC than on campus. I could also talk with graduate students from better universities than my own. My own university was rather poor (I had a very bad high school record) and apparently most of the math majors were looking for a career teaching primary education. They tended to have difficulty even keeping up with the classes. Only the internet provided access to the type of math student who was vying for an academic career in research (which would correspond with the type who would talk about math socially).

Perhaps at another university, my experience would have been different. But I’m not so sure. After all, the people I did find on IRC were going to (or even teaching in) those better universities themselves. If I’m talking to a math professor on IRC at 2am, it’s almost certain that he’s not available to his own students at that particular time (except through IRC!).

This in itself does not say anything for MOOCs, but the idea that there is something magical about verbal interaction that puts it above written interaction is, I think, quite mistaken. Especially computer-mediated written interaction. Having a visible log, being able to type simultaneously without negotiating interruptions, being able to search, never having to ask anyone to repeat something (basically having the computer as an extension of your memory in the immediate conversation) — these are big advantages. Even if they weren’t, the supposed advantages of being in the same room over using video-enabled VOIP are even more dubious. And yet the advantage would have to be huge, to compensate for the immense geographic restriction in the number of persons you can connect with that way.

(All that said, I will add that most of my real education, in math or anything else, has been the product of simply reading books — not personal interaction or lectures.)


dax 08.02.13 at 7:59 am

Perhaps I remember badly, but I thought a recurrent criticism of professors at many (most?) American universities is that their students are learning in any case. The frat boys attend half the lectures, do a little work, and then whine they are entitled to an A- because they tried. There’s the occasional story of the child born in poverty dragging herself up by her bootstraps, but certainly my image of the anything but the highest part of American university education is teachers-pretending-to-teach and students-pretending-to-learn. If that’s the case, then why not MOOCs? The students can continue to pretend to learn, only for less. Obviously, many teachers won’t be able to pretend to teach anymore, but that’s capitalism, right?


dax 08.02.13 at 8:00 am

“their students are learning in any case” => their students aren’t learning in any case


guthrie 08.02.13 at 8:50 am

Dax #78- the problem is not what you say, rather it is that all the indications are that moocs are going to be used as a way to cheapen lectures whilst maintaining the cost of university degress, so the managers can get better carpets in their offices.
Or in other words, much of the sensible debate is not about the specific technology, but about the way it is used and the context in which it is used, and of course the way it has been overhyped.


hix 08.02.13 at 11:02 am

Didnt some nations, e.g. Sweden are already sort of get there the old fashioned way? Meaning students only spend very limited time in a classroom with few student, where the focus is on debate. Most learning then is done from books. Distance Universities are no new invention in the internet age either.


dax 08.02.13 at 11:53 am

“the managers can get better carpets in their offices”

Some of the savings should get passed on, either to state governments or customers (i.e. students). Perhaps tuition won’t go down, but at least it won’t go up by as much as it would have. That managers take their cut is a fact of life as old as the world, but it should only be a cut, not the whole pie.


Jerry Vinokurov 08.02.13 at 5:52 pm

@Fu Ko, #77,

Your points about IRC are well taken. Let me just say that by no means do I want to exclude any possible avenue of learning. If someone is more comfortable reading text than they are interacting with people verbally, they should have the option of doing that; in a traditional classroom, that’s kind of the default anyway. My concern about MOOCs is that they, by design, preclude a certain kind of in-person interaction between students and teachers as well as among students.

I do strongly disagree with the notion that there’s nothing different about in-person vs. online interaction. There’s a degree of spontaneity that you get from putting lots of people together in a room that’s much harder to replicate via a medium like IRC (the round-trip time for typing and reading is much longer than for verbal communication) and virtually impossible to replicate over email. Like any scientist, I communicate via email all the time, but nothing beats showing up to a conference and actually talking to a bunch of people in your field. I had this experience just a few weeks ago when I attended a small conference and the difference between what I got out of that and what I get out of email is just staggering to me. This spontaneity is important because it allows you to learn things you might not learn otherwise, and hear perspectives which might never get brought up in an email chain because the right people aren’t on it.

