My colleague Mark Guzdial argues that MOOCs are a fundamental misperception of how learning works. In the post, Mark argues that MOOCs misconstrue educational practice, mistaking lectures and rote-exercises for the central activities of classes in higher education.

Reading Mark’s post I found myself reflecting on a seemingly unrelated article I read yesterday, Peer-to-Peer Hucksterism: An Open Letter to Tim Wu.

This second article is Tom Slee’s response to Tim Wu’s opinion piece about regulation and services like Airbnb and Uber. If you haven’t been following that story, there’s been something of a crackdown on those two “startup darlings” because they’re steering around regulatory practices for transportation and lodging services. Slee calls Wu on supporting these practices in the name of “progress” or “community,” when in fact regulation exists for a reason, that these companies are acting irresponsibly or criminally in ignoring them, and that they are doing so wantonly in the pursuit of personal wealth while only pretending to care about the public interest in order to develop that financial value. Thus what we really find in such services is “hucksterism masquerading as progress,” according to Slee.

The lesson here is not just about those two companies, but even broader: that most tech companies use the rhetoric of inclusiveness, openness, progress, etc. to hide their actual aim, which is simple financial speculation pursued for the potentially immense gain of the very few at the cost of the many.

Returning to Mark’s comments on MOOCs: isn’t it time to admit that MOOC providers don’t primarily care about “how learning works?” Rather, they are interested in motivating the idea of corporatized, maximally efficient course-like activities as expanded access to education as a cover for their real aim, which is just financial speculation—the same kind of hucksterism Slee identifies in startups like Airbnb. The fact that two of the major players in MOOCville are private, VC-funded silicon valley companies co-founded by Stanford professors who’ve quit their university jobs should offer plain and obvious evidence of what’s really going on. Or, as I was recently quoted an article about MOOCs in Times Higher Education, “The purpose of a for-profit that is venture-backed in Silicon Valley is to grow as quickly as possible and to exit providing a considerable financial benefit for its investors—and that goal may not be compatible with education.”

Thus, the really traumatic lesson to me is that all of the rational arguments by Mark and others about the educational downsides of MOOCs really don’t matter, because MOOC providers don’t actually care about education anyway. They’re merely using education as a cover story, as the latest “industry ripe for disruption.” Just as Google hasn’t necessarily provided a better version of journalism but simply a more centralized, leveraged, and privately beneficial one, so Coursera won’t necessarily do so for education either. In fact, success for MOOCs doesn’t require better education. All it requires is fungibility.

published January 5, 2013


  1. Lisa

    It’s probably worth noting that the other major MOOC competitor, edX, is a not-for-profit organization, deliberately so: the idea is, since they’re well-funded and MIT/Harvard/etc backed, they can spend their resources focusing on what provides the best educational experience, rather than chasing a profit line.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Yes, at least in theory. I think the best thing edX could do is to distance itself from the whole “MOOCification” trend with a careful and deliberate reframing.

  3. Ryan

    While I appreciate some of the criticisms you level at MOOCs and the for-profit businesses that create them, the numerous generalizations you make undermine your arguments significantly, in my opinion, and lead you to paint an unfair and one-dimensional picture of business.

    First, not every venture-backed company in Silicon Valley is looking to exit. Certainly, there are those for whom this is their explicit strategy, but many VC-backed startups with whom I’ve worked explicitly avoid an exit strategy in the hope of building a stronger company over the long term. It is highly suspect (if not wrong) to derive conclusions about MOOCs based on this exit-strategy generalization.

    Second, you’re tarring “most tech companies” with a pretty nasty brush, one that marks them as greedy, self-interested people that exemplify “gain of the few at the cost of the many.” Maybe I’m splitting semantic hairs, but the only way a for-profit business stays alive over the long term is to make a profit (i.e., to generate money from the products or services they sell to people). Amazon is a tech company that benefits the few (i.e., Amazon employees) at the cost of the many (i.e., all of us who buy from them, including using the links you have to the right). If you’re speaking about cost in a more figurative sense, specifically as it relates to MOOCs, then what is that cost?

