Daphne Koller's TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)
Daphne Koller’s TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

The end of MOOCs

This is the last part of my chapter on MOOCs for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. In a series of prior posts, I have looked at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. Here I summarise this section and look at why MOOCs have gained so much attention.

Brief summary of strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs

The main points of my analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs can be summarised as follows:


  • the main value proposition of MOOCs is that through the use of computer automation and/or peer-to-peer communication MOOCs can eliminate the very large variable costs in higher education associated with providing learner support and quality assessment
  • MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection
  • MOOCs can be useful for opening access to high quality content, particularly in Third World countries, but to do so successfully will require a good deal of adaptation, and substantial investment in local support and partnerships
  • MOOCs are valuable for developing basic conceptual learning, and for creating large online communities of interest or practice
  • MOOCs are an extremely valuable form of lifelong learning and continuing education
  • MOOCs have forced conventional and especially elite institutions to reappraise their strategies towards online and open learning
  • institutions have been able to extend their brand and status by making public their expertise and excellence in certain academic areas


  • the high registration numbers for MOOCs are misleading; less than half of registrants actively participate, and of these, only a small proportion successfully complete the course; nevertheless, absolute numbers of successful participants are still higher than for conventional courses
  • MOOCs are expensive to develop, and although commercial organisations offering MOOC platforms have opportunities for sustainable business models, it is difficult to see how publicly funded higher education institutions can develop sustainable business models for MOOCs
  • MOOCs tend to attract those with already a high level of education, rather than widen access
  • MOOCs so far have been limited in the ability to develop high level academic learning, or the high level intellectual skills needed in a knowledge based society
  • assessment of the higher levels of learning remains a challenge for MOOCs, to the extent that most MOOC providers will not recognise their own MOOCs for credit
  • MOOC materials may be limited by copyright or time restrictions for re-use as open educational resources

Why the fuss about MOOCs?

It can be seen from the previous section that the pros and cons of MOOCs are finely balanced. Given though the obvious questions about the value of MOOCs, and the fact that before MOOCs arrived, there had been substantial but quiet progress for over ten years in the use of online learning for undergraduate and graduate programs, you might be wondering why MOOCs have commanded so much media interest, and especially why a large number of government policy makers, economists, and computer scientists have become so ardently supportive of MOOCs, and why there has been such a strong, negative reaction, not only from many traditional university and college instructors, who are right to be threatened by some of the claims being made for MOOCs, but also from many professionals in online learning (see for instance, Bates, 2012; Daniel, 2012; Hill, 2012; Watters, 2013), who might be expected to be more supportive of MOOCs

It needs to be recognised that the discourse around MOOCs is not usually based on a cool, rational, evidence-based analysis of the pros and cons of MOOCs, but is more likely to be driven by emotion, self-interest, fear, or ignorance of what education is actually about. Thus it is important to explore the political, social and economic factors that have driven MOOC mania.

Massive, free and Made in America!

This is what I will call the intrinsic reason for MOOC mania. It is not surprising that, since the first MOOC from Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller attracted 270,000 sign-ups from around the world, since the course was free, and since it came from professors at one of the most prestigious private universities in the USA, the American media were all over it. It was big news in its own right, however you look at it, especially as courses from Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford professor, and others from MIT and Harvard followed shortly, with equally staggering numbers of participants.

It’s the Ivy Leagues!

Until MOOCs came along, the major Ivy League universities in the USA, such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley, as well as many of the most prestigious universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and McGill, and elsewhere, had largely ignored online learning in any form.

However, by 2011, online learning, in the form of for credit undergraduate and graduate courses, was making big inroads at many other, very respectable universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, and the University of Maryland in the USA, and also in many of the top tier public universities in Canada and elsewhere, to the extent that almost one in three course enrolments in the USA were now in online courses. Furthermore, at least in Canada, the online courses were often getting good completion rates and matching on-campus courses for quality.

The Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities that had ignored online learning were beginning to look increasingly out of touch by 2011. By launching into MOOCs, these prestigious universities could jump to the head of the queue in terms of technology innovation, while at the same time protecting their selective and highly personal and high cost campus programs from direct contact with online learning. In other words, MOOCs gave these prestigious universities a safe sandbox in which to explore online learning, and the Ivy League universities gave credibility to MOOCs, and, indirectly, online learning as a whole.

It’s disruptive!

For years before 2011, various economists, philosophers and industrial gurus had been predicting that education was the next big area for disruptive change due to the march of new technologies (see for instance Lyotard, 1979; Tapscott, undated; Christensen and Eyring, 2011).

Online learning in credit courses though was being quietly absorbed into the mainstream of university teaching, through blended learning, without any signs of major disruption, but here with MOOCs was a massive change, providing evidence at long last in the education sector to support the theories of disruptive innovation.

It’s Silicon Valley!

It is no coincidence that the first MOOCs were all developed by entrepreneurial computer scientists. Ng and Koller very quickly went on to create Coursera as a private commercial company, followed shortly by Thrun, who created Udacity. Anant Agarwal, a computer scientist at MIT, went on to head up edX.

The first MOOCs were very typical of Silicon Valley start-ups: a bright idea (massive, open online courses with cloud-based, relatively simple software to handle the numbers), thrown out into the market to see how it might work, supported by more technology and ideas (in this case, learning analytics, automated marking, peer assessment) to deal with any snags or problems. Building a sustainable business model would come later, when some of the dust had settled.

As a result it is not surprising that almost all the early MOOCs completely ignored any pedagogical theory about best practices in teaching online, or any prior research on factors associated with success or failure in online learning. It is also not surprising as a result that a very low percentage of participants actually successfully complete MOOCs – there’s a lot of catching up still to do, but so far Coursera and to a lesser extent edX have continued to ignore educators and prior research in online learning. They would rather do their own research, even if it means re-inventing the wheel. The commercial MOOC platform providers though are beginning to work out a sustainable business model.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Of all the reasons for MOOC mania, Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan resonates most with me. It should be remembered that by 2011, the consequences of the disastrous financial collapse of 2008 were working their way through the economy, and particularly were impacting on the finances of state governments in the USA.

The recession meant that states were suddenly desperately short of tax revenues, and were unable to meet the financial demands of state higher education systems. For instance, California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts between 2008-2012, resulting in a shortfall of 500,000 places in its campus-based colleges. Free MOOCs were seen as manna from heaven by the state governor, Jerry Brown.

One consequence of rapid cuts to government funding was a sharp spike in tuition fees, bringing the real cost of higher education sharply into focus. Tuition fees in the USA have increased by 7% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with an inflation rate of 4% per annum. Here at last was a possible way to rein in the high cost of higher education.

Now though the economy in the USA is picking up and revenues are flowing back into state coffers, and so the pressure for more radical solutions to the cost of higher education is beginning to ease. It will be interesting to see if MOOC mania continues as the economy grows, although the search for more cost-effective approaches to higher education is not going to disappear.

Don’t panic!

These are all very powerful drivers of MOOC mania, which makes it all the more important to try to be clear and cool headed about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. The real test is whether MOOCs can help develop the knowledge and skills that learners need in a knowledge-based society. The answer of course is yes and no.

As a low-cost supplement to formal education, they can be quite valuable, but not as a complete replacement. They can at present teach conceptual learning, comprehension and in a narrow range of activities, application of knowledge. They can be useful for building communities of practice, where already well educated people or people with a deep, shared passion for a topic can learn from one another, another form of continuing education.

However, certainly to date, MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate that they can lead to transformative learning, deep intellectual understanding, evaluation of complex alternatives, and evidence-based decision-making, and without greater emphasis on expert-based learner support and more qualitative forms of assessment, they probably never will, at least without substantial increases in their costs.

At the end of the day, there is a choice between throwing more resources into MOOCs and hoping that some of their fundamental flaws can be overcome without too dramatic an increase in costs, or whether we would be better investing in other forms of online learning and educational technology that could lead to more cost-effective learning outcomes. I know where I would put my money, and it’s not into MOOCs.

