MOOCs and The Change of Higher Education


The American writer H. L. Mencken once said that there is always a well-known solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong. MOOCs look neat, are plausible and… too many get it wrong! MOOCs captured the imagination of venture capitalists, academics and university administrators and this is a rare thing for higher education. Enthusiasm and a bit of passion in this field is always a welcome change. The problem is that – despite exuberant enthusiasm surrounding them – MOOCs remain marked by many unanswered questions and still fail to clarify how they will deal with many crucial pedagogical and managerial aspects. Again, we do not talk about online education here, but MOOCs!

Most probably major changes lie ahead for MOOCs, as these course platforms will change even more than universities that were supposed to be replaced by these online solutions. In very simple words, we can say that it becomes clear that MOOCs are simply not enough to change higher education and stay just as one small bit of the complex set of social, economic, cultural and even technological issues impacting higher education.

The Economist and The New York Times, academics and various experts in education proclaimed “the year of the MOOC” and that the end of the campus as we know it is certain. The excitement around MOOCs became so extreme that anyone asking for the old kind of evidence-based arguments was pinpointed as an outdated conservative fighting against the Enlightenment. Groupthink is was shaping for a good time policies for higher education, making the new virtual silver-bullet a solution for most important problems confronting the future of colleges and universities across the world: MOOCs promised to solve inequity and barriers to access, increasing costs and explosive student debt, quality assurance, sustainability, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. The magic of clicks and “innovation” was evident to all who identified with the ‘progressive’ pack.

When Anant Agarwal, the President of edX (the MOOC consortium launched by Harvard and MIT) went to The Colbert Report to discuss about his initiative, Stephen Colbert used again his subversive humour to ask some questions that went unobserved by many university presidents and managers:

“I don’t understand – Colbert said – You’re in the knowledge business in a university… Let’s say I had a shoe store, ok, and then I hired you to work at my shoe store. And you said, <Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s give the shoes away for free>… I would fire you and then probably throw shoes at your head.”

Obviously, the business model proposed by MOOC need to make sense for all those venture capital investors. Some already say that this is why most probably MOOCs will serve the universities and change after their needs and models. This means that the MOOC idea is disrupted much more than the “old university” will be ever disrupted by the MOOC movement.

Fortunately, this story had the typical fate of all fads: it went from irrational enthusiasm to a more balanced view, where many evaluate the positive role of MOOCs, advantages and limits, proper uses and possibilities to enhance their role for teaching and learning in line with students and universities’ interests. Some went from disbelief to depression and stubborn refusal to accept a change in the general tone of the conversation, but very few went to the extremes. Questions remain unanswered, but the overall discussion provides in the current context a more nuanced analysis and possible solutions.

What are the indisputable advantages of MOOCs? How it is possible to explain that so many respectable academics actually believed so many promises often against the most evident examples working against them (e.g. an unclear business model, overwhelmingly low completion rates etc)? What MOOCs will change in higher education?

From MOOCs to MOOC$ – and next steps

In some recent discussion it became evident that MOOCs were considered by some as synonymous to online education. This is why it is important to have a succinct look at the meaning of this acronym: a recent paper published by the European University Association gives us a useful summary of what is a MOOC:

MOOCs stands for Massive Open Online Courses. So far, MOOCs can be characterised as follows:

  • they are online courses
  • with no formal entry requirement
  • no participation limit
  • are free of charge
  • and do not earn credits.”

Developing since 2008, MOOCs offered the seductive promise of limitless possibilities to offer access to university courses “free of charge” for all. The key stands in “so far”… the free nature of MOOCs is raising a series of serious problems. “Free” has played a major role in the rise of massively open online courses, engaging the imagination of all thinking about a time when higher education will be opened to all (probably including workers in shifts of 12 hours per day, making computers for those who have the luxury to access Internet and find time for online courses).

In my recent book I mentioned the overused comparison between higher education and music industry. Not only that higher education is very different from any other industry, but even this comparison is twisted to the extent that an important lesson is hidden by constant misinterpretation:

“We can imagine what would have happened if the music industry’s reaction to the MP3 and Napster would not have been iTunes, iPods or Amazon music, but a move to offer free music to all. In this scenario Massive Online Open Music (MOOM) would have been funded by the music industry confident in the promise presented by players on the stock market that somehow “money would follow”. There is no doubt that a MOOM is a noble solution, as many find music an indispensable part of their lives and getting it for free or for a symbolic price would make the world a better place. It could even be argued that this would be humanitarian, as many use music for therapeutic purposes. At this point we can easily imagine that this solution just would spell the end of the music industry.”

