Are MOOCs Good for Students?

June 14, 2013
Elena Olivo / Flickr (cc)

Editors' Note: This is the fourth of a four-part series on education reform, online technology, and the future of learning.


I am one of the signers of the open letter by the professors of philosophy at San José State University to Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University concerning his involvement in edX, a start-up company that offers massive open online courses (MOOCs). The letter, collaboratively written by members of the department and approved by all, explained our reasons for resisting the implementation of JusticeX, a course based on videotaped lectures from Sandel’s massively popular Harvard course on justice, in our curriculum. We wrote:

There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social justice.

Although our letter sparked much needed discussion about the value of MOOCs, confusion remains about the options presented by new education technologies and the potential value they may have for higher learning.

Our concern is not so much with a particular course, with curricular decisions in our university, or even with the future of philosophy as a discipline (although all of these things are deeply important), but with the future of higher education itself, and hence, frankly, with the future of our culture. The key problem is not even MOOCs so much as it is with the reduction of knowledge to that which can be tested by a multiple-choice exam or similar methods. It is the “massive” aspect of MOOCs that raises the deepest problems. MOOCs pose a great threat to the most important value of higher education: “literacy.”  By “literacy” I mean, very broadly, the ability to read, think about, and intelligently respond (both orally and in writing) to the literature of any field of study. Thus, implementation of MOOCs for university credit is bad because it is bad for our students.  


• • •


MOOC has become a loosely used term for three different types of courses in the new vision of online university. The first is the paradigmatic massively open online course (MOOC): a fully automated machine-run course with no face-to-face instruction or human contact that is open to everyone. The second is the closed massive online course, which is fully automated and accredited but open only to enrolled, tuition-paying students. SJSU offers five such courses through Udacity—a private online-higher-education company born from a Stanford experiment in making an Artificial Intelligence course available online—in our summer program to a maximum of 1000 students each. The third category is the blended course. This type is still fully automated but adds an in-class component. SJSU currently offers one such course, edX’s Electronics and Circuits. I am only concerned here with the second and third sorts of courses.

One of the most essential components of quality education is learning how to write clearly and persuasively. Indeed, employers often complain that we are not doing this job well enough! MOOCs promise to save money, but they can only do so if they replace the grading of written work by qualified individuals with multiple-choice tests or, if there is a writing component, papers that are graded by machines or by fellow students (would students and their parents really want papers to be graded by people who are totally unprepared for the job?)  Currently the main form of grading in MOOCs appears to be based simply on multiple-choice exams. Yet is instruction based on such methods as valuable as writing-intensive teaching directed by qualified instructors? While multiple-choice exams are perfectly acceptable as one tool among many, they cannot assess or help shape literacy.

To get a sense of the extreme limits of multiple-choice exams, consider Harvard Professor of Classics Gregory Nagy’s mythology class. According to Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article “Laptop U: Has the Future of College Moved Online,” the course, in its brick-and-mortar version, is especially popular partly because it is extremely easy. Known on campus as “Heroes for Zeros,” the course employs a “soft-grading curve” based on multiple-choice tests. Heller gives the following sample question: 

What is the will of Zeus?

a) To send the souls of Heroes to Hades

b) To cause the Iliad.

c) To cause the Trojan War.

According to Nagy, the best answer is b. But a good student could write a paper supporting any one of the three answers. Nagy’s course has reportedly now been offered as a MOOC with 27,000 students and alumni working as volunteer mentors. Even with the volunteers, it is inconceivable that such a course would demand carefully written reflection by its students.

Actual knowledge requires more than being able to do well on such an exam. It also demands an ability to integrate and explore information creatively—an ability that cannot be so measured or encouraged. Here we run into a larger problem that also plagues K–12 education: seeing knowledge merely in terms of packets of information that can be imparted to students and then measured by standardized tests. The results of No Child Left Behind are telling here. As many critics have pointed out, it has encouraged highly regimented instruction based on “teaching to the test.” As a result, many of the college freshmen I encounter have never written a single paper of any sort in high school. MOOCs are just a symptom of our society’s degraded approach to knowledge itself.  

