MOOCs – A Tsunami of Promises


The prediction was that MOOCs will completely change the game in higher education. Enthusiasm was general – and groupthink so tempting – that many universities across the world adopted them as a panacea for “21st century learning” (and all other problems) without hesitation or critical reflection. Those reluctant to adopt MOOCs discovered that a “philosophical difference of opinion” with the governing boards on MOOCs involves a serious personal and professional cost.

MOOCs were described in the last years in strong metaphors, suitable to express the amplitude of the change that they bring to higher education. Since 2012 we find Massive Open Online Courses often associated with natural disasters: from “tsunami” to “an avalanche” or an earthquake,  MOOCs promised to completely reshape the landscape. MOOCs are – commentators said – a tsunami of change that “is coming, you like it or not“.

The year of 2012 was marked by the firm prediction of a “historic transformation through the MOOC”, promoted with evangelical passion as the solution for all problems faced by higher education. Poor of the world will enrol in Harvard and MIT courses, students of all nations will freely access higher education and gates of knowledge will finally stay unguarded for the first time in history. The New York Times published at the end of 2012 an article creatively titled The Year of the MOOC, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman wrote enthusiastic op-eds about the MOOC “revolution”, the “tsunami” that will undoubtedly transform higher education. The Economist – along with other financial publications that discovered overnight their in-depth expertise in pedagogy and higher education – followed the same line with an article titled Free education. Learning new lessons, which offers a perfect sample of the type of thinking fuelling that general excitement:

“MOOCs are more than good university lectures available online. The real innovation comes from integrating academics talking with interactive coursework, such as automated tests, quizzes and even games. Real-life lectures have no pause, rewind (or fast-forward) buttons […] MOOCs enrich education for rich-world students, especially the cash-strapped, and those dissatisfied with what their own colleges are offering. But for others, especially in poor countries, online education opens the door to yearned-for opportunities.”

The solution to deliver good quality higher learning to all enlightened the imagination of many. The narrative was fantastic: the door to what Time called “High-End Learning on the Cheap” was discovered and new startups and venture capitalists were there to fight to open it for the benefit of the poor around the world. Thomas Friedman argued in 2012 that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty” than Silicon Valley solutions and MOOCs will “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems“.

There is no doubt that rising inequality is a huge problem for the world. This is why is important to remember here that Silicon Valley makes San Francisco one of the most unequal cities in the US. The fact is that the Silicon Valley solution is not working at home, and American politicians make public calls to find answers. A set of important questions should be raised about any set of solutions coming from the same place where education for all or homelessness stay unaddressed and are on the rise (The Guardian reports that in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley “92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind“).

Another luring promise of that time was that “The Internet Revolution” comes with a silver bullet for budgets in higher education. Universities were happy to see a new solution for their financial pressures. In Changing the Economics of Education The Wall Street Journal presented MOOCs as a possible solution for universities to make “numbers add up”. Another financial journal states with the unabated confidence that “Free online courses will change universities” and this is why “top universities worldwide rush to put free courses online, setting up so-called massive open online courses or MOOCs”. From Silicon Valley the perspective was – not surprisingly – very similar: “Massive Open Online Courses Revolutionizing Higher Education. MOOCs Provide Something for Everyone“.

The call for evidence was rare at that time, which is quite unusual in an industry obsessed with evidence-based everything. The good news is that recent research starts to fill the gap. The first problem is that evidence debunk most those great promises. With a bit of a hangover after all the hype and inebriating enthusiasm, universities have to draw the line and look at the evidence, accept reality, evaluate benefits and risks and redesign their solutions.

MOOCs undoubtedly bring important benefits. The power to use technology to link academic life with the public debate or the possibility to offer the chance to access great courses is undoubtedly of great benefit to many. The important part that was left unexplored is relevant for the future of universities: what is the cost of this and what are the main risks. The empty enthusiasm and blind adoption may cost more than many imagined and it is important to consider two possible risks that seem to be overlooked by many administrators of colleges and universities.

Naive assumptions about the target audience and the importance of MOOCs for marketing

There is already excellent research on MOOCs. A recent example is coming from The University of Pennsylvania, where a survey on over 400,000 active students in courses offered by the university through Coursera — the most significant MOOC provider — recorded 35,000 responses. Results are not far from other research in this field and reveal that a stunning 83 percent of MOOC students already have a two- or four-year diploma or degree. The chance to have them enrolled in new degrees is called into question even more, as results show that 69 percent of them are already employed. This set of data support those who say that spending important resources (pay for course design, research time, teaching time, course administration and IT infrastructure) for free courses with the hope of having new students is just a naive and costly mistake. 

