We called it: MOOCs are dead as uni disruptors, but follow the money

Jonathan Rees has a brilliant postmortem of the MOOC phenomenon and its rapid, silent demise over the past few years.  He writes:

MOOCs are dead. “How can I possibly argue that MOOCs are dead?,” you may ask. After all, to borrow the stats just from Coursera, they have: 1600 courses, 130+ specializations, 145+ university partners, 22 million learners and 600,000 course certificates earned. More importantly, it appears that Coursera has received $146.1 million dollars over the years. Even though it hasn’t gotten any new funding since October 2015, unless Coursera tries to copy “Bachmanity Insanity” (Is Alcatraz still available for parties?) the company is going to be sticking around for quite a while.

What I mean when I say that MOOCs are dead is not that MOOCs no longer exist, but that MOOCs are no longer competing against universities for the same students. Continuing with the Coursera theme here, in August they became the last of the major MOOC providers to pivot to corporate training. While I did note the departure of Daphne Koller on this blog, I didn’t even bother to mention that pivot at the time because it seemed so unremarkable, but really it is.

He goes on to note that the critique that universities aren’t educating students through large lecture courses was appropriate, but that the remedy–selling video recordings of elite uni professors lecturing–was worse than the disease.  At least you can interrupt your lecturing proffie in a RL classroom to ask for clarification or elaboration.  You know, like you can talk to people in RL versus screaming at your television or computer monitor.

I just now did a quick search for the last time I wrote about MOOCs here on the blog, and it was sixteen months ago, and even then it was just to take a victory lap over the big nothingburger MOOCs had come to.  It seems like the last time anyone took MOOCs seriously was three years ago, or in MOOC-world’s timescale, roughly around the Peace of Westphalia.  Just because Jonathan and I and other MOOC skeptics were right doesn’t mean the struggle to protect educational and humanistic values is over.  Not by a long shot:

But just because this blow proved to be glancing doesn’t mean that the punch didn’t leave a mark. For example, a lot of rich schools threw a lot money out the window investing in Coursera and its ilk. [Yeah, I’m looking at you, alma mater.] Others simply decided to spend tens of thousands of dollars on creating individual MOOCs that are now outdated almost by definition since they’re not designed for corporate training.  Yes, I know that MOOC producers claim that their MOOC experience improved teaching on campus, but think how much better teaching on campus would have been if they had just invested in improving teaching on campus.

At best, MOOCs were a distraction. At worst, MOOCs were a chronic condition designed to drain the patient of life-giving revenue. Instead, those schools could have used that revenue (as well as its initial investments) for other purposes, like paying all their faculty a living wage.

He, through Chris Newfield’s new book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Themgets into some dark corners of the psyches of modern university administrators and calls them out for their self-hatred and lack of confidence in their own training.  It’s some dark stuff–check out the whole post.

As Jonathan and I have said all along:  we know what works, and that’s teachers in human-scaled classrooms whose training and expertise is respected and rewarded appropriately.  I know, that’s not a sexy techno-futurist solution, but although it’s unfashionable and won’t get you major media attention or even a TED talk, sometimes you have to go where the evidence takes you.  MOOCs were nothing more than a self-promotional fantasy of a few proffies and their enablers at elite universities.  We told you so.  Or as Jonathan says, “Some of us becoming temporarily famous is not worth wasting so much money and effort on any technology that is obviously going to prove to be so fleeting.”  Now can we have our money back?

10 thoughts on “We called it: MOOCs are dead as uni disruptors, but follow the money

  1. I’ve taken a number of MOOC’s. I’m a retired 72-year old with a PhD and some university teaching. In general, I like ones that cover subjects that I wish I could have fitted into my undergraduate experience as a biology major. There have been several in history, either US history or ancient history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are who MOOCs are for, Crprod! I said all along that they were a more accessible version of Elderhostel. But they were never going to be a good way to educate people with high school educations only. Never. And that’s what we were promised–or rather, threatened with.


  2. My SLAC briefly entered MOOC-world via EdX, but the mini-courses were really designed to connect with alumni and remind them how much they loved old Alma Mater and wanted to give back. That’s fine, although if I were to ask our dean whether we got a good return on investment I bet she wouldn’t know. As Crpod says, MOOCs are great for adults who already know how to learn or for very defined goals such as technical job skills, but pretty useless for the average student.


    • Exactly, My other prediction was that they were a great tool for development/alumni outreach. But as you say, as someone who has taught generations of 18- and 19-year olds, MOOCs are not suitable for undergraduate education.


  3. “Drink a Highball, at nightfall….” Now maybe the “hot” idea of moving all the books from the library to New Jersey to create more room for “collaborative learning centers” will corkscrew into a swamp somewhere.

    I would love to “take” a MOOC, if there were only twelve life-long learning people on earth interested in the same ridiculously arcane subject that I was, and an incredible expert on that subject was available, all spread over four continents. But we have students sitting at their work-study jobs, multi-tasking and “listening” to recorded lectures from professors whose offices are on the next floor up in the same building. Paying by the credit hour, and learning little. I actually saw this happening the other day.



  4. I’ve found that they’re a handy alternative for dabbling into other fields. I’m a traditional MA student, so MOOC’s have proven a cheap alternative for picking up business skills to boost my possibility of finding a job outside of the academy (right now I’m brushing up on accounting for about 1/20th the cost of that class at the local community college).

    That being said, I’m rather choosy to only pony up for the certificates if they’re backed by a name-brand University or organization I trust (took one by the Smithsonian that was good). My hope is that they have a little bit more utility if they’re “recognized” by the places I’m applying.


  5. Don’t forget how much the NYT’s blathered on about them. They seemed to take special glee in thinking professors could be replaced. Perhaps because their industry was caving. But their embrace of the technophilic wet dream has helped to feed attacks on public universities–they’ve narrowed what they want the public to understand higher education is-even though we know they would never let their own little darlings get such an education.


    • Pretty much. I’ve written here a lot about the ressentiment that journalists have for college proffies, even as hundreds of them are scrambling to get a job in a J-school somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The _Times_ loves to run those Education special supplements and special editions, which are not uninteresting to read, but which have a pretty formulaic topography of structure, narrative, and rhetoric, when you look at them in overhead view, and over a period of time. And, of course, they are advertiser magnets, especially from educational institutions.


  7. Pingback: Quotes | Notes from the Hercules Cluster

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