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The MOOC Reality


This one goes out to all of you who say that MOOCs are totally the equal of a real lecture class in terms of education quality:

Michigan professor Gautam Kaul is teaching the Introduction to Finance MOOC on Coursera. In a July 2 email to students, Kaul said students wanted to know correct answers to assignments but he would not oblige their requests. This means some Coursera users who get a question wrong could be left in the dark.

He called the students’ request for correct answers “reasonable” but “very difficult to accommodate.”

“If this were a one-time class, we would have considered posting answers,” Kaul wrote in an e-mail that was provided to Inside Higher Ed by a critic of MOOCs. “It will however be very difficult for us to offer this class again if we have to keep preparing new sets of questions with multiple versions to allow you to attempt each one more than once. Handing out answers will force us to do that.”

I guess that’s fitting though. I guess in capitalist education, just like in corporate America, employees and consumers have no actual rights that must be upheld.

Here is the full e-mail from the scab professor:

“First, I know that some of you want answers to the assignments. This is a seemingly reasonable request but very difficult to accommodate. Creating questions for the videos and the assignments has been the most challenging part of this new endeavor. Four people, including me, worked several months to create these. We believe our assignments are well thought out and reflect a good balance of conceptual and applied stuff. Creating the assignments online and then testing each one multiple times takes additional time. Due to copyright issues, we cannot simply give you questions from existing books, and I would not want to do that anyway. If this were a one-time class, we would have considered posting answers. It will however be very difficult for us to offer this class again if we have to keep preparing new sets of questions with multiple versions to allow you to attempt each one more than once. Handing out answers will force us to do that.”

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  • Mudge

    It seems what he is saying is go read a book. But what interested me is that he is teaching finance, one of the foundation courses of the crooked banksters. He’s basically telling his students, get f*cked, I got mine. Seems perfectly in character.

    • firefall

      think of it as the perfect meta-lesson

  • Just Dropping By

    While obnoxious, this problem certainly isn’t specific to MOOCs. In law school I had several professors who didn’t have review copies of previous exams on file in the library. All of them admitted that it was because they just reused the same tests each year and didn’t want to have to design new ones.

    • That’s incredibly pathetic.

      • Karen

        It’s also extraordinarily common. The part that always sent me into a blind rage was the professor who included a few “identify” questions on the exams. The answer to “which amendment protects the right to jury trials” does not change from year to year, so who bloody CARES if students know its on the test?

        • BrianLeiterSaysHello

          I see that Loomis is being dishonest and lazy in his argument again. Should we judge all blogs by one incompetent blogger? How about all university professors by Erik Loomis?

          No? Not interested?

          Well, there’s a surprise.

      • SamR

        At my law school, one professor took several exam questions directly out of a test prep book. The exam was open-book, and about 7-10 of the students in the class had happened to bring that book in with them (it was a lesser known prep book). Recognizing the question, they flipped open to the page with it, copied the answer, and got full credit.

        I can’t recall exactly what was done when we complained. We may all have been given full credit on that question, though I actually don’t think so. My main recollection from the meeting we had with the Dean was that 1. He was absolutely livid at us for complaining 2. He made it perfectly clear that there would be no discipline for the professor and he didn’t think she had done anything wrong. She was also mad, and said we had “embarrassed” her. Apparently she’d wanted to keep her laziness and incompetence under wraps and it would have worked too if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

        This was at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law in fall 2002. It was a 1L class.

        My now-girlfriend was in another class with a professor who was entirely unable to answer questions, and would get mad at students for asking. She would lecture every day from notes, and the one day she forgot her notes she simply cancelled class. Let me be clear: she told the class that the reason she was cancelling class was that she could not teach the class without her notes.

        So I’m not sure this is a problem confined to MOOCs.

    • Cody

      I’ve had this happen before, but surely if you asked your professor you could get the answer?

      He wouldn’t just give you ALL of them, but the ones you didn’t know would be useful.

    • Murc

      I’ve attended a number of courses like that, but the thing is, they’d still actually tell you what the correct answers were… right?

