Earlier this week, Georgia Tech and eleven other higher education institutions announced their participation in Coursera, a company that hosts online courses. Reactions have been predictably dramatic, as exemplified by Jordan Weissman’s panegyric in the Atlantic, titled The Single Most Important Experiment in Higher Education.

I’ll spare observations on the obvious problems with Weissman’s article, like the witless claim that lectures as web video somehow “reinvent” the lecture. Or the fact that Weissman published an article two weeks ago titled Why the Internet Isn’t Going to End College As We Know It. Take this excerpt instead:

The fundamental challenge for U.S. universities as they struggle to contain their costs is figuring out how to teach more students using fewer resources.

This is the biggest and most insidious misconception, the one that pervades every conversation about online education. The fundamental problem isn’t one of cost containment, it’s one of funding—of understanding why the cost containment solution appeared in the first place. We collectively “decided” not to fund education in America. Now we’re living with the consequences. Lost on those who mount such defenses is the fact that running these online courses costs more rather than less money in the short term (Georgia Tech’s Coursera faculty are taking on the task on top of their normal work), and doesn’t produce any direct revenue for anyone, not even Coursera.

The more we buy into the efficiency argument, the more we cede ground to the technolibertarians who believe that a fusion of business and technology will solve all ills. But then again, I think that’s what the proponents of MOOCs want anyway. The issue isn’t online education per se, it’s the logics and rationales that come along with certain implementations of it.

Is anyone who thinks about it very hard really under the delusion that Georgia Tech and the other dozen Coursera partners are pursuing this partnership out of some sort of carefully reasoned strategic implementation plan? The all-campus email we received from the Provost’s office email made it clear that that’s not the case:

Many members of our community express a desire to “try out” new techniques, to reach new Georgia Tech students and stakeholders, and to provide more flexible approaches to classroom instruction and course design. Coursera is just the first step in a strategy that will give us the freedom to investigate these new approaches and rapidly adopt the ones that have a positive impact on the Institute.

Institutions like mine are afraid of the present and the future yet drunk on the dream of being “elite” and willing to do anything to be seen in the right crowd making the hip choices. The provostial email also notes, “It also is significant that Georgia Tech is a founding member of this group.” Group membership is a key obsession of university administration, and it’s why they take systems like the US News rankings so seriously. Of course, all such structures are partly fictions we invent to structure our lives and society. The Ivy League isn’t a natural law or a God-given lineage.

In this respect, Coursera’s clearly got the upper hand among institutions that fancy themselves elite: once they get a critical mass on board, the rest don’t want to appear left behind. Given the recent drama at the University of Virginia, whose president was fired partly for failing to blindly adopt online learning only to be re-hired after a PR-nightmare only weeks before UVA announced their participation in Coursera anyway, you can see how Presidents and Provosts across the land might be ready to sign on for defensive reasons alone.

It makes good headlines to claim that MOOCs and their ilk signal “the beginning of the end” for higher education. But that’s mostly blustery rhetoric. As Siva Vaidhyanathan put it, “I wish pundits would stop declaring that MOOC’s are revolutionary when they are merely interesting (not that there is anything wrong with that).” What’s a more measured reaction to the MOOC trend, then?

Here’s one: Coursera is marketing. Buying in associates an institution with a vague signal of futurism and reinvention, associates a purportedly “elite” institution with its elite brethren, and buys some time while the whole thing shakes out. Facebook page? Check. Twitter account? Check. Coursera courses? Check.

In cases like Caltech and University of Pennsylvania, who have together invested some $3.7 million in Coursera, they are buying a more explicit and long-term version of that advertising. Likewise, that’s how MIT and Harvard see edX.

If MOOCs are marketing, the question we should be asking is: can they be more? Researchers and teachers at dozens of institutions have been pondering such questions for years, for decades. Of course, like all good research, progress comes slowly, in fits and starts, with as many failures as successes. Nobody wants to hear this though, because the age of technolibertarianism sees real value as the most rapidly produced and untamed value. If it’s immediate attention we’re after, then there’s another way to get it, by doing something that’s not just new and me-too but also thoughtful and different and right. It’s much harder to do that work within the academy, because few have any time to think about it seriously (even at the level of provosts offices and centers that supposedly specialize in such work) because of the austerity measures producing the illusion of the need for efficiency in the first place. And so, we reap what we sow.

published July 18, 2012


  1. Ernest W. Adams

    Every educator from Socrates to Neil Degrasse Tyson has known that the way to produce high quality education is with small class sizes. The highest quality of all is achieved with one-on-one mentoring, as any Olympic athlete could tell you.