The elite colleges promoting MOOCs are not only endangering less elite institutions but also undercutting themselves.

In my years of experience as a philosophy professor, I have found that the development of critical and creative thinking skills through writing and rewriting is the most important part of my students’ education. My lower-division students are expected to write about 12 pages in homework, formal papers, exams and in-class writing—all of which receives my critical feedback. Moreover, in my classes, unlike a MOOC, all papers and written homework assignments can be rewritten for a better grade and I encourage this.

 Another essential component to genuine education is close, careful, critical reading. MOOCs, however, discourage the acquisition of college-level reading skill. When the edX package of Sandel’s lectures was proposed to us, we were told that the amount of time students would spend using the platform would be monitored. They were expected to work online at home for nine hours a week, mainly watching videos and taking quizzes. Assuming a typical load of five courses, students who took only MOOC courses would spend about 45 hours per week watching video clips and taking quizzes. What time would they have left for reading Plato, Shakespeare, or Freud? Even before MOOCs came along my experience with classroom videos has been that, although they can be valuable teaching tools, they can easily be overused and often lead to passivity by both students and teachers.


• • •


In order to clarify the vision of MOOCs for higher education, consider the way they’re supposed to save money. In a Wall Street Journal article “Coursera Makes Case for MOOCs” (May 14, 2013), Daphne Koller—cofounder of Coursera, an online education company started by her and fellow Stanford computer scientist Andrew Ng—argues that MOOCs promise savings through instructors spending less time on content development and grading. “It gives them time to cover more students,” Koller says. “If you only come to the classroom once a week, the instructor can then have another section a week.”  So the added efficiency will be in increasing the number of sections taught by each faculty member. “The role of the teacher will change,” Koller says. “[A] teacher will have more time to spend teaching, as opposed to spending time in content development and preparation and in grading endless repetitions of the same assignment.” So teachers will no longer prepare for their classes or develop their own lectures.  

I am stunned that Koller thinks that teaching is somehow radically distinct from the content that is taught—that college teachers are just content-providers rather than active intellects engaged both in their fields and in their students’ learning.  The idea of “grading endless repetitions of the same assignment” seems to assume that grading papers year after year is a waste of time. Yet even though assignments may be similar, and are sometimes tedious to grade, it will always be new to the students.     

Such a vision not only reduces education to rote learning, it also reduces the educator to the role of a mere technician, a position that can be performed by someone with minimal skills and no real understanding of his students or subject matter. If doing research, developing ideas, and integrating them into one’s teaching are eliminated, what reason would there be for bright people to want to go into higher education? What models will students have for pursuing serious study in a particular field if they no longer have access to real scholars in those fields? Moreover, if the teaching of justice, for example, is left to a MOOC taught by one star instructor, who will be able to mount a critique of those ideas  for the students in that particular class? The minimally skilled teaching assistant?

In a recent Times Higher Education article (“Can San José show U.S. academy the way?” May 16, by John Marcus), SJSU’s President Mohammad Qayoumi, a leading advocate of MOOCs, argues that systems based on online learning will be individualized and will actually “enhance the success of students.” Yet it is hard to imagine how this will work if it entails reducing the number of teachers and the amount of time each teacher spends on student assignments.

Some have argued that MOOCs are just elaborate high-tech textbooks and that, therefore, there is nothing to worry about: they are not really courses but are only course supplements. If MOOCs were textbooks, there would be little concern. After all, technologically enhanced textbooks have been around a long time. However, the reason why MOOCs are promoted is to save money by having faculty teach more sections. But what this unavoidably means is less attention paid to individual students. Moreover, at most public universities and struggling private ones, faculty will be replaced with “mentors” who will not be able to critique or intelligently discuss the content. This is guaranteed to produce a second-class education.


• • •


Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article portrayed the U.S. university system as two-tiered with the elite universities, on the one hand, and everyone else on the other. But its description of non-elite institutions was a distortion of what actually happens in college and university classrooms throughout this country. When he describes 80 percent of colleges as “the populist arm of higher education” and suggests that most of the professors do not have PhDs and have no research support, he distorts what happens at SJSU and countless other colleges and universities. In fact, our system of higher education is multi-tiered, hierarchical, and interdependent in complex ways. By essentially seeking to downsize the rest of the higher education system, the elite colleges promoting MOOCs (and many of them, for example Duke and Amherst, to their credit, are beginning to question their involvement) are not only endangering less elite institutions but also undercutting themselves.