Now, I’m willing to believe that this is a matter of individual difference; maybe I’m just the kind of person who learns better by communicating vocally in person than by just reading text. But I don’t think I’m at all unique in this manner. A real problem with MOOCs is that they foreclose this option for those students for whom it would be ideal; on the other hand, traditional college courses do not foreclose on the option of doing all the work by yourself in isolation (or over IRC), if that’s what works for you. In that sense, the variety of learning environments available to a student of a traditional college is a strict superset of what’s available to a MOOC student.


Barry 08.02.13 at 10:10 pm

dax: “Some of the savings should get passed on, either to state governments or customers (i.e. students). Perhaps tuition won’t go down, but at least it won’t go up by as much as it would have. That managers take their cut is a fact of life as old as the world, but it should only be a cut, not the whole pie.”

If there’s one thing about neoliberalism, it’s that any ‘efficiencies’ will be retained by the elites, to an astonishing degree. And that applies in academia as much as in the non-academic world.


Dr. Hilarius 08.03.13 at 3:38 am

Clay Shirky@51: who said anything about free money? Yes, support for public education has been declining for decades. It’s not an accident or some act of nature, it is due to deliberate policy choices at the state and federal level. You seem to assume that this can’t be changed. Why? As for your snarky comment about tenured faculty, my spouse is not tenure track and my main concern is with the increased social stratification of students due to the high cost of education.

There’s no shortage of money. Just the will to allocate it to education.


Old MacDonald 08.03.13 at 9:30 pm

Clay Shirky makes some valid points, especially the ones about current MOOCs being the equivalent of trilobites fresh out of the primordial slime.

I’d argue for a greater vision, though. MOOCs are a building block of real automated instruction, the content delivery part. The missing part is a tutor, software that can observe the student closely and continually, and vary the instruction according to need. Software that says, “oh, you’re not paying attention. Get up and do 20 deep knee bends, and get a glass of water.” Software that can re-present material in as many different ways as required for the learner to understand it. Software that reinforces memory and learning in all the various ways that have (mostly recently) been discovered.

Some of the other building blocks already exist. Expert systems, machine learning, and the like have been around for a while. Quite a while, in some cases. With the recent release of software that recognises facial expressions, another important building block is in place.

The vision is of software that embodies the expertise of the best teachers, and adapts itself and the material to the needs of each individual student, in real time.

I call this “extremely individualised electronic instruction,” and I look forward to soon having many extremely individualised electronic instruction offerings (EIEIOs) to choose from.


Martin Bento 08.03.13 at 11:02 pm

I think the problem here is that people are thinking of these interactive lectures as the MOOC. To me, those are the first phase – they are what you can afford to give away free. But the economics of this are that eliminating all the expense of University but the teaching make possible to put a lot more resources into teaching.

I don’t recall taking any lecture classes at University that actually were just lectures. You had sections, which were much like seminars, a bit larger perhaps, and not expecting as much participation, but one could run them like seminars. These were typically run by grad students. Since grad students routinely did this, they were not necessarily good teachers – there was not necessarily any selectivity by teaching ability or inclination.

The interactive lectures and other materials, then, are the not the course: they are the materials. They are just (perhaps) proprietary materials of an institution.

Maybe this will become clearer if I plug some numbers in. Tuition and mandatory fees at Ivies now run over $40,000 a year. Students take 8-10 courses a year, so roughly $4500 – $5000 a course. Say I charge a fifth of that, $1000. I have the interactive lectures and other materials, but I also have small online discussion groups and individual online instruction. Out of that thousand, I give a royalty of 10% to the team that developed the materials – a star professor, maybe a curriculum/materials specialist, and a web developer (more realistically I will reduce it to a highly-flexible template). May not sound like much, but for 100,000 students that’s $10 million. And I could keep reusing this and pay royalties on it for years.

Say I break the class into sections of 15 students. Each of these get 6 hours a week of online video chat seminar, all the interactive lecture and related materials, an ongoing forum like this one (which does have advantages over real time. People can think out what they say more, and can go back and respond to precisely what someone else said, rather than how they might misremember it. Do people think these discussions would be better if we were all together in a room? I don’t. More fun, perhaps, or more bitter, but not better), and a half hour a week one on one with the section leader (if you don’t need this to master the material, this is your chance to go beyond the class material). They are graded partly on participation. The section leader gets 80% of the proceeds – $12,000. I’m under the impression that adjuncts typically make considerably less than that for a 15 person course even at Ivies. And they are doing the job of a grad student, not an adjunct. The lectures and materials are already there. They only have to grade things that can’t be graded automatically, like essays. All class participation can be recorded, making grading of that more fair and accurate.