This partially explains why MOOCs have a serious identity crisis: current models try to leave the crucial “open=free” aside and ask “minimal” fees to give credits. MOOCs promise of “making education available to all” sounds great for educators, but is nuanced differently by various start-ups and venture capitalists who invested in the new big thing in Silicon Valley. The “open and free higher education for all” is discreetly replaced by “low costs”. An example is offered by Georgia Institute of Technology that will “soon begin offering an online master’s degree in computer science at an unusually low cost“. This “MOOC-like course” will cost around 7000$.

We immediately observe that ‘low cost’ is very far from free and open to all. The 7000$ that can “open the door to higher education” for people around the world, including millions in the US, are simply just unaffordable for a very large number of people.

Some may argue that cost is associated only with the credit and the course is still open to all. This was already the source of major surprises for some providers: a (pricey) effort to build credit MOOCs got zero takers when the university charged as little as $89 for credit courses that cost in campus over $1,000. When you pay the time for staff to write the course, the infrastructure capable to accommodate hundreds of thousands of students, resources etc… the ‘zero takers’ surprise can be truly devastating. 

It became clear that MOOCs can be perceived by many students (and employers) as a form of entrainment with an academic flavour,  a kind of TED talks for nerds. This legitimate challenge makes harder to justify spending “massive” resources to pay for “massive” course design, IT infrastructure, administration, video production etc. The value of a MOOC requires now a bit more work and in-depth thinking, to align this effort with a wider strategy for every institution. 

There seems to be a promise to open already opened doors

Moreover, a detail ignored for a while became clearer: we already have the solution of freely available courses with videos and pdf files, web-links and books on Amazon through websites and platforms such as iTunes U (or various Learning Management Systems used by universities) for a long time. Open Universities across the world have an already long tradition of offering free (access) courses or non-credit courses with a small fee. The simple addition of forums and discussion groups cannot be seriously taken as the most important innovation that can dramatically change higher education. If we claim this, then we have to accept that we all reached a point of very little imagination and depth for our solutions.

So, if a MOOC is ‘open’, but not free, what is it?

The enthusiasm for the silver bullet went too often too far. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, recently underlined something that should be clear to any university administrator:

I’m not a person who thinks that people will be able to just go online and get a complete education without the guidance of the teacher. That sort of simplistic model shouldn’t be our framework.”

The simplistic way of thinking about organising learning and teaching in higher education is simply not sustainable on a long term. Adherence to a fad may work for a personal agenda, but comes with serious risks and costs for institutions and systems. Some will learn again a very painful lesson. The reality is that online solutions are still underused by higher education, but we are left to wait for genuine innovation that is capable to provide alternatives in line with academic rigour, quality assurance and student needs in higher education. Students cannot be engaged by simple conversions of boring lectures into online videos that are even more boring, affected by clunky and poorly designed technological solutions and rigid platforms for discussions and “forums”.

Universities need to use online technology where it really works – Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia

Presumed Authority and Crumbling Credibility

To understand why so many academics and administrators adopted with no hesitation the snake oil merchant promises we need to think about what Tom Whitby notes:

“I am tired of educators who espouse technology for everyone else, but fail to employ it for themselves and their profession […] We should look at everyone’s digital footprint including administrators. What is their educational philosophy as it is stated in the digital world? What does their Professional Learning Network include? What is it they have collaborated on in the Social media world? How effective are they in the very collaboration skills that they claim to have? How reflective are they based on their public blog? Do they hold to their principles in their public reflections?”
Find the online profile of the expert on the online solutions and innovations: see their LinkedIn profile and network, read their blog and find the ideas they put online to represent their thinking on an open platform

A healthy exercise for all is to look online as soon as you hear any advocate of online solutions and check the consistency of discourse with reality. Too often we hear academics speak about “social media” in higher education when it is painfully clear that the same person never used Twitter, barely grasps the function of “like” on Facebook and still (secretly) thinks that LinkedIn is just a silly hobby. An academic journal is very rarely an open platform, so don’t let yourself intimidated by a long list of academic publications: the walled gardens of academic publishing do not follow the logic of MOOCs and Internet openness.

Public disclosure: I just applied this exercise to a list of speakers in a conference on “innovation and teaching” (what else?). The result was truly remarkable (or simply depressive). The good part is that it became clear that this can save a lot of money and time wasted in sterile acts of self-admiration and opinion-production packaged in the form of pseudo-academic work.

The value of MOOC

In the run to increase profits and “market shares” many universities lost their way, leaving aside their values, adopting a mix of compulsory mediocrity and quasi-managerial jargon. The effect is not only that many institutions of higher education are stuck into a management model close to what was common in 1930’s than what is now adopted by smart and flexible corporations. The effect is that students start to question (and most probably refuse to enrol in the future) in lectures with 500+ students crowded in various halls and large amphitheatres. MOOC-like provision is an easy replacement for this bizarre form of academic model of making profits.