Many professors at elite universities fail to recognize that they rest on the tip of an iceberg and that they will no longer have the same support if they allow the rest of the system to melt away. If departments like ours at SJSU are dissolved or greatly diminished in favor of MOOCs, elite scholars will lose a very large part of their intellectual audience. PhD granting institutions will be particularly affected: we will no longer be sending students to study in their graduate programs and we will no longer be hiring their students. The vibrant ecosystem of higher learning as a whole will decline because fewer and fewer students will actually be inspired by live teachers or will even read books by such teachers.

It is telling that elite professors and universities who design MOOCs aren’t using them for their own students. Those of us who value education and its role in fostering both literacy and democracy should pass on them too. 


there are two more important points that need to be brought out in this debate.
1) The role of the "situation" of learning.  This involves the scale, the quality and the dynamic configuration of the place of learning.
2) The value and necessity of human diversity.  This is not only important epistemologically (ie. understanding develops through dialogue with others capable of considering a topic, problem, etc, from many diverging points of view), but also socio-politically.  If the ability to develop and share knowledge (teaching) is not spread out as widely as possible, and borne by a diverse hoard of teachers, then knowledge will collapse, and expire.  To say it anohter way, the same reasons that make increasing the number of students attractive (with the exclusion perhaps of the profit incentive), would demand that the number of teachers also be expanded proportionally.  If not, then we are not talking about building sustainable societies capable of both advancing knowledge and of passing on accumalated knowledge through generations, and across cultural barriers.  Rather we are talking only about expediency.  This is why corporate executives (and the engineers who serve their interests) should not be running universities.

Thank you for pointing out the multi-tiered, fluid, interlocked structure of American higher ed.
Personally, I wish we could just shift the debate toward smaller (15-20), interactive, fully online distance courses offered by traditional universities. Are THESE an effective way to reach today's student population?  They are being offered around the country and seem to be the wave of the future for many students.
Instead, it's all about MOOCS and "star professors." It fits into celebrity-obsessed, deindividuating mass culture, I suppose.

When it dawns on you that you've priced yourself out of existence, maybe you'll understand what's happening here.  Until then, you might as well be spitting into the wind.

What self-serving twaddle !  A desperate rearguard attempt is underway by a professoriate threatened with extinction to kill the MOOC baby in the cradle.  Fortunately, it has no chance whatsoever to succeed.  MOOCs are the future of higher ed and bricks-and-mortar colleges (and their highly paid employees) will be decimated---literally, since 90% or more will go away and we'll have 50 or so research-oriented universities that survive.
Tenure, sabaaticals, long lunches at the faculty lounge, in by 10, out by 3, vacation after vacation after vacation----all curious relics in a few short years.

Exactly. Hoist on their own petard.

I think you miss the point entirely.  You seem focused on things that are entirely secondary to the question of what defines a good education.  Have you some experience in developing and teaching courses in higher education (or at any level?)  If not, then what makes you qualified to judge whether the author's argument is "self-serving"?
Additionally, how do you arrive at your conclusion that faculty resistence to MOOC's "has no chance whatsoever to succeed?"  Are you in some way familiar with the power or lack thereof that faculties possess either generally or at specific institutions?  This sounds like a broad-brush pronouncement by an ill-informed observer.

No, actually, very well-informed---the best comparison of online and in-person learning, a meta-analysis sponsored by the Dept. of Education, finds them roughly comparable (see http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalrepo...).  Ergo, no distinct advantage to in-person learning.
In addition, the assertion that someone needs to be an education expert in order to detect "self'serving" arguments realting to education is fatuous in the extreme.

