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REPLY to The MOOC Racket: Widespread online-only higher ed will be disastrous for students—and most professors

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By Rory McGreal July 26, 2013 - 5:45pm Comments (3)

This is a reply to an article critical of the MOOC phenomenon in Slate Magazine by Jonathan Rees, July 25th, 2013



I have extracted the main points from the article and added a commentary.

The italics are Jonathan Rees's

The plain text is my comment

JR> MOOCs possess the magical power to turn some of the smartest people in academia into followers of a faith-based cult because they want to become its idols.

RMc>Rather than the MOOC supporters, thecsmartest people would be those defending their cult-based faith in a creationist view of universities, who are opposed to any consideration of educational evolution whether in the form of MOOCs or any other change from what they perceive to be the god-given approach to teaching and a possible threat to their privileged position.

JR>How do you teach tens of thousands of people anything at once? You don't.

RMc>You do! This statement on the face of it is preposterous. Millions of people have learned about the moon landing at once by watching television. Millions learn from books at different times but alone.  When did people learn who was elected President? Was it millions at once? Aren’t these examples of something learned?

JR>Education, as any real teacher will tell you, involves more than just transmitting facts. It means teaching students what to do with those facts, as well as the skills they need to go out and learn new information themselves.

RMc>Well, I am a real teacher and I would tell you that the Internet involves MORE than just transmitting facts. The Internet also involves interactive groups multimedia and explanations of what do with facts. More people are on the Internet to interact than to read facts. On the other hand, read a recipe on the Internet or watch a cooking video.  You might learn something!. For skill learnings go to one of the many “how to” sites.  Students have little trouble in following links and finding out new information themselves.

JR> But the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. If I had told my tenure committee that I taught history this way, I'd be in another line of work right now. Anyone who has the slightest interest or expertise in education would never teach this way, even if they were paid to do so.

RMc>A single multiple choice question is better than classes in traditional universities that finish with no question at all.  And, MANY faculty in many universities do teach without offering a single question.  One-way teacher talk in traditional universities is quite common if not the rule. And, these non-interactive teachers do get tenure in many universities if not yours. But, more importantly, the single question is about time-sensitive formative assessment and research shows that this can be effective in promoting learning AND it is NOT the most common means of assessment in many MOOCs.

JR>my guess would be that most superprofessors became superprofessors because the chance to become higher-education rock stars

RMc>Well, my guess would be that most “super professors” do this because they want to open access to learning and some do it for the money the same as profs in traditional universities. Few if any expect to be superstars. Even Leonard Cohen did not write songs expecting to be a superstar! He just wanted to make a living.

JR>MOOCs provide an easy opportunity to drastically cut labor costs by firing existing faculty members or simply hiring poorly trained ones—whom they won't have to pay well—to help administer the class

RMc>In many universities hiring trained instructors facilitators would be an improvement over profs who are put in classrooms  with little or no teacher training.  The norm in many universities is to hire a PhD and put her/him in a classroom with no teacher training. In any case, as you yourself note later PhdDs are not generally paid well. MOOCs themselves are not the problem. MOOCs can promote a vibrant intellectual community or not. Campuses can also promote a vibrant intellectual community or not.

JR>Prof is “only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.” 

RMc>This is as much a criticism of traditional universities as MOOCs. Especially in the first year mass lecture hall classes it is good luck to the student who gets to meet personally with the professor.Yes, MOOCs are more akin to mass lecture halls, only with more opportunity for interaction. How about if MOOCs are the means by which we free up local profs from these lecture halls to spend more personal time with students in local environments?

JR>the cynicism of focusing on access to higher ed in the developing world when one-third of student loan borrowers in the United States never even finish college simply boggles the mind.

RMc>I think that the cynicism is in the statement.  So, people shouldn’t focus on international development  solutions until the US gets its act together?  Yes some of those 1/3 students don’t finish for financial reasons, but a lot more finish because they do not see the relevance of the college. They are not participating in the intellectual environment that you have created. Shouldn’t that tell us something?

JR>Talking about access to higher education allows MOOC providers like Coursera to avoid discussing the effect their services will have on people who work in higher education now. Professors, believe it or not, are people,

RMc>Yes, the real fear of MOOCs by profs is about losing jobs. The other arguments are put forward, but that is the driving force behind opposition to MOOCs. Well, historically the evidence shows that the best response to technology is not to oppose it to maintain the old system, but to meet the challenge head-on. The stables in America converted to gas stations when the horseless carriages came on the scenes. The ones that didn’t change were left behind. While it is hard to believe that profs are “people” (a joke!), they too will probably have to change. They have no god-given right to the present order of things. If profs or any other profession can be replaced then they will be. I would suggest that prof survival will depend more on their subject knowledge along with strong personal interactive teaching skills as you note – the things that computers and MOOCs are not that good at yet.

JR>The average drop-out rates for existing MOOCs is about 90 percent. . . .MOOCs offer no guarantee that anybody will actually learn anything.

RMc>One could look at it as a 90% drop-in rate. How can anyone dropout if they do not commit. Even in traditional universities, normally administration does not count in their retention calculations the drop-in students who stay only for a week or two. And, of course we know that many students drop out of traditional universities without learning much – some even graduate without learning much. So nowhere is there a guarantee of learning.

