The Scary Side of MOOCs: Ads, Scams, and Snobs


Read enough higher education news and you start to get the idea that MOOCs are the greatest thing to happen to education since the invention of chalk. However, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the protests of the academics and educators who are not on board. To them, the claims of democratized education, relatively cheap operation, and variety of scintillating courses are not enough to allay their worries about the scary side of MOOCs. It might be worth our time to consider if they have a point.

For one thing, some are not convinced that MOOCs will be the great equalizer; in fact, they fear the opposite may be true. In December, The Chronicle of Higher Education asked just whom exactly college was being reinvented for and complained that it’s exactly the students who need face-to-face instruction that are being targeted with MOOCs. And although many seem to have forgotten it, broadband access is not the norm: two-thirds of the world does not have it. Even if bringing knowledge to the four corners of the world were not a promise of MOOCs, the fact that even North America has 28% of people without broadband shows MOOCs can’t be as democratizing as advertised. The more popular they become, the more people without access are in danger of being left behind.

Secondly, it was only a matter of time before MOOCs began to be offered for credits from traditional universities. To be sure, this is a great development for lifelong learners, who will have the added weight of a university’s name to put behind a certificate earned by passing a MOOC to put on a resume. The troubling part is that with the improved rewards comes increased motivation for people to commit fraud.

From their inception, a concern with MOOCs has been that they make cheating easier. Peer review, currently Udacity’s answer to the question of grading for many classes, is obviously ripe for abuse. Even auto-grading software is not immune from error. As for digital badges, literally anyone can create one, and with no uniform system in place to verify them, employers will either have to ignore everything without a brand name they recognize (Harvard, MIT) or risk accepting bogus credentials. Then the question becomes, would we want to lean on a hand rail designed by a person who lied about having passed an engineering MOOC?

Then there’s the “massive” part of the equation. Udacity co-founder Daphne Koller imagines a future where MOOCs see 1.5 million students in a single course. Historically, the U.S. has been known throughout the globe for its diversity of schools with their unique professors, beliefs, and teachings. A million students learning the exact same material smacks a bit too much of something out of 1984. Granted, this would be fine for a neutral topic like algebra; but what about loaded topics like global warming, or religious studies? Shouldn’t education be at heart about encouraging independent thought, not groupthink?

And what about the question of money? Already $100 million from investors has been shoveled into MOOC funding, and schools like Penn that have developed MOOCs for $50,000 a pop are “just beginning to think about how to recover those costs.” So we have a free online platform that is racking up users and capital with a big question mark about how to make it profitable hanging over it. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Look at some of the ways Facebook has tried to monetize its services: selling users’ information to advertisers, offering the ability for strangers to email users for $1 a message, putting ads in front of viewers’ eyes even after they’ve exited the Facebook site. Mark Zuckerberg’s previous claims that his company only “makes money to build better services” is practically identical to what’s being said now by the heads of the biggest MOOC providers. And yet, as just one example, Coursera already makes money when students buy a book suggested by the professor of a MOOC. How long will it be until such marketing moves from being a coincidental by-product of open online courses to the driving reason for creating them?

But perhaps scariest of all for higher ed is the possibility that it has pinned its hopes to something that doesn’t work as well as traditional or the “classic version” of online education. As The Social Media Monthly magazine recently pointed out, self-directed learning takes “social animal” humans out of an environment where they can interact with other people and makes it just student and screen. And as associate psychology professor Timothy A. Pychyl said, when you make that change, “you’re going to lose some things.” As we mentioned, the system is not an ideal one for weak students; but they may not be alone in that regard.

Without the added impetus of deadlines, set exam dates, and the pressure to “get your money’s worth” that comes with paid courses, a significant chunk of wannabe-learners may fail to complete courses due to a lack of motivation. Just consider a few numbers on the Stanford courses that started it all: Introduction to Databases “” 92,000 registered and 7,000 completed; Machine Learning “” 104,000 registered and 13,000 completed; and Sebastian Thrun’s famous Introduction to Artificial Intelligence “” 160,000 registered and 20,000 completed. That’s hovering at about a 10% pass rate, a figure that would put a brick-and-mortar school out of business in a heartbeat.

It seems most likely that MOOCs are the future of education. Like Facebook, they will probably have their growing pains along the way as the kinks are ironed out. Let’s just hope that it’s the scary parts that are worn off in the coming months, so we can look back from higher ed’s bright future and know all we had to fear was fear itself.

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