    Third, you seem to be implying that the money-grubbing problems you see with MOOCs extend to for-profit businesses and education in general. You question whether there is a fundamental conflict of interest between for-profit business and the goal of improving education, and heavily imply you think the answer is “Yes.” I simply don’t believe this is the case, for MOOCs or anything else. Certainly there will be bad businesses that try to take advantage of the edtech buzz, some of them MOOCs, but there will also be plenty of passionate companies and businesses people who make positive contributions to improving our broken educational system. If they profit from that, what’s the problem, providing the cost incurred does not outweigh the ultimate benefit?

    Finally, to your point that everyone is just trying to capitalize on “an industry ripe for disruption,” this does not mean that the educational industry is NOT ripe for disruption. Granted, “disruption” is one of the buzzwords du jour, but it’s just become shorthand for a deeper issue: that US society is riddled with old institutions in need of profound change, and that change is probably not going to come from within. Educational systems, left to their own devices, will keep chugging along the downward spiral on which they are currently stuck. They are trapped by forces beyond their control and seem powerless to change by themselves or with government assistance, given that the people who administer, fund and politicize these systems have vested interests in keeping them the way they are. This leaves businesses to do what they can to help, and that includes for-profits along with non-profits. Change is only going to happen when a LOT of players work in concert: educational institutions, teachers, government, AND business.

    It’s pretty easy to deride business people, given the excesses on Wall Street and elsewhere over the past two decades. It’s harder to try to think the best of entrepreneurs, to imagine that most are caring people with kids, too, who might actually mean what they say. In the end, I think most of us want the same thing: a better educational world and greater opportunities for everyone.

  4. Ian Bogost


    Let me respond briefly to each of your points.

    First, we seem to disagree on the common logic of VC investment, particularly the Andreeson Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins type of VC funding that is backing Coursera and Udacity.

    Second, profitability sufficient to be a viable company is hardly what’s at issue in Silicon Valley-style startups with respect to the problem of the many and the few. It’s the logics of consolidation and leverage that create that disparity, no matter if the founders are “greedy” or not. Amazon is a good example. So is Google.

    Third, yes, I’m suggesting that the corporatization of higher education is a bad thing.

  5. Jack Everitt

    RE: Ryan’s second to last paragraph – only…

    I think you’re mostly dead-on except for your last sentence: Change is not going to happen that way because too much is in the way to prevent change. Real education change will occur outside the current education institutions (and many of those institutions have already begun the death spiral).

    I also think MOOCs will add to educational woes rather than “solve” them. The most positive aspect is that student debt will slow because of them.

    Imagine that MOOCs are cell phones. Right now, we’re at the early stage when cell phones were huge devices that were, well, awkward crap. It took years and years and then Steve Jobs/Apple to make a cell phone that didn’t suck. How long will it take before MOOCs don’t (relatively) suck? Twenty years? Thirty? Longer?

    Everyone* wants to fix education. But that’s just wrong thinking. What needs to be done (and it’s starting to happen) is that we should instead facilitate education. Imagine many teachers becoming facilitators instead.

    We also need to stop making are our schools so prison-like…right now they seem more like prep for prison than for prep for life.

    *Even Nolan Bushnell thinks he can fix education! Nolan Bushnell!!!

  6. Gregory

    Do universities that herd together hundreds of students into giant lecture halls care about how learning works? Clearly not. And as far as I know no one has the last word or even something close to the best way of structuring education. So how MOOCs in anyway worse than what we have now? And because they will be less expensive and probably have higher quality lecturers etc, they should be at least slightly better?

  7. nick

    Khan Academy?

    I am an autodidact, though I do enjoy classes I prefer to learn self directed at my own pace until I come to problems I can’t overcome without some help or guidance.

    I believe Seth Godin makes a convincing argument that you can’t teach people (i mean, can’t forge education in by rote as you mention above) but can only hope to lead them to a love of learning by encouraging humans to act as humans while learning/playing.

    Stop Stealing Dreams is Godin’s free ebook on the subject. I haven’t finished it, but he does provide an excellent take-down of the practices of current learning institutions and provides examples of alternate forms of education that seem to really inculcate a pleasure of the mind in the students. It’s not an answer, but it has good starting questions.

    I believe MOOCs, at least the ones not just out for profit but actually experimenting with alternate ways of educating folk, will be good, but they will not and never will be for everyone.

    What is your take on MIT’s OCW in relation to this subject?