This system is infinitely flexible. Want smaller sections? Pay more. More time? Pay more. 5 person section plus 1.5 hours/week of prof time? $2500. Don’t need one on one attention? Pay less. Lectures and materials only? $150. This way you can spend disproportionate money on the classes that really matter to you, or where you really need help, rather than paying a high price for all of them. And the section leaders can decide precisely what they want to take on.

And, at that salary, my section leaders need not be grad students. I can cherry pick from adjuncts who have cut their teeth at other colleges because I am outpaying everyone.

Will adjuncts really want to be reduced to the function of graduate students? Won’t they want to create their own lectures and make their own courses? Great! Did I mention that I pay on a royalty basis?

Meanwhile, 10% of the proceeds should be plenty to run the thing and make a profit, if I’m running for profit, once I have any scale at all. You don’t think so? 100,000 FTE students taking 8 $1000 courses a year? $80 million. How much do you think it costs to run a website to accommodate this for 100,000 students? $2 million would mean you are throwing a lot of parties. For all the dark warnings here about administrators here, it is they who should most fear this system. Why would a MOOC need any administrators at all? Unless accreditation mandates them, in which case accreditation standards should be revised.

At this point, all the work in complaints about in-person interaction is being done by “in-person”. You can’t just run into your professor in the quad, that’s true. The whole thing becomes more formal. But you also get an half-hour a week one-on-one, more if you like. That’s not nothing. There are real losses here, but there are also gains, and people seem to want to evaluate it looking only at the losses.

But of course some of these MOOCs are capitalist enterprises. Why would they pay so much to section leaders instead of keeping the money as profit? Well, because they have to compete with me in an open high-information market with relatively low cost of entry, and they will be selling an inferior product. Ironically, the one danger of this would come from established, especially highly-reputable players. Yale can put any junk in the world online, and, so long as they will provide regular Yale credit for it, they can charge a lot of money for it. They are Yale. Over time, this will degrade their reputation, but it could make them a lot of money in the meantime. I don’t think they will do this, but they could. But the only way Coursera is going to get their degrees respected is to earn it. This thread shows how skeptical an audience they are playing to.

This doesn’t address the socialization issue, or the entire complexities of the college experience. It describes a pure teaching institution, not one that engages in research. Those are more complex issues. But let’s at least nail down the basic question of what this economic structure makes possible. Eliminating the physical campus, eliminating virtually all need for administration and replacing it with a modest technical staff, and reducing lectures to media that can be presented at effectively no marginal cost – these things mean that what you are paying for is faculty attention, and you can therefore get much more of it for the same cost or lower cost.


Collin Street 08.04.13 at 12:37 am

“Why would a MOOC need any administrators at all?”

To calculate royalties, pay wages, and collect fees? Determine enrolment paperwork, grant and deny access to online student resources, hire, fire, promote and demote, work out which courses should be offered, market the courses you do offer [that is, tell people who moght be interested about your capabilities], calculate taxes, &c&c&c.

Your understanding of the admin costs of running any sort of business seems scanty: most of what I’ve written above is common to all enterprises, stuff that nearly everybody, certainly anyone who’s ever supervised anyone, would have encountered in their normal working lives.

[I mean, the only administrative savings I can see the cutbacks on physical plant: MOOCs won’t need to pay for real-estate, which isn’t trivial, but every other cost element is the same, as far as I can tell. Or worse: your hour-by-hour enrollments going to massively complicate your fee structure and overheads there.]


Martin Bento 08.04.13 at 2:04 am

No other savings than real estate? Really? Online courses are still going to require campus police forces? And security guards? They’re still going to require building maintenance and campus vehicles and gardening and painting all the eye candy? An onsite gym, a parking authority with a permitting system and parking people to enforce it? They still need onsite health clinics? They’re still going to require planning, building, etc permits for all construction and for any changes? They’re still going to maintain Student Unions and all the campus activities? They’re still going to need an office with an administrator and at least one administrative assistant for each department?