JR>The MOOC providers' profits, if they ever appear, will come from creating replacements for existing college classes

RMc>Or, the profits can come from expanding accessibility to millions of learners who cannot now afford the tuition or who have no institution accessible. Or how about if public universities compete with MOOCs instead of whining about them. This is already happening as 23 public post-secondary instituitons on five continents have created the OERU. The OERu is  a non-profit consortium supporting the assessment and accreditation of informal learners using Open Educational Resources.

JR>Somewhere right now, private companies, university administrators, and/or politicians are already planning an all-MOOC future for most of tomorrow's college students

RMc>Yes, and the conspirators are now sitting in the Vatican library and it is led  by Microsoft, the pope, the chief rabbi, the Freemason's and Hitler’s clone. (Another joke!) Don’t you think the conspirators will wait until they make a profit before they go for ALL Mooc future?

 JR>Only the most privileged students will still have in-person access to highly qualified professors…. a workforce trained without close contact with professors of any kind might as well not attend college at all

RMc>This accsss to profs could be an improvement over many of our traditional universities where many privileged students don’t have much in-person access to their professors. And you say it well, when the traditional colleges wake up and start providing real personal access to personable, empathetic teacher-trained profs, they may have a chance of competing with MOOCs and save jobs.

JR>Going to the library and reading a bunch of books would be equally effective, and probably a whole lot cheaper.

RMc>Have you been to a library lately? Our students are accessing books and other readings online. The library in most universities is full of students on their laptops or at workstations. And, reading books and other relevant literature has always been one of the primary method students in universities do learn.  For the most part more important than the lecture hall – as evidence by how many students skip class and still pass. The classroom time is to help them in the process of learning.


RMc>TO Conclude: Universities should look at themselves before criticising new phenomena. If they really want to survive they should address their deficiencies and adapt to the world as it is changing rather than criticising others for faults that they don't address themselves. Through change and adaptation, biological and human created organisms improve and survive. We save our jobs not by focusing on saving jobs and criticising other, but by improving services to students and fulfilling society's needs.









  • Great post Rory, I couldn't have said it better!!


    Terry Anderson August 2, 2013 - 2:37pm

  • Great post Rory, and well said. Thanks. My share (both c and xMOOCs) are about changes. Are people ready to embrace those changes? Not everyone is viewing such changes in positive ways, though every MOOCs and even online education, have their "yin-and-yang" impact on education. Who led the changes? If people reflected on the first cMOOCs, were they led from the grass-roots? xMOOCs are led from the top and "driven" by the MOOCs providers and HE institutions, and so could be perceived differently. As I have shared, most successful implementation of education reforms and initiatives were driven from the top. Only revolutions were driven from the open or bottom (like internet, technology, or people in society). Are people still the most valuable assets to society and community? If yes, how are people going to embrace changes and adapt to a "revolutionary" ecology?

    - Sui Fai John Mak

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing August 2, 2013 - 9:14pm

  • Rory, thanks for demolishing this self-serving defence of the traditional university model as the gold standard for learning. The deficiencies of the latter have become increasingly evident, as the Internet, the most powerful learning platform ever devised, offers better alternatives. Is there any doubt that traditional higher education is in crisis? I point to:-

    1. The unaffordability of the American campus model, based on tuition price increases year after year, with students incurring immense debts, leading to a student loans crisis and financial bubble that will sooner or later burst, just as the housing bubble did. See “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College”, ; “Universities on the Brink”, ; “College Bubble Set to Burst in 2011”, .
    2. Questioning whether learning happens at all in traditional university education, especially undergrad education. See “Does College Make You Smarter”, .
    3. The traditional university’s crisis of purpose, . 
    4. The university: still dead - Andrew Delbanco's insightful new book on the history and future of the American college exposes an institution that has no idea what it should be, by Angus Kennedy, .     
    5. The fading legitimacy of liberal arts colleges, . 
    6. The widespread perception that universities require “fixing”, 
    7. The fact that universities are ripe for disruption: . 
    8. The ineffectiveness of lectures, still the dominant teaching method in universities: “The College Lecture, Long Derided, May Be Fading”, .

    I could go on and on. Yes, higher education has problems, an abundance of problems. Are online education and MOOCs the answer to those problems? Not by themselves. However, they are steps forward by offering valid alternatives that are supported by a growing number of students who are voting through their enrollment choices. MOOCs and online education are continually evolving, whereas classroom practices are not to any significant extent.

    If defenders of the cherished traditional university model ignore their deficiencies and alternative online learning methods, they’re just whistling past the graveyard.……Alex Kuskis, PhD

    "Education must always concentrate its resources at the major point of information intake; we merely have to ask, From what sources do growing minds nowadays acquire most factual data? How much critical awareness is conferred at these points?” – McLuhan, M. (1955) “Communications and Communication Arts”, Teacher College Record. 57 (4), 104-110.

    “Universities are concerned with the communication of knowledge. So radical innovation in communications technologies inevitably suggest change in universities.”- Brown, J.S., & Duguid, P. (2000). The Social Life of Information (p. 230)


    - Alex Kuskis

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing August 3, 2013 - 9:32am

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