Over to you

This will be my last contribution to the discussion of MOOCs for my book, so let’s have it!

1. Do you agree with the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs that I have laid out? What would you add or remove or change?

2. What do you think of the drivers of MOOC mania? Are these accurate? Are there other, more important drivers of MOOC mania?

3. Do you even agree that there is a mania about MOOCs, or is their rapid expansion all perfectly understandable?


Bates, T. (2012) What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs, Online learning and distance education resources, August 5

Christensen, C. and Eyring, H. (2011), The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education, New York, New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons,

Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility.Journal of Interactive Media in Education, Vol. 3

Hill, P. (2012) Four Barriers that MOOCs must overcome to build a sustainable model, e-Literate, July 24

Lyotard, J-J. (1979) La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir: Paris: Minuit

Tapscott, D. (undated) The transformation of education dontapscott.com

Watters, A. (2013) MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive, open online courses The Digital Shift, 18 April


  1. Work in progress for comment:

    The Philosophy of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and their Application to Tertiary and Secondary Education.
    Brenton Groves, Masters in Education by Research grovesbr@optusnet.com.au.
    Supervisor: Nicola Johnson.
    Federation University Australia, School of Education, Churchill, Victoria



    “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

    Article 13.2 (c), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966, ratified by Australia 10 December 1975 (https://www.humanrights.gov.au/international- covenant- economic-social-and-cultural-rights-human-rights-your-fingertips-human-rights ).

    Abstract under preparation)


    The first tertiary-education MOOC was offered in 2011 (only 4 years ago) when Professor Sebastian Thrun at Stanford University announced that he would be offering his in-house Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class in parallel for free on the web. A few weeks later, 160,000 people had registered. 23,000 a passing grade with a Certificate of Completion, using exactly the same criteria as Stanford in-house students.

    These figures are rather startling. Normally Professor Thrum might teach, say, 600 students in classes of 40 with much of the lecturing done by post-grads. In this case two professors without teaching assistance assessed 23,000 students (20 years worth) with “academic rigor.” Midterms and finals were the same for online and Stanford students.”

    The review goes on to say that “Most of the videos were of the professor’s hand, writing on a white sheet of paper. Perhaps surprisingly, this made students feel as if they were privately tutored. Although interactivity was limited, the most popular questions from student were answered weekly during recorded office hours sessions and the two professors were quick to address issues raised on the forums.” Industry experts taking the class out of curiosity seemed to enthusiastically tutor their less advanced classmates. (The Good MOOC, 2013)

    This single example leads to a number of conflicting conclusions:

    • Subjects are free and there are no acceptance criteria required by anyone, no matter how unqualified. Numbers are unlimited and students are completely uncontrolled.
    • In-depth analysis by standard academic criteria shows that MOOCs have more academic rigor and are a far more effective teaching methodology than in-house teaching.

    • Class sizes can be scaled up to hundreds of thousands without increasing the workload on the individual lecturer teaching the subject or the expense to the university.
    • Students feel they are being individually tutored, face-to-face.

    • The tertiary staff-room: “Although MOOCs are a worthwhile experience and ought to be continued, connectivism as a learning theory has significant theoretical problems and should be profoundly revised if it is to explain and foster learning in such environments.” (Clara & Barberat, 2014)
    MOOCs: Most of the real teaching appears to be by the students themselves.

    In the succeeding four years MOOCs have become the biggest educational bandwagon in history. In just one example out of hundreds, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health topped one million MOOC enrollees as of March 31, 2014 several months shy of the second anniversary of their first offerings in July 2012. 50,000 earned a Statement of Accomplishment that will count for academic credit if they are in-house students.