    Naturally, a balance must be struck, but ANY innovation whose effect is to change the teacher-student ratio should be regarded with deep suspicion and considered guilty of harming education until proven innocent.

  2. Peter Leahy

    One of my weakest courses recently was a Marketing course where they left a very solid and traditional textbook to move to an Open Course text which was a collaboration of several different professors at various schools. The new one was barely readable and with lots of holes in major concepts. In the end the professor excerpted several long passages from the old text and released them as a PDF but there were still large concepts not covered in the PDF, lectures or the open course that were still on the tests which had not been re-written to the inferior text. Supplemental reading don’t necessarily work when the issue in this case was missing fundamental concepts. While I love etextbooks in general and prefer low cost options when I must buy one would rather pay more for a good one than be stuck with a horrible one. I lobbied hard post course about the deficiencies but no change.

  3. Rory McGreal

    I wish that more instructors cared about quality. Too many just go with the proprietary text (rarely an open text) with little consideration of the price to students. The cost to students is one aspect of quality. An important one in my opinion that is all too often ignored by instructors who choose them. There are a growing number of excellent quality controlled open texts. Instructors should keep their eyes open. Like proprietary texts some of the open texts lack quality. If that is, the case then do like Peter and pick another one, but don’t just presume that the costly text is better. Quite often it isn’t. Also, there are growing open online open alternatives to texts. At least check the open texts out before stiffing the students for a high priced text that may be unnecessary.

  4. Ethan Gruber

    When it hit that UVA was joining this consortium, it reminded me of when the UVA Library joined a handful of other institutions in the Google Books scanning project. None of the participants really had any idea how it would function, what value there was in it for the institution, how to manage the data in the long term, etc. Major decisions are often made because it looks “cool.” It appears prestigious to be part of a consortium of several great universities, without any consideration of what the final product is.

  5. Rita Kop

    It is sad to see that the marketing has been successfull: you disregard the original MOOC movement completely in the current hype over the institutional and commercial MOOCs. They are about connecting people, diversity and openenness and have a very different pedagogical model than the Corsera et al. ones. Here a link to some research related to the learning experience on these connectivist MOOCs. http://bit.ly/QdtFjs

  6. Yvette Wohn

    People who think online videos are going to replace colleges clearly don’t know what it is that makes higher education valuable. I think universities are under illusion that colleges are supposed to teach knowledge or technical skills, which is stupid because the institutions (especially the R1s) don’t invest much money in, or value effective teaching, and most of the information that is being taught can be learned on one’s own if one had the desire. As an instructor, I try to help my students want to learn, listen and interact with others, and think logically, but this teaching philosophy doesn’t always align with other instructors I know.

  7. Alan Dix

    I am very grateful to Beki Grinter for posted link to this article on Facebook, as it is so pertinent for me at present as I’m MOOC-ing myself come the autumn :-/ I commented on her post there, but will repeat and expand things here too.

    I am right behind you on the economic arguments. Since the mid 1990s University management have seen the web and online learning as a golden bullet to cut costs (at that time with early VLEs such as Lotus Learning Spaces). What they always forgot is that the easy thing to deliver remotely is content, but this is already delivered efficiently in traditional lectures – 200 student learning hours per lecturer presentation hour, enough to make any university finance officers rub their hands. It is the rest of the stuff, labs, seminars, problem classes, office hours that are the expensive (and probably most valuable) parts of education … and then of course there is assessment :-/

    In the open HCI course I’m doing in October http://hcicourse.com/ I will be trying to experiment a bit with the format, in particular seeing how open materials can compliment existing face-to-face classes at other institutions than my own – that is allowing and encouraging others to use parts of the online course in their own teaching.

    One of the reasons I am able to do this is that it is not something being dictated from ‘on high’ at my institution (University of Birmingham), but more bottom up from me. In fact, there are drivers (as ever), as I work part-time for Talis.com, but they are interested in learning about the software and system implications of MOOCs, not promoting their brand through the course, or using it to sell some message about them.

    So I have unusual freedom to experiment … and I have no idea how it will go, but hopefully it will add another data point in the MOOC research landscape.

  8. Nellie Deutsch

    Today it’s Coursera, Coursites, Moodle, WizIQ, Wikispaces Wikieducator, Mightybell or Mentormob. Tomorrow it’s going to be on facebook. MOOCs are a marketing strategy that brings numbers and ratings. Forget about quality. Money is not there. You go where there’s money. We are driven by money because that’s how we pay the bills. So, let’s improve MOOCs by adding quality to the equation.