Royalties are calculated by computer. Wages paid by direct deposit. Most of what you’re talking about is automated in this day and age. I can write the code to handle my complex fee structure just fine, thank you. You can basically do it all in the database, other than user interface. You collect fees with a webpage that takes debit or credit cards. If you take financial aid, you have to interface with that system, which is probably somewhat complex, but once you build the interface, it should be pretty automated. If not, the system needs to be changed. After all, lenders interfacing to Fannie Mae, even for buyer qualification – automated; calculation and application of Medicaid benefits, once eligibility is determined – automated. If Pell Grants are behind, they need to catch up. Enrollment is pretty simple unless you want to be selective. There are advantages to that so it may be worth doing. Hiring and firing takes something, but you don’t seem to appreciate how much play there is in my numbers (and yes I did exaggerate the cheapness a bit for effect, but this idea that online will not save huge sums of money is ridiculous). Suppose I am off by a an order of magnitude in cost of operation. Barely makes a difference. Two orders of magnitude means I would have to charge about $300 more a class – still vastly cheaper than traditional alternatives. And that means I’m paying $200 million to run a website for 100,000 students and maybe 10,000 faculty.. But if I had to, I could afford that just fine. The high cost of university is physical plant, plus an established way of doing things, plus other considerations than teaching, primarily research, residence (though dorms themselves, I would imagine, are a net revenue source), entertainment, and the like. An office, an administrator, and at least one admin for each dept – that’s not exactly real estate, but it’s not something you need for a web enterprise. I’ve seen how Universities operate, though only from a student level, and I’ve also seen how web-based corporations large and small operate, from the inside, and the latter are much more efficient. We are talking here about the University as a web-based enterprise.

Instead of starting with a contemporary University, which presupposes a lot of ways of doing things that may not be optimal but merely established, start with Udacity or Coursera and ask what they need to add to function as I’ve described. They will have to add some things, to be sure. But there’s nothing they should have to add just because that’s how brick and mortar Universities do it, unless that is enforced by accreditation standards, in which case the standards should be changed.


Chris Williams 08.05.13 at 12:03 pm

I work at the Open University in the UK. It’s the best university on the planet. It confronted all the problems of distance higher education from 1969, and solved as many of them as it possibly could through using high technology. Notably, it took us about a year to learn that pointing a camera at a lecture doesn’t work: you have to make a TV programme.

Since then, it’s continually thrown money and effort trying to solve the remaining problems of HE distance education through technology. It’s drawn a bunch of conclusions from this process about what works and what doesn’t, and I think is a relatively lean organisation – if we were to re-start from scratch I bet we could save about 20% of our costs (thus taking the cost of a 3-year undergrad degree down to £12,000), but not a lot more than that. I’ve learned not to be surprised that most (but not all – props to ajay) participants in this ongoing ‘MOOC’ discussion don’t appear to have paid the first bit of attention to this half-a-billion-year-institution, but hey, Gutenberg.


Martin Bento 08.05.13 at 6:54 pm

Chris, never heard of OU. That’s even cheaper than what I had. Do you do a lot of small group and one on one interaction online?


Martin Bento 08.05.13 at 9:41 pm

Now that I think of it, I think I have heard of Open University, but don’t remember specifically what I heard.


prasad 08.05.13 at 10:41 pm

Alex K, one of the joys of that article about the internet being humbug is that it was written for Newsweek!


Chris Williams 08.05.13 at 10:42 pm

Martin, small groups yes, one on one, no. Also face to face, but this is optional and it’s often hard to offer it locally.

Martin @89 “An office, an administrator, and at least one admin for each dept – that’s not exactly real estate, but it’s not something you need for a web enterprise.” – as we used to say on USENET, “ROTFLMAO”. Someone’s got to write this stuff, remember?


Martin Bento 08.06.13 at 12:35 am

Chris, you mean someone has to write the video? Sure, but just once – not every time you use it. The writing has no marginal cost. Do you have a physical office, an administrator, and an admin for each subject you offer a degree in at Open University?


