You might want to read this New York Times article about Georgia Tech’s new online masters degree in computer science. The article is pretty good, reasonably balanced, and looks at the issue from (almost) all sides. Notable side missing, as usual: what students think.

Anyway, I’ve said enough about this whole MOOC thing, but I did want to highlight one excerpt from the NYT piece:

The three leading MOOC providers, Udacity, Coursera and edX, have grown at a remarkable rate, adding hundreds of courses with dozens of college and university partners. But the path ahead is less clear, and all three are working with universities to find ways in which their courses can be used for credit.

This is true only for certain definitions of “growth.” Really, the MOOC providers have grown exclusively on the usual Silicon Valley premise of speculative, short-term bets that have little concern about long-term prospects. Certainly their revenues haven’t grown much; only their reach, as they manage to convince universities to give away the “content” of courses and teaching to produce a beneficial network effect for these private technology services.

The growth of private MOOC companies is driven almost entirely from financial speculation, speculation with an interest in private, short-term gain via industrialized scale. It’s worth imagining what other kinds of growth might be possible if we had the stomach for a different kind of speculation meant to benefit long-term social institutions like schools instead of just the market. There’s an alternate universe in which the NYT published a story today about how strong public investment in educational programs reduced costs and increased quality without selling the farm to bankers. One in which the key measure of “growth” is related to educational practice rather than industrialization. But that’s not our universe.

published August 18, 2013


  1. Mark N.

    I wonder if there’s any discernible difference here between edX (a nonprofit) and Coursera/Udacity (venture-backed for-profits). Does edX prioritize long-term goals and student benefit over growth to a larger extent? Or is edX growing in the Valley style anyway, despite its different ownership structure?

  2. Jeannette

    I agree. All of the energy and excitement around the MOOC model is not interested in higher education as a long-term investment and public good, first for Americans of all classes and second for anyone throughout the world. The talk is about disruption but the true disruption is figuring what types of pedagogical models can harness our increasing technological savvy to help students learn more and better regardless of class or nationality. The breathless discussion is always about how much money the university or start-up can potentially make without seriously considering that the infinite growth model brought the world the 2008 financial crisis. I haven’t seen any articles seriously explore learning in a MOOC environment given what we now know about pedagogy and learning.

  3. Ian Bogost

    Mark, I tried to answer that in my first LARB piece, linked via the word “said” above. Here’s the excerpt:

    As for EdX, the MOOC consortium started by Harvard and MIT, it’s a non-profit operating under the logic of speculation rather than as a public service. If anything, it will help the for-profits succeed even more by evangelizing their vision as compatible with elite non-profit educational ideals.

  4. David

    I’m surprised that you thought the article was this good. Consider the context: This comes soon after Udacity suffered the embarrassment of having its much-touted contract with San Jose State suspended because the students performed so poorly in those classes, flunking from 56-76 percent of the time, if I recall right.

    That Udacity-San Jose State collaboration was much hyped when announced, and written about extensively in the Times and other publications. Perhaps I missed it, but where was the Times story about the project being suspended? I read about it in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and the San Jose Mercury News and many other outlets certainly wrote it up. In this piece it gets a euphemistic mention in passing, way down in the story.

    That a much-touted MOOC initiative would fall flat was real news. Meanwhile, this actual Udacity/Georgia Tech project was announced months ago, and won’t start for months. So why is it on the front page right now? Let me guess: Because Udacity, trying to improve its PR, started pitching this piece to various writers, and the Times bit on it.

    When are we going to start seeing major publications like the Times, and not just alternative publications, actually analyzing the MOOC movement, looking at how so much of it is about the money and the business models? When does that start?

    And can someone ask Tamar Lewin: Was this piece pitched to you by Udacity? Why were you writing about this, not the San Jose State fiasco? Or the California decision to shelve its MOOC bill? Where’s the news judgment here?

  5. Som Naidu

    “When are we going to start seeing major publications like the Times, and not just alternative publications, actually analyzing the MOOC movement, looking at how so much of it is about the money and the business models? When does that start?”

    The Journal “Distance Education” is currently doing a Special Issue on MOOCs….and hoping to publish articles with significant research evidence. See