      I’ve never attended a course where, after a test or a quiz, if I said “Excuse me, but these answers I got wrong… can you tell me what the right answer is, and why it’s right and mine is wrong?” the professor wouldn’t cheerfully explain.

      • Just Dropping By

        I guess you could have found out the answers if you sought out the professors at their offices. Most of my law school classes that didn’t involve papers were also classes where 100% of the grade was a single final exam, so unless it was one of the few two semester classes, you would never see the professor “in class” again to learn the answers.

    • RepubAnon

      It reminds me of a Tax Law professor who reportedly asked the same questions every year, secure in the knowledge that the law would have changed so much that last year’s answers would no longer be correct.

      • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

        That would seem to suggest that the course was completely pointless as preparation for anything even remotely practical.

    • JoyfulA

      Isn’t that why people join fraternities, to get access to the files of previous exams?

      • Richard Hershberger

        That and to soak oneself in cheap beer, and to get laid.

    • I went back to finish my masters in public health last semester, because they now offer a capstone class as an alternative to the thesis. I took the class and one other course after a 15 year hiatus, since it was much easier to work full time doing that then writing a thesis. (I had a history of getting halfway done with the proposal in the first month or so of the semester and then some big project would land on my desk torpedoing any thesis work for a few years.)

      We never got the answers to the quizzes in the capstone class because they were taken from a bank of questions that could come up in future or concurrent classes. The quizzes were supposed to cover epidemiology, bio-statistics, community and behavioral health, environmental health, and health services organization, management and policy. Given that breadth, there should be a TON of potential questions that could have been asked, never needing to ask those questions again.

      Apparently, that’s not the case.

      I’m just glad that the questions they did ask weren’t heavily skewed towards bio-statistics. 15 years is a long time to be tested on material after having taken the course.

    • In college at the National University of Singapore, the course websites almost invariably had past finals available for students and we’d use them as the primary study aid. Those were essay questions (or, in math, proof questions) so there were no answers given, but the past exams were there.

    • Barry

      What I thought – this professor is not even willing to do the basic work of drawing up a new exam.

      BTW – the better organized frats and sororities will have those exams on file; putting together the results for several people will yield answers to all but the very hardest questions.

      • Barry

        Continuing – which means that professors like this must be loved by the greeks.

  • Jason Hartley

    There are certainly challenges that come with MOOC and most reasonable people understand that. Nothing is “totally equal” to something else, so that standard is not reasonable. The question is whether MOOCs give people access to lectures that are superior than they could get without MOOCs. I would say the answer is Yes. I went through Khan Academy’s math program, learned basic programming through Udacity, and have learned a great deal about Natural Language Processing from Coursera. Obviously had I gone to, say, Stanford, I would have gotten a better education. However, as someone with a full-time job, two kids, and a mortgage, that wasn’t an option. One other thing: the forums in the MOOCs often contain the answers from helpful students, much like a study group. Usually, this is in the form of a back and forth (“what have you tried?’ “have you considered this approach?”, rather than just simply supplying an answer.

    • This sounds like a paid advertisement for the MOOC industry.

      In any case, the question at hand is not expanding opportunities for people who can’t access higher education. That’s fine. The question is whether said courses should replace real courses within university systems.

      • AcademicLurker

        This sounds like a paid advertisement for the MOOC industry.

        The MOOC boosters who show up in every single thread on the subject sound so identical that I’m pretty sure many either work for Coursera or some similar company or are paid-per-comment free agents.

        • Jason Hartley

          You may be pretty sure, but you’re wrong in this case. I am not affiliated in anyway with any MOOC. So can you address my argument on its merits now?

          • Your argument has merits?

            Seriously, your “argument” is “I like MOOCs.” That’s not an argument. I’d recommend taking some humanities courses at a real university to hone that skill.

            • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

              There is *almost* an argument in his last two sentences. Or at least, I can imagine how someone who knew how to construct an argument might use those as a foundation for one.

            • Jason Hartley

              Your argument is “I don’t like MOOCs.”