In the same time, MOOCs start already to evolve much less against the “brick and mortar” university and much more in line with the needs of students and institutions of higher education. The main reason is that the only way these platforms can make profit in the future is to work in consonance with credit providers that are accepted and (still) trusted by employers.

Universities based on strong academic values and academic freedom most probably will build MOOCs that show their strength and focus on quality learning and teaching, and genuine innovation. But most probably, MOOCs are also already responsible for the acceleration of a crisis for universities that forgot their core values. If profit is all what they stand for in reality, then this will impact directly their evolution and future for the long term. Many will slowly dissolve, others will move to the periphery where many will struggle in a though competition to find customers for cheap and low value credentials.

The MOOC hype also revealed a worrying appetite of a surprising number of academics and politicians to get enthused by simplistic solutions for higher education, by silver bullets and vague promises. This reflects many things, but most of all it shows how widespread is the belief – within and outside academia – that learning and teaching is a matter of common expertise. Everyone seems to share the opinion that – since most of us go through various forms of education – pedagogy and extensive knowledge in learning and teaching is a simple, familiar and common field of expertise to all. There is no other field where you can step in and say: I am an expert and I can tell you how to do things properly as education became. The butcher, the baker, the sailor and the candle stick maker all take the position of qualified experts in education. This trend is responsible for the collapse of many school systems and no one can argue that universities are immune to the same causes. The impact on the future quality of what many like to call “human capital” can be more significant than what we can imagine at this point. 

It is evident that mastering critical thinking, collaboration, presentation skills and genuine empathy require human connection, interaction and practice, and are best acquired in person, not only online. This is why we like to drink our coffee with friends – whenever possible – on a coffee shop, not on Skype, with a cheaper cup brewed at home. It is also evident that online medium offers the possibility of connectivity, exploration and the use of well built imaginative capabilities. The balanced use of online and on campus solutions stay as a key for the future of higher education.

There is significant value in all forms of learning, online and on campus. Education must answer fast the challenge to nurture students’ imagination, creativity and build their skills for innovation for a future marked by uncertainty and serious challenges 

Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, recently said that “In the global economy, creativity is essential. Today’s workers need more than just skills and knowledge to be productive and innovative participants in the workforce. […] To succeed today and in the future, America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative.”

Software, MOOCs, apps, learning management systems and other online solutions are just tools that can be used to answer these challenges. They are important tools, but not solutions on itself to achieve the difficult task of building inventive, educated, resourceful, and imaginative new generations.

  1. It’s a very long and well documented post. I believe though that the (industrial economy inspired) education model in use – almost everywhere – is far cry from the education model required by the future economy/civilization. Getting there might not be that simple; it’s not an extrapolation of the present. MOOCs – for good or for worst – brings in at least one piece of the future model: the democratization of education. I love to have access to knowledge and I don’t quite care about institutional acknowledgement (diploma/degree…you name it) for that.
    As for the joke about the shoe store (it was a joke, isn’t it?), let’s remember Agora and the fundamental role of education: to prepare us for life.


    • It seems that in my long post you missed that part where I note that free access to information/education was common long before MOOCs! In fact, it was more common than many suspect even before Internet…


  2. Bob Dunton said:

    Great article and too many good points for a thorough response.

    One thought about how education is organized. It seems to me that the education ‘industry’ (I do K-12, but I think it hods for the university as well) is unique in that the organization of the enterprise DEFINES the enterprise to a very large degree. The automobile industry may be structured in any number of ways without changing the nature of the automobile. Not so with education.

    I recently posted that I would give up on old-fashioned, brick and mortar schools when people stopped having old-fashioned, flesh and blood children. We can certainly do ‘MOOC’. We have the technology (it’s already old news, as we could have done it just as easily with television). But doing so doesn’t deliver ‘education’ differently so much as change utterly its definition. I am concerned that the new definition is somewhat less than that to which we once aspired.


    • Great points, Bob! I struggle to get across the message that this industry is substantially different than any other industry. The fact is not only that in practice this message is too often lost, but education is adopting a type of management ideas that used to be popular 70 years ago..
      Your second point is also very important: he way of delivering education is not on itself the revolution we all expect. The change is minimal and the risk is to take the illusion of change as the solution to our problems…
      I can add to your note that television did not lost the opportunity to change education (and became a very efficient educator – morally irresponsible, but very efficient). We can say that education lost the opportunity to improve formal education with a revolutionary use of television. The difference is that this time we simply have more risks ahead.