Chris Williams 08.06.13 at 9:40 am

Someone had to write the module, Martin – 300,000 words don’t just write themselves, more’s the pity. We do not have an office for every degree subject we offer, but we do have an office for every subject discipline. Even if my department is a slimmed-down affair (20 academics for c. 3,000 FTE students) which largely concerns itself with course production, commissioning, research, quality assurance and strategic direction, it’s still a department. If I want it to be there in twenty years, I need it to have an institutional structure. I know that startup venture capitalists – and their spruikers – aren’t very good at thinking about creating enduring institutions, but that’s currently their problem, not mine.

In other news, we just graduated our youngest ever student – a 16 year old with a BSc in maths. Like I said, the OU is the best university on the planet.


Martin Bento 08.06.13 at 11:13 am

Chris, it seems to me that the 10 million I mentioned is pretty good compensation for someone to write 300,000 words, put a voice over on stock footage, and indeed do considerably more than that. If I’m doing high production value in house, then I probably keep more for that and give less royalty, but it hardly matters: with 100,000 FTEs paying $1000 a course (average) and giving 80% to section heads, I’ve got $160 million dollars to play with. I can afford tons of office space, equipment, I can do research into education, but no way do I need to take on all the expenses of a physical university. That’s what I’m saying, not that I will not have an institutional structure at all. I think my office space – probably more bullpen style – would be divided more by function than academic field, but nothing hinges on this: I’m not going to suffer from being unable to afford office space, and, if doing it by subject works better, fine.

As for Silicon Valley being incapable of generating lasting institutions, you guys are not exactly the Catholic Church. Perhaps you feel you will outlast Google, but it is far from clear that you will.


Chris Williams 08.06.13 at 11:38 am

Martin, our production costs are c.30% of the total cost. These have economies of scale. Presentation and overhead costs are c.70%. These don’t have economies of scale, so long as we commit to teach and to assess the course material in a quality-controlled framework. That’s the tricky bit. If we could mechanise that, we’d have done so already, since we employ this lot:

this lot:

and have just founded this:

I suspect that delivering a degree (not the same as delivering part of a degree) is not as straightforward as you appear to think it is. Good luck with your plan.


Martin Bento 08.06.13 at 8:54 pm

Chris, so you have curriculum development as 30% with economies of scale, presentation and overhead at 70% with no economies of scale. I had presentation featuring mostly direct faculty interaction and other things faculty are employed to do (like grading) at 70%. But I’m also paying adjunct faculty 3 or 4 times what they usually get, so I have a lot of room to lower that if I need to put more into overhead. I’m also charging somewhat more than you, although much less than traditional private universities (and public ones of comparable quality have comparable costs, just less of it paid by the student). I didn’t see curriculum development as needing hundreds of millions of dollars, but I built into my estimates ridiculous amounts of wiggle room, dance room really.

But I don’t think you get what I’m doing here. The arguments that have dominated this thread are: 1) Online education is inherently much inferior and therefore can never take the place of traditional universities, and 2) Online education will not actually be cheaper, or much cheaper, than traditional universities, because the savings are actually quite limited. I take it you do not agree with either of these propositions. Neither do I. In the course of trying to get people to see how far off base they were, I came up with a hypothetical plan as an example. This is not a business I have founded. It is not even a business plan I worked on for a month. It’s something I thought up in about the time it took to type it. And so far the main criticism has been Collin’s: that I did not allow enough for conventional business overhead (Collin seems to have been lucky enough never to work at a company that heard of outsourcing. In my world, no one does their own payroll anymore. I suppose Universities do, though) And your that I did not allocate enough to specifically academic overhead and curriculum development (though I have scale working for me there, and persistence). But I had $78 million is revenue that I did not even allocate – could be profit, if I’m for profit, though I’m skeptical of for-profit universities (but that is a different issue, so I set it aside), but also could go to curriculum or overhead. Not enough? I don’t really have to pay adjuncts $12,000 a course. I think they are underpaid, and I would like to cherry-pick, but the market will actually bear much less than that and still let me cherry-pick. But I’m pulling stuff out of the air as the barest proof of concept, and you seem to object that the existing institution you work with has a more detailed estimation of how it works. I certainly hope so. You are in serious trouble otherwise.

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