MOOCs and Magical Thinking

During the dot-com bubble a decade ago, an astute trader decided it was time to get out of those heady stocks the moment he heard a cab driver speaking about them.  Recently I got a similar feeling upon hearing a professor at an online committee meeting rambling about “being proactive” about implementing MOOCs (massive, open online courses) at his institution. The problem was not with MOOCs per se, but rather with the daunting reality that at this professor’s college, less than 1% of the courses were online, with significant administrative / faculty resistance to hybrid / online teaching. Why this new interest in MOOCs when previous committees looked upon online with a jaundiced eye?

MOOCs have caught the imagination of the media, and even many in academia. This is understandable. There is a sexiness to MOOCs that the garden-variety online course cannot compete with. Moreover, venture capitalists shower money on startups, promising learning to anyone with a computer, and at very low cost to students. Such courses are  facilitated with advanced technologies that allow a “personal feel” though taken by thousands, while using varied modes of instruction to capture students’ interest and engagement. Some of the most avid MOOC advocates claim that based on authenticated student feedback, they can provide individualized instruction to each student while assessing the effectiveness of specific learning elements in the course. With teams of course developers, these courses are superior to the instructor-produced efforts, and naturally, are delivered by the best  professors from elite colleges like MIT and Stanford. And to top it off, eventually students will be able to earn course credit for completing such courses, posing a serious challenge to the existing credentialing process of higher education.

Many of these promises might come to pass, in time.  The sobering reality is that MOOCs currently impact a small fraction of the students currently in college.  The industry is working on a budget model that won’t be free, and that academic leaders are skeptical whether they will be implemented any time soon on their campuses. I am of the belief, for all the pluses of this new approach to learning, the hype about MOOCs is obscuring the important impact that online has already had on the academy. Online learning has been the biggest trend in higher education for a decade and a half, growing at a 20% per annum rate initially, and finally leveling off to a more sustainable 10% rate in recent years (reference below).  That is real impact, not hype. Along the way, online has caused significant shifts (but not transformation) in teaching and learning at colleges across the country. Online has gone from a discredited outlier to a fundamental university strategy in the span of a decade. Very few trends in higher education have had the impact that online learning has, particularly in this relatively short span of time.  As one of my blog posts was titled, “Online is Inevitable.”

All movements need their visionaries, and certainly MOOCs has theirs. Sebastian Thune, a Stanford professor who founded Coursera, is one of the Pied Pipers of this movement.  In many presentations, he speaks passionately and eloquently about a brighter educational future with the advent of MOOCs (see video). I would love to believe him. The way I see MOOCs at this point is a promising technology that can advance the field of online learning at some future point, but maybe in a more evolutionary manner, as is the norm in academia. I applaud the spirit of innovation of Thune and others, so sorely needed to improve the moribund instructional paradigm of current college teaching. Now the hard work begins.


Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., Lederman, D., & Jaschik, S., (August, 2012), “Digital Faculty: Professors, Teaching and Technology, 2012,” Inside Higher Ed and The Babson Group. Retrieved from:

Allen, I.E. & Seaman, J. (2011). Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States 2011, Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved  11/15/11 from,

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1 Response to MOOCs and Magical Thinking

  1. agatharoa says:

    Hi Prof.,
    I think one of the reasons why MOOCs are the “it” thing currently is because it has been praised and pushed by top academic institutions, ie. Harvard, MIT, U. Penn, etc. I also read in the NY Times recently that these institutions have the budget to expand on the MOOC course model, as well as a number of students on campus who, if forced to pay for the course, have the resources to do so. Most schools don’t and the fear that those administrators have is that MOOCs take flight and they will be forced to keep up with the better schools and create online courses with an already shrinking budget. I am of the group that says Administration heads need to take a cut in pay and allocate monies to education resource budgets.

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