  3. qandu said:

    Nice piece. Continue your thought leadership in this space.



  4. Very good essay.

    My educational/business model is a hybrid that is both “online, open” and “for-profit.”

    It includes phone, Skype, e-mail, and face-to-face student contact. All student contact is one-on-one between the student and the professor.

    I offer “online open” video libraries for two courses (social science statistics at

    and social science research methods at

    The expert knowledge in the libraries had been considered privileged information in the past. Now it is free and available to all. I like the democratic ethic of open access.

    Students who register to work with me toward a degree (typically an Ed.D or a Ph.D.) are required to subscribe to these two video libraries as part of their tuition. My reasoning is that students who register for mentoring will receive more than the information, they will receive a degree that will benefit them financially. Thus, their library subscriptions are investments that will lead to future earnings.


  5. Popenici :

    ” … difficult task of of bgeneratipons uilding inventive , educated, resourcefull, and imagin
    new generations ”

    That is what you ask for .

    That is supplied by top universities such as MIT Harvard already for 150 or more years .
    Now that task can be accessed very easily at low fee by edx . ( The tools are being used by them 100 % )

    I hope edx will start degree programs soon .


  6. Stefan, nice blog; some reactions:
    MOOM and free shoes already exist; Moocs could play a role as the free printer, earning your money selling the ink. Several pop groups decided to give away some of their music earning their money through live-performances.
    More important Moocs can influence education by providing excellent materials for top-universities in different other teaching situations (flipping the class room).
    Although I agree that the 30’s management techniques may not be a solution for the educational sector, I still think that thinking in terms of the wishes of the stakeholders of education is a good guide line towards more creativity, knowledge sharing an d competences.
    Still blogs like this one are needed to keep us critical of hypes and alike.


    • Frank, thanks for your interesting comment. The metaphor of the free printer is very nice, but not enough to justify the hype and hope surrounding MOOCs. Just look around and find the free printer and see who is paying for that.
      “Several pop groups” do not make or shape music industry and this is why we can say immediately iTunes (or other major players in this industry) and just “some” pop groups… yes, some give away their cars for free, but don;t build your future with the hope that people will give you things (including shoes) for free. This utopia looks good, sounds good.. and in my opinion the future of MOOCs look very different from the initial story of free for all, open and disruptive to the extent that they will save or delete universities – to paraphrase a common line used by various supporters of the hype.
      I wasn’t talking about 30’s management techniques, but ideas and solutions. If the new Taylorism is the innovative solution for universities in 21st century we have to accept again that our imagination withered and that we all have a serious problem in thinking about a sustainable future…
      As you say – your comment is needed to keep us thinking about these important issues.


  7. NovoEd and Udemy have this form of MOOC$, they’re massively open online courses and some come with a few ranging between $20 to $1000.

    Also, clearly there have been MOOCs before Udacity, Coursera, and edX. As mentioned examples include iTunes U and Youtube Edu – plus many others. And not all of them have to be “video” based. Different people learn in different ways so be it reading, watching, or experimenting. Codecademy would be also considered a type of MOOC.

    At, we try to include as many of the MOOCs not MOOC$. And we also bundle courses to build skill-focused bootcamps (e.g. Data Scientist Bootcamp

    Our key ambitions is to get employers to build these skill bootcamps openly to signal to learners and job seekers what they need to learn for a fast-evolving market.

    Happy to connect


  8. B Locke said:

    “Too often we hear academics speak about “social media” in higher education when it is painfully clear that the same person never used Twitter, barely grasps the function of “like” on Facebook and still (secretly) thinks that LinkedIn is just a silly hobby.”

    Or, they might be too busy Getting Shit Done to sick around on social media?


    • B Locke – The point is that if you have no idea how a thing works (for various reasons, one being that you are too busy to get things done… or you are simply not interested in some mundane aspects of our social life) you should keep your ignorant opinions for yourself, not pose as an expert and lecture about what you fail to understand! If this simple idea is ignored (or seems to be too complex to understand) then these pseudo-experts should not complain when ridicule and failure comes…


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  17. Fabian said:

    good post Stefan. I would like to add that as I mentioned in my post here: (Posted on December 4, 2012) and here (Posted on July 31, 2013) MOOCs are great OERs but they are definitely not courses/classes. When you eradicate the word “course”, everything becomes clear. Because with predominantly students watching videos or chatting in a forum, you do not have a course; actually these two elements are not even critical aspects of a course.


    • Thanks Fabian – as usual, an excellent point. Too bad that the noise, the naive enthusiasm and vested (corporate) interests work together to blur these important lines.