Here is the middle third of the abstract of  the 2010 "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies". It provides the fundamental conclusion of the study.
"The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se."
Notice that this does not support the conclusion you are trying to draw from it. The advantage of online learning comes from situations where face-to-face and online elements are blended in a course. And de facto this typically means that students are spending more time on the course in the blended version than in the control (regular) version.
No kidding! Spending more time studying gives better results! Who'd have thunk?

Sepper unlike the other commentor you closely read the excutive report and pointed out that the blended learners spent more time engaged than some students who did not take the same course in face to face. At the university where I teach, we discovered similar findings: not much difference in scores, but the students in the blended section of the same class prefered the chance to review the lecture on-line and spent more time reveiwing the material. 

It's so sad that we can't step back from this discussion and see the danger of MOOCs of becoming online factory assembly lines that spit out a public that can't think or write creatively! 

As a result of eight years of the Bush administration and the Texasmodel for public education, we at institutes of higher learning have already been pushed into a culture of accountability.  As a result, we have data to support what we do.  Are students in a MOOC going to help build a Habitat for Humanity house?  Are they going to be able to server on an SGA?  Right now, a college education is the great equalizer in this country that allows students to meet people from all over their state, their country, and the world.  And gosh, what would happen to minor league football and basketball currently funded largely by state institutions?

The demise of college sports will be just one of many benefits of the changes about to rock the higher ed world

One does not have to be an expert on education to have an opinion about it, but knowing something  about education would be promising.  Highly paid professors having long lunches and endless vacations?  Try poorly paid adjuncts teaching at five or six places.  Academia pricing itself out of existence?  The cost of college is astronomical, but administrative costs and the services that students and parents demand and the defunding of education from government are more significant than the cost of faculty.  Read Save the World on Your Own Time about the finances and administration of colleges as a start. 
As for Moocs, only one comment addresses the point of the article.  Do Moocs lessen the quality of education?  Yes.  Is that OK?  A comment on that would be interesting.

There would definately be an end to the Professors that are left behind in the modern areas of  the educational curriculium.  Ergo the CIS and  the  Digital Media  Classes where the old school teachers are not capable of keeping up with the  Technology and not able to teach the students newest and most modern basics in the world of Technology.  Some thing that we NEED to keep up on, in order to keep up in the modern world .   The world only needs so many Lawyers and Politicians We need educated individuals that are able to basicially run the world and keep our technology  updated and functioning.    The world of Technology will take  many young persons a lot farther in this modern world than reading Plato.  I do not know how many times I have heard from Students that this teacher or that does not know how to teach or he is very boring etc.   I can see where this type of learning would be of a great advantage .   It  would be better for a student to learn  from a Machine than have then not learn from a Teaher that is not very qualified to Teach what he is assigned to Teach.  As far as writing of Papers ,  the modern student writes constantly due to their everyday interactions .  Maybe not a 10 page Paper, but they are writing daily and expressing themselves constantly through the written word via the internet.    Most young do not communicate without using the internet and that is verbal as well as written communications and most are quite adapt at what they do.    Papers  might be considered a necessary form of expression in  learning how to communicate intelligently and present onself to others ,but the Modern Student does that on a daily basis when expressing themselves to a very broad spectrum of individuals over the internet.   They reach a wider range of individuals through that medium than any classroom could ever give them.

Have you tried a MOOC? If not, I recommend that you enrol on Coursera's 'Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets'. It is beyond amazing. I defy you to take a look at the video lectures, quizzes, assignments and, most of all, discussion posts (especially those by the lead professor, Sue Alcock, who is currently posting from Petra in Jordan) without being impressed. This has to be the future of education, and I speak as  64-year-old teacher of more than twenty years.Oh, and when you've looked, if you want to - you can unenrol. But I bet you don't want to!

