MOOC Haters

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!

OK, so I’m not Howard Beale and this isn’t Network, but the tenor of the current discourse on MOOCs is starting to get absurd. Analysis in The New Republic of a recent survey of 35,000 MOOC students who took at least part of a MOOC offered by the University of Pennsylvania, leveled as a criticism the finding that most students do not view these courses either as a means to a college degree or a new job. Given that none of these courses are accredited, one wonders how a student could possibly use them as a means to a college degree? And while they may exist, I have yet to see a job listing requiring (or even recommending) completion of one of these MOOCs as a qualification.

As I looked at the data, I was struck by several highly encouraging facts. Two-thirds of the students taking the U Penn MOOCS live outside the United States. And while the TNR authors pointed to the survey data to decry the fact that most of the students taking these MOOCs have college degrees, I was surprised to see that fully 20% of the them do not. Just think, 1 in 5 of these students is spending time taking a college course that will get them not a whit closer to obtaining their college degree. Granted, free is surely part of the allure. But time is a scarce resource for all of us. And to think that this many people are voting with their time allocation and their minds is both sobering and inspiring.

The other major criticism that seems to now find itself into many recent MOOC analysis pieces are the extremely low completion rates of many MOOCs – generally in the 5-10% range. The best site I have seen for a pure view of the underlying data is In a way, MOOCs have no one to blame but themselves for this criticism. Claiming every person who registers to take a MOOC as a student in the course has enabled MOOC professors and platform providers to tout impressively large numbers, but given that half of those who sign up never listen to a single lecture, sign ups seems the wrong metric for assessing the number of students who are taking a MOOC. There is also typically a huge drop off between students who watch the first lecture and those who turn in the first homework assignment. If you take as a starting point students who have completed the first assignment, the completion rates start to get closer to 30-40%. edX’s Anant Agarwal has made this point eloquently. While this is still a low number relative to on-campus college courses, given that the typical MOOC is free and does not offer credit, these rates are impressive. I think there is much room for improvement here – and this is really why we started OfficeHours – but that is the subject for another day.

MOOCs are not a panacea to the many challenges inherent in educating the world’s population. But surely they are a massive step forward in starting to open up to the world to the store of knowledge residing within the ivory tower.

MOOCs today are not a fully-baked offering. They are bold experiments prodding academia to take action, to hear the call. Tuition cannot continue to raise at a rate twice as fast as health care costs. The levels of college debt that students incur cannot continue to place an increasingly intolerable burden on our newest members of the workforce. Something’s gotta give. Putting top notch university professors online for free is not going to fix the problem. It surely is not a sustainable business model. But in starting to assemble the largest collection of online learners in the history of the world, MOOCs are helping to create the conditions for radical change.

So enough from the MOOC haters. Change is coming. It will be messy. It will be uneven. But if early indications are a barometer, it will be a good thing for the citizens of the world.

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Jeff Levy is Co-Founder and CEO of OfficeHours, a new company that allows online learners to connect on-demand, 24/7 - either with each other or with a community of experienced, course-specific Teaching Assistants. Jeff is an experienced entrepreneur and investor who has founded, built and managed a number of successful technology-based start-ups over the past 17 years, including Activate Systems (sold to Organic Motion, 2012); Biltmore Communications (sold to DirecTV/Hicks Holdings 2007); Open Point Networks (sold to BCI, 2002); eHatchery (portfolio companies collectively raised >$100M); and RelevantKnowledge (IPO, 1999 - NASDAQ, MMXI). Jeff currently serves on the Dean’s Advisory Board of the Georgia Tech College of Computing and is past chair of the Emory University Board of Visitors. Jeff is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization and was named one of the top 50 entrepreneurs in the South by Catalyst Magazine in both 2001 and 2005. Jeff received his A.B. magna cum laude from Harvard College and J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School.

  • MOOC = 08/12 elections

    While an interesting commentary, your argument is completely unfounded toward “change is coming” as it already defines MOOCs as ancillary learning environments, much like the public library or online videos. Even if they are developed by credentialed faculty, real interaction is impossible by design, so the “class” is nothing more than an offering of personal growth. Learn the information provided, or don’t. This does not present “change” other than a new means of grabbing a book from a shelf in the library; however, instead of learning at your own pace, you are now forced to learn based on the class offering. Perhaps the “change” is a step backward?