    With MOOCs, our faculty can reach more learners in one course than they would have throughout their entire careers,” said Dean Michael J, Klag, MD, MPH. “Sharing our knowledge and research with the world is an essential part of our mission of improving health and saving lives. MOOCs are part of a growing trend in online education that aims to bring high-level instruction from faculty at leading institutions free of charge to anyone who has the interest and access to the Internet,” he stated. (Johns Hopkins, 2014)

    On a personal note, I have taken six MOOCs. I abandoned one because it was boring. A lot of other students must have agreed with me because the company offering it has since closed down its MOOC business. The five others had an academic rigor far above any classroom course I have taken and required mastery learning of the entire material to gain a pass. If you are interested in learning a subject rather than a piece of paper, only the most elite universities can compete and they are the ones running the MOOCs so far.

    Stanford University is the fourth most prestigious in the world, home of the first MOOC and a main pillar of edX. President John Hennessy has said, “Massive Open Online Courses are too rigorous for the average online student and too large to successfully engage and motivate most students” “and many taking the online courses at Stanford find they are “not ready for the material at the same level” as the brightest participants.”

    And yet, 23,000 unknown individuals with no qualifications wandered into Stanford University online and passed under exactly the same assessment criteria as required by in-house students. They took the 100 top places, BTW.


    • The best teaching is done on an individual face-to-face basis by a teacher who knows why his discipline works and is driven to transfer this knowledge to others, even if he/she has to drag them in off the footpath. Methodology doesn’t matter. Horrible example: Julius Sumner Miller.

    • Motivation and psychology of MOOC students. In any large group with motivation to a common cause there will be many teachers who don’t know they are teachers and many experts who can not communicate ideas to others. With an open forum, the leader’s main job is bookkeeping and maintaining public order.

    • The more things change, the more they remain the same. Three pre-Internet Age MOOCs: (Clark, 1906; NARA (GI Bill), 1944; Keller, 1968).

    • The Internet is the largest physical structure ever built by humanity and is completely invisible. It has caused the biggest paradigm shift in human history over the last 25 years, bigger than the shift to agriculture and cities 10,000 years ago or of the invention of the printing press in 1439. It is an open peer-to-peer network subject only to permission by both parties.

    • University academics who want to teach instead of publishing papers have moved their classroom from their university sandstone buildings and administration to the Internet. The nature of the Internet makes them superstars of tertiary education.


    Clarà, M. & Barberàt, E. (2013, September 30). Three problems with the commrctivist conception of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30, 3, 197-206. doi: 10.1111/jcal.12040

    Clark, J. (1906, September 14). The Correspondence School–Its Relation to Technical Education and Some of Its Results, Science, New Series, 24, 611, 327-334. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1633383?__redirected

    Drake, S., Contributor (2014, February 3). Stanford president: MOOCs should not be so open, massive. Silicon Valley Business Journal. Retrieved from http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2014/02/03/stanford-head-moocs-arent-open.html

    Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (2014, April 28). Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Reaches MOOC Milestone: One Million Enrollees. [Newsletter]. Retrieved from http://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2014/johns-hopkins-bloomberg-school-of-public-health-reaches-mooc-milestone-one-million-enrollees.html

    Keller, F. (1968). Good-Bye, Teacher… Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1968, 1, 78-89. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1310979/

    NARA (2014). Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944). U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. Retrieved from http://www.ourdocuments.gov/print_friendly.php?page=&doc=76&title=Servicemen%27s+Readjustment+Act+%281944%29

    The Good MOOC (2013, May 17). A review of the Stanford AI Class [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.thegoodmooc.com/2013/05/a-review-of-stanford-ai-class.html

    • Thanks, Benton. We obviously disagree, particularly regarding your statement ‘Methodology doesn’t matter.’ It does matter in terms of pedagogy
      Perhaps our goals are different. I want to see most students succeed, provided they are willing to put in the work. It is far too easy for an expert to hide behind his expertise and not communicate it effectively, then blame the student for being dumb.
      At the end of the day, if Stanford MOOCs are so great, why won’t they recognise successful certificate completion for admission or credit? One approach for the privileged, and boring Internet lectures for the rest of us? No, thanks.
      If by ‘Methodology’ though you mean whether a lecture is delivered face-to-face or online, then I’ll agree with you. It’s likely to be ineffective for the majority of learners, either way, although there are always exceptions. Unfortunately every lecturer thinks they are the exception.