In order to have an intelligent discussion about an issue it is necessary that one has some information about it.  First, the whole discussion of the "cost" issue is just silly.  Do any of you know just how much a part-time lecturer gets paid?  I have been teaching one course a semester for several years now and my monthly paycheck is $660 after taxes.  Even if one were to teach 4-5 courses per semester and reach the top of the pay scale you can maybe make 40K a year. And part-time lecturers are the majority of people teaching at public universities these days.  The big universities already have the classrooms in place so really it is just a matter of paying the instructors.  The whole argument about over crowded courses is simply a crisis which has been created by fat-cat administrators so they can rush to the rescue with "solutions" created to enrich their buddies in high tech.  MOOCs also raise real issues about academic freedom.  Suppose there get to be 2-3 MOOCs that teach intro to psychology in the whole country.  A good course in this would point out that a great deal of depression can be treated with talk therapy (without drugs).  What do you think the big pharmaceutical companies will want to do about this inconvenient academic fact?  Buy off the the 2-3 "star" professors teaching the course and say that all depression must be treated with drugs.  They might even have the audacity to say that depression must be treated only with their brand name drugs!  This is why we have always put up a "firewall" between big business and academia in this country.  MOOCs will reduce the "firewall" to a thin veil.  Doctor Leddy is absolutely right.  It is not just university education that is at stake here but in reality our whole culture.  And who is standing up to guard it?  A bunch of brave professors at San Jose State University who I am proud to call my colleagues.  As far as I am concerned they are all worth their weight in gold.   

 Being a math teacher myself  and having completed 3 MOOC courses and right now taking four other different courses on coursera. I can vouch that days of substandard professors are now numbered. I remember during graduate school I had professors who would peddle their notes that  they have written over 20 yrs ago and would get upset at the slightest hint of being challenged. I would suggest the San Jose professors to take a good MOOC course. One from Rice unversity on Python Programming is a great example of how much better could a MOOC course could be over a live lecture and they will realize the stupidity of many of their arguments. 
     I am sorry that many of these professors are going to loose their jobs, but its totally unethical to steer this debate by using false propaganda.

A few simple facts are in order. First, there are two reasons why state funding for higher education has declined: 
(1) the rapid rise in funding for incarceration - based on mandatory sentences even for non-violent crimes. A simple glance at the curves for hgher ed vs. prison funding will demonstrate immediately that states have been forced to devote funds previously assigned to education to prison support. As one wit put it, we can make kids pay for college but we can't make criminals pay for prison. The result is that students are increasingly forced to pay a higher and higher % of their education costs. 
(2) The rapid substitution of technology and outsourced labor for American labor has driven down the availability of jobs with benefits and hence the need for college educated individuals. In the next couople o decades we will graduate 19 million students but will be able to emplpy only 7 million of those. The result is that the private rate of return on the investment in college is declining and college no longer makes economic sense for many young people and their families. The elites know this, and the fact that they have not pressured for more funding for higher education shows that they know it. They don't need those graduates and they can't employ them - and they don't want them as an oppositional force once they graduate but cannot find decent jobs. So they pressure for anything that will reduce costs and eventually drive out college education for ordinary families. They make the rules and they don't care one whit whether or not MOOCs make sense educationally. 
Now this brings us to the main contention: that MOOCs are more or less worthless from the educational point of view. Prof Leddy makes a lot of assumptions here about the limitations of MOOCs. Well, in the years since this piece was written MOOCs have morphed. The good ones have more built in social and pedagogical support. MOOCs will continue to morph into something more responsive to the early critiques. They might not be as good as college when judged by older standards, but they might be far better in other ways: better at connecting students out into the world, better at providing diverse experiences in lieu of lectures, etc. 
In the 1930s many progressive high schools shifted from a primarily academic focus to a more life-centered focus with personalized active learning. Conventional educators were aghast. In one of the most sustained research projects in education, the 8-year study conducted by Ralph Tyler with a crew of distinguished researchers, it was found that these students did just as well in college, and far outstripped conventional high school grads in terms of self-direction and initiative. 
MOOCs and other forms of alternative and 'scalable' education will not go away. What is needed now is another 8-year study to figure out just what is going on, what is being learned, and how well those undergoing different forms of advanced learning fare in further education and life.

Multiple choice questions are widspread in universities - in practically all fields of study - they're very similar to what you see in a MOOC - I know because I'm a college student and I've taken like 2 individual (not included in a series) MOOC's. And in fact some of coursera and EDx MOOC's demand that students actually produce written work. So, no generalizing or jumping into conclusions that online tests are less demanding than college tests as whole. 

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