As a tool for marketing, the investment into a MOOC may be a disproportionate effort when we look at real numbers of students enrolling into a course (or university) just because of a MOOC. Moreover, smaller universities already know that only most prestigious and renowned players attract big crowds to MOOCs. This is how many institutions see that their investments failed so far to show any quantifiable benefit.

This set of new research and data is causing now a shift in attitudes within higher education regarding MOOCs. Another recent study, which polled chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education, reported that 39 percent say they do not believe that MOOCs are sustainable models for their schools — from 26 percent in 2012.

This draws attention to another widespread confusion between MOOCs and online education. While online education represent an important pedagogical solution embraced by most universities for decades for their enrolled students, MOOCs are a specific platform designed to offer “open” courses for prospective students. There are many other differences, but the most important aspect here is that many administrators in higher education start to realise that “charity starts at home”: quality of online education for your own students is a hard enough task to deal with. Spending money and time for those who are already educated, employed and rarely interested to pay fees for new courses is just an unaffordable luxury.

From clicks to bricks

Another widespread prediction was that in the “avalanche that is coming”  those Doric columns on the campuses are good to be sold to real estate investors. Technology – was said – is making the university campus obsolete. “The end of university campus life” is just another article where this was predicted with certainty. The author is saying: “MOOCs merely confirm what we’ve known for years—that the most basic currency of universities, information, is now more or less valueless, so universities might as well give it away [….] Universities are no longer the only, or even the best, aggregators of information anymore. That role was usurped by the internet years ago”.  

“Information” is not learning and data is not knowledge, but this is a different discussion. The problem is that thinking that the campus is useless was undoubtedly a massive mistake that will surely bring unpleasant surprises for those embracing the fad. In fact, those who were used as an example to support the advice to forget the campus are now building their own brick and mortar campuses. The irony was soon evident this time…

In “Online students can’t help being sociable”, an article recently published by the BBC News, we read:

Instead of demolishing the dusty old classrooms, the online university revolution is responsible for opening some new ones. Coursera, a major California-based provider of online courses, is creating an international network of “learning hubs”, where students can follow these virtual courses in real-life, bricks and mortar settings.”

It is undoubtedly sad and surprising to see that many experts and managers in higher education missed that “it seems there is an irresistible social side to learning“. This detail – relevant for the specific type of endeavours involved in higher education – was now discovered by investors in Silicon Valley. This may change the attitude of those advocating the end of the campus  – or not!

In any case, it becomes clear that new technologies enhance the value of the physical campus. Universities have to find new ways to use their spaces to enhance learning and nurture creativity and innovation.

It is also important to explore if MOOCs do not involve a shift of focus and resources from online education and learning management systems managed by universities for their “traditional” courses. In other words, MOOCs may be interesting and exciting for all those interested to use them, but from the point of view of universities – placed under significant financial pressures and funding cuts – it is vital to see if these efforts do not affect funding and investments required to make their online education engaging and aligned to other technological solutions widely used by their students.

Some universities will soon realise that their outdated learning management systems work most probably as a much more efficient marketing tool against them than all possible benefits associated with some of the most popular MOOCs. Training for academic staff in the use of new technologies to facilitate and enhance learning is another important area for investment. Some universities may not have  the capacity to pay for all, but it becomes clear that quality assurance in online education for students at home is the most important investment. This is why the MOOC-hype should be considered with great care. They can bring more damage than good, especially for smaller institutions of higher education.

The poor stay poor and rich… get another freebie

Research conducted at The University of Pennsylvania also dispels the myth that MOOCs open the door for the poor and disadvantaged. It reveals not only that the vast majority is already highly educated, but two-thirds of MOOC students live in OECD countries, the club of leading industrialized nations. It is good to consider here that OECD countries account for just 18 percent of the world population.

In other words, data shows that the belief that MOOCs “lift people out of poverty” is as superficial as it seemed to be. It is interesting however to explore why there is such a superficial understanding of the context and possibilities of people living in poor countries…

The silver bullet

A genuine focus on the quality of teaching and learning, personalised education, and student engagement is what can make a university a sustainable and successful institution. The future of universities cannot be changed by a set of gadgets or technological tools, but by a new vision able to create a new context where new technologies can be used to enhance pedagogical solutions suitable to address needs and challenges of the 21st century.

  1. By nearly every measure, the “horseless carriage” was proven to be inferior to the horse. Over time “horseless carriages” got better & cheaper. Horses did not.