  2. Tony Bates says:
    November 17, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    TB: At the end of the day, if Stanford MOOCs are so great, why won’t they recognise successful certificate completion for admission or credit?

    Stanford in-house US$55,000 a year. MOOCs free. And for employment, successful MOOCs are a better bet than Stanford’s paper because the holder has proven him/herself in the real Internet Age world, even if they are a dog or a cat. But Stanford’s paper (and a good time) + MOOCs + free is the best thing since sliced beard if you can afford it.
    Stanford spends thousands on selecting a first-year intake. Why not three MOOC verified graded-certificates in the discipline? Work of an afternoon by the departmental secretary.

    TB: We obviously disagree, particularly regarding your statement ‘Methodology doesn’t matter.’ It does matter in terms of pedagogy.

    It matters terribly if you are submitting a peer-reviewed journal article – one of the best if you are in to that sort of thing.
    Clarà, M. & Barberàt, E. (2013, September 30). Three problems with the commrctivist conception of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30, 3, 197-206. doi: 10.1111/jcal.12040

    But this article has nothing to do with MOOCs as a teaching delivery product. University academics who want to teach instead of publishing papers have moved their classroom from their university sandstone buildings and administration to the Internet. The nature of the Internet makes them superstars of tertiary education selling their services back to the university. For the economic leverage of a MOOC see one of the best papers on the Web:


    (Thanks Tony – BRG).

    TB: I want to see most students succeed, provided they are willing to put in the work.

    Why? Udacity lowered their product to junior college level and they are out of the MOOC business. MOOCs are competency-based at a very high level with no outside ideology. The customer (student) votes with his feet if he/she disagrees with the professor.

    TB: One approach for the privileged, and boring Internet lectures for the rest of us? No, thanks.

    I am very privileged with two PhDs in education and engineering. Five of the six MOOCs I have extended my knowledge with very hard work. One of them resulted in a lesson plan for junior secondary students on radiation decay without mathematics using M&Ms. Note: In the classroom matter (M&Ms) is not conserved.

    MOOC are not privileged at all. Any dog or cat can enter if they can type.

    MOCC results follow the bell-shaped curve. The only criteria are the student’s motivation and ability to match patterns (IQ). Both are wholly within the individual student’s mind.

    TB: If by ‘Methodology’ though you mean whether a lecture is delivered face-to-face or online, then I’ll agree with you. It’s likely to be ineffective for the majority of learners, either way, although there are always exceptions.

    As I stated above, methodology doesn’t matter to a MOOC on either end. From Wikipedia:

    “Mark Hopkins (February 4, 1802 – June 17, 1887) was an American educator and Congregationalist theologian, president of Williams College from 1836 to 1872. An epigram – widely attributed to President James A. Garfield, a student of Hopkins – defined an ideal college as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other”.

    Note: I have always stated that a university is a library surrounded by things that don’t matter. I have since added that the Web is the ultimate library – BRG.

    If you want to educate your students instead of teaching them, only one methodology works. Reference:

    Skeptics beware: Online courses work.
    Lauren Landry – Online Learning is Just as Effective as Traditional Education, According to a New MIT Study
    Associate Editor, BostInno
    09/24/14 @3:59pm in Education

    “If professors want to improve outcomes in either setting, researchers suggest an approach called “interactive engagement pedagogy,” where students regularly interact in small groups and participate in peer-to-peer learning”


    Thanks for the space.

    Brent Groves

  3. First I was introduced to MOOC August 2011 at AI at Stanford .
    Then Daphne Koller and Prof Thrun and Ng monetised it .
    I understand they decided to make Money out of it .

    I have known online for the last 20 years. And I have been very sorry with the bad online courses and degrees and prices.


    That is the only part I appreciate about MOOCs .

    My conclution ” online , a good online , by first class universities ” are good .
    I do not generelise it as MOOCs . Just good online by good universities that simple with degrees sure .

    When we have that HE problem of the USA and the World will be solved .


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