              • My argument, as developed over a long series of posts, is that MOOCs are terrible for most students, are designed to corporatize higher education, are designed explicitly to make most professors unemployed and concentrate resources in the upper echelons of university administrations, and that online education is a poor substitute for person-to-person contact.

                • Jason Hartley

                  Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to follow this long series of posts, so I was responding to THIS post, which is supposed to be evidence that people who say “that MOOCs are totally the equal of a real lecture class in terms of education quality” are wrong. And then your other posts have been insulting me by questioning my honesty. All I’ve said is that I AGREE that MOOCs can’t replace traditional classes right now, but as long as we don’t test the methodologies side by side, it’s impossible to say how effective one is versus the other. Can you point to a study that has looked into this question? I can’t, which is why I’m not pretending to know if I’m right.

                • Anonymous

                  Erik – can you please list the MOOCs you have taken to completion so I can see how many points of data you have?

                • BrianLeiterSaysHello

                  The sad truth is that Erik Loomis can’t offer an argument worth a damn on this topic – and his attempts to do so have been refuted consistently. When people disagree with him, he’s reduced to shrieking that they must have been paid, while offering no proof that his teaching is in any way better than you would get from a MOOC. Given that this is apparently the quality of the American professoriate in the traditional university system, it’s no wonder people are looking for alternatives.

                • I totally agree.

                • Barry

                  Jason, which argument he has been making, on this post and others, with reasons, examples and data and all that suchlike egghead stuff.

      • Jason Hartley

        If it sounds like a paid endorsement, I can only say that it is because I am very happy with the MOOC experiences I’ve had. But I can tell you that the undergrad education I paid for (class of 1992) included classes with incredibly poor lecturers and very bored, even hostile graduate students. It would have been nice to get the kind of lectures I got through MOOCs, and then attend classes with other students and a professor/TA who could guide us through the process of learning. MOOCs are still relatively new, so they are probably not ready to completely replace most courses. My guess is that what will emerge is some kind of a hybrid system, especially for freshmen, which will be good for students. My last thought is that it is easy to prove whether MOOCs are better than “real” classes: just test it out. We can swap opinions all day, but the effectiveness of a MOOC vs. a traditional class is measurable.

        • Yes–graduation percentages for instance. So the University of Phoenix with its online courses had graduation rates at around 10%. I see no evidence that other forms of online education are going to lead to much higher rates.

          Personally, I think you are a paid agent of someone in the MOOC industry, random person who has never commented before and who sounds like an advertisement.

          • Jason Hartley

            You are wrong about me. Not only am I not paid for this, but for what it’s worth, my mother is the dean of a nursing college, and she is a big believer in the MOOC model in much the way I’ve described. Phoenix is basically a diploma factory, designed to make money. But let’s test not something as broad as diploma rate. Let’s have students take clases from Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy, or MRU, then compare how well they have learned with a control group from a traditional classroom environment. You can supply your own definition of successful outcomes for each class, and then measure which one met that standard more effectively. Again, we have our opinions, but according to the Stats class I took on Khan, data will often show us our intuition is wrong.

            • This is hilarious. Can’t beat paid trolls for awesome comments.

              • Jason Hartley

                I’m beginning to think you are a paid troll for the university system.

                • Totally.

                • BrianLeiterSaysHello

                  The saddest thing is that Loomis does this sor of fact-free trollery for free. I could understand him embarrassing himself if he were being paid by his college, but this sort of voluntary self-humiliation is both hilarious and pathetic.

                  Why can’t Loomis bear the idea that MOOCs can work and do work? The Udacity programming MOOCs are excellent and some of the Coursera courses are very nicely done. Yes, the quality is probably higher in the programming/math courses – but that doesn’t mean MOOCs are evil. Unless, of course, you are trying to defend the old, bad university system with its turgid lectures and incredibly slow grading times for homework.

                • “Unless, of course, you are trying to defend the old, bad university system with its turgid lectures and incredibly slow grading times for homework.”

                  Yeah, since I totally give my students multiple choice tests instead of papers with a ton of feedback, I can see how MOOCs will be awesome.