    • This clever analogy uses logic, effectively, to debunk the notion that universities will not become more affordable because of the virtual presence within them.


      • MOOCs are presented by for profit company Coursera . They have nothing to do with university courses . They aRE JUST TRAİNİNG COURSES FOR CORPORATİON .
        But edx set up by MIT and Harvard is different. Non profit. All courses are same as on campus courses .
        EDX can replace the traditional education not MOOCs .


  2. “A very thoughtful article with many interesting and valid points. MOOCs may be able to change the inequality of education, but they should not do it at the expense of the quality of learning. Personally, I see MOOCs as a question rather than an answer. It asks where technology-enabled learning will/should go in the future, rather than defining the future of online education for us. An interesting answer to this MOOCs-inspired question is the iPodia initiative (see and started at the Viterbi School of Engineering at University of Southern California (USC). iPodia is a new pedagogy that leverages modern technologies to eliminate the interaction distance between distributed learners. While MOOCs digitize course content for massive delivery, iPodia enables contextual understanding via learner interactions. Unlike MOOCs, which replace physical classrooms, iPodia reinvents learning by removing the walls of classrooms. Whereas many universities are building classrooms-across-borders to expand their global reach, iPodia creates classrooms-without-borders to flatten the world of learning. The iPodia Alliance established by USC in 2012 (see, now enables students from 10 universities in 4 continents to learn together in their own local classrooms across physical, institutional, and cultural boundaries. This is the true future of technology-enabled education: learning together for a better world!”


  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I share the same sentiments, especially that the “poor stay poor and rich… get another freebie.” Could also say the “educated get more education.” Here is my posts tagged MOOC. Let’c collaborate.


  4. Nice one. Good discussion of this MOOC.


  5. Mind the Gap said:

    Re horse-car analogy not good for me.
    Sorry, but that analogy may have turned this elearning lover against MOOCs. They probably do not have a good ROI afterall if they have same pitfalls of the auto industry/culture.
    1. DEVELOPMENT COSTS – Horse = $0. Motor Vehicle = $billions and counting as it will never end. I guess this is a philosophical debate on whether education should be a commercial for-profit enterprise or public good.
    2. MAINTENANCE COSTS – When I look at the costs of purchase, insurance, repairs, parking, fuel, it isn’t really better than a horse. Then for quality of life…
    3. QUALITY (OF LIFE, OF EXPERIENCE) – asthma and other health problems from the exhausts, plus water and soil pollution from the fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and vehicle manufacturing… Investment in MOOCs requires looking at the added value to learning? Is there any?
    4. EFFICIENCY, TIME SAVING – Time isn’t really saved, but shifted to a new activity — see above on development, maintenance, sitting in traffic jams, sitting in repair shop, repairing roads, losing that farmland or forest to highway… The MOOC might provide some efficiency.since it won’t cause an oil spill or lung disease.
    5. JOBS – People used to breed, raise, and train horses. Now people work in a factory, sell, and repair cars. People who now teach students in future will be just lower paid, less educated technologists or just people who can copy & paste a link to content.

    I LOVE technology and elearning and AM an elearning expert. But the MOOCS I’ve participated in were horrible and no problem solver any more than having big auditorium style classes.


    • Everything you said about the horse/car analogy is true. So, what breed of horse do you own?


      • Your analogy is misleading, to say the least. It doesn’t even make sense in this context. If you have a logical argument, data or any research related to this topic I’ll be happy to engage in this conversation. But cheap metaphors like this (applicable to anything you may dislike) speak more about a certain level of understanding than about the topic addressed here. Sorry to be blunt, but I hope this reply helps you calibrate better your comments.


  6. Elton said:

    We just talked about this in my higher education introduction class today. On point thanks! The emperor does indeed have no clothes 🙂 In many ways the promises made about technology are like three card molly. By the time you think you have figured out where the red card is, the technology has changed and the card is gone. The corporate technologists that sold us the last bill of goods is now on to the next mark using the latest greatest technological innovation.


    • Thanks 🙂
      Good analogy on the fast changing technology!


    • I tried for brevity in my horseless carriage comment. I should have pointed out that the Stanley Steamer got progressively worse than a horse. I think it was due to the vertical fire-tube boiler, mounted beneath the seat.

      The Horse History for Kids tells us that “the first arrival of the horse and chariot in Egypt came with the invasion of the Hyksos, or Amorites, around 1700 BC.” European research universities date from the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088 and remain quite similar today.

      I applaud the MOOC experiments, but do not think they will prove to be practical.

      I say let’s give this new “internet thingy” some time to see if it will have any significant impact on education.