                  What I love about everyone who attacks me on this topic is that every one is a true believer in MOOCs and seems to be intimately familiar with them in ways that make me question the relationship between the author and the industry. We already know that one of the people has a vested interest in the industry.

                • Jason Hartley

                  Being informed seems like a prerequisite for having an opinion, even for a True Believer. With that in mind, I will repeat an earlier commenter’s question: which MOOC classes have you taken and completed?

              • mantooth

                That you go to this accusation so quickly is really unappealing. He isn’t being unreasonable here.

                • salacious

                  Yeah. Nice to see such good faith engagement with opposing views!

                • Jason Hartley

                  Random people can’t get a break around here.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  I have to agree. As far as I can tell, MOOCs end up being a ripoff for a significant fraction, perhaps a majority, of those who take them; but it’s entirely possible that JH is one of those who got value, and implying that he’s paid (even if that, too, is possible) is not helpful.

                • Jason Hartley

                  I really, really am not paid to comment about this topic! Not sure how I can make you people believe me.

                • Leo Klein

                  Yes, Loomis is using a pretty slimy cheesy Ad Hominem argument here which brings down whatever reasoning an anti-Mooch position deserves.

              • Mike Schilling

                Let’s use Erik and Jason as proxies for the classroom-based and MOOC approaches.

                Question 1: Define “ad hominem argument”.

              • Snarki, child of Loki

                Well, he probably *isn’t* paid. He’s probably getting course credit!

                “Internet Trolling 101: The MOOC”

                You know it’s true.

        • The Pale Scot

          “Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to follow this long series of posts,”

          So it’s likely you are not a regular reader of LG&M.

          How did you find this particular piece which argues against the utility of MOOCS as an academic method?

          • Jason Hartley

            I read it all the time, but I haven’t seen this thread, mostly because I follow via RSS (RIP Google Reader). Since I had the day off today, I was looking more carefully, and the MOOC title caught my eye.

            • Gregor Sansa

              Umm… I just defended JH above, but this “all the time” makes me more suspicious.

              • Jason Hartley

                I feel a bit like Brian in The Life of Brian. Only the true messiah would deny his divinity! If one has a blog on their RSS feed, they read it “all the time.” I always read the posts from LGM about how scenes are framed, I skip over some articles because they don’t interest me, I read some because the headline seems to reinforce a belief I hold, and some I never see because I have a backlog of hundreds of posts. The only reason I commented on this is because I feel strongly about the topic and I have the day off. Normally I wouldn’t have time to even comment, much less go back and forth like this. Is that so hard to believe?

        • Hi. My father runs a test prep company, for which I have written and proofread practice questions. So I actually have an idea how for-profit education that has to get measurable results (namely, good scores on the Israeli SAT equivalent) looks like.

          At this company, there is a huge component of online homework, but classes are done offline. The online homework is not at the expense of teachers, but complements it: teachers spend an inordinate amount of time monitoring each student’s online progress and giving students advice on what to practice (“you’re doing fine with percentages, practice analogies instead”). Since each additional student requires so much additional work for the teachers, class sizes have to be small, which the company then uses in marketing versus competitors that have no such monitoring and save money by increasing class size.

          Oh, and before people accuse me of paid shilling, note that I’m not even naming the company. It’s unlikely anyone reading this even lives in the countries where the company operates, and when I comment on Israeli blogs I talk about the occupation and Bibi’s Thatcherite kleptocracy, not about test prep.

          • L2P

            I, for one, can’t wait until every college course is taught like a test prep course. Who wouldn’t want a lawyer whose entire education was made up of cramming cliff notes of 20 different subject matters, and learning how to quickly spot superficial issues?

            The mere fact that you think you can point to anything done in test prep as a defense od moods is, frankly, appalling.

      • RedSquareBear

        Except that, as noted up-thread, it’s not unheard of in “real classes” (and I think your privilege is showing in your choice of terms, by-the-by).

        • Jason Hartley

          Don’t know what you mean by privilege.

          • RedSquareBear

            He’s protecting his class interests. MOOCs threaten the professorial system (and the massive inter-generational young-to-old wealth transfers that this system imposes) and so he’s aginn’ em.

            While I personally don’t like MOOCs Erik’s protection of his entrenched class interests are pretty flamingly obvious here.

            • Hogan

              Remind me who’s teaching the MOOCs again?

              • RedSquareBear

                Fewer professors?

                • Hogan

                  Oh, so members of the entrenched class. Got it.

                • RedSquareBear

                  Pace tt (below), you don’t think that economic interests of professors come into play in the critique of MOOCs?

                  MOOCs will employ a few professors (“academic superstars”, name professors, people with book deals and nice hair) very well and will probably displace a great number of lower level faculty.

                  It is unfortunate that a lot of marginal adjunct faculty will lose their jobs from MOOCs (or at least they will see the conditions of their labor change), as noted any number of times on this site adjuncts already have a pretty raw deal. However, it is also unfortunate that education has become a massive transfer of vast sums from the young and poor to the old/middle aged and rich/middle class, and that these vast sums are afforded special status to lock the young and poor into nearly perpetual credit-indenture.

                  Are Community College faculty also “scabs” because they offer introductory classes cheaper than University faculty?

                • The comparison between MOOCs and community colleges makes no sense at all.

                • RedSquareBear

                  They’re substitute goods. You can take a MOOC of Finance 101 (cost being free, or maybe free plus a real-life discussion section fee as is seen in hybrid arrangements), or you can take it at a Community/Technical College (a little bit more cost), or you can take it at the University (a lot more cost).

                  If the MOOC instructor is a scabber because he’s doing it below the union rate (the rate of a professor at a university) how can you maintain that the Community College instructor is different?

                • A MOOC instructor is a scab because that person is working for an organization with the explicit goal of having technology replace professors in the classroom. Community college, 4-year college, there’s really no difference between the two. It’s not about a “union rate,” if that even existed. Besides CC professors get paid at more or less the same rate as 4-year college professors, although there are a lot more adjuncts.

                • Also, the idea that the MOOC is going to remain free is laughably insane. A MOOC is fine as a method to get information out to a general public. If a company wants to use one to update its employees on something, fine. If someone in Nigeria is going to be able to access information in way she could not before, great. What is happening with MOOCs though is that universities want to eliminate their own employees and charge students tuition to take MOOCs for credit. That’s the problem.

                • Hogan

                  It is unfortunate that a lot of marginal adjunct faculty will lose their jobs from MOOCs (or at least they will see the conditions of their labor change), as noted any number of times on this site adjuncts already have a pretty raw deal.

                  So the entrenched class that’s threatened is not in fact entrenched; it’s already on the margins and now being threatened with being pushed off the page altogether. You’re just mashing people in very different economic circumstances together into one big ball of privilege to impugn Erik’s motives.

                  And yes, Erik’s hands are not clean on that score.

                • For what it’s worth, I got very good TA reviews in grad school, and was popular at the math help room as well as a fast grader. This means that in a Khan Academy environment, in which the grunt teacher (i.e. not the superstars who lecture) does TA-style work, I’m more employable than in traditional academia. And I still agree with a large majority of what Erik says about MOOCs.

            • Jason Hartley

              Ah. Yes, I actually don’t have a dog in the hunt. I’m a 42-year-old writer, musician, and marketer (not for MOOCs!). I just want my kids to have the best education possible, and I really don’t care if one side wins over the other.

              • L2P

                And you want moods for,your kids? I hope they learn how to say ‘would you like fries with that.’

                Moods are fine if its your alternative to, say, reading through a course book you got at the library. They are terrible for providing a replacement for college courses a student needs to base a lifetime on.

                • Jason Hartley

                  My six-year-old son loves Khan Academy math lessons, which he does with some input from me after he works through the problem and still can’t get the answer. So yes, I do want that for my children.

            • tt

              I don’t think this is a fair criticism of Erik, because his position on MOOCs fits very neatly with his general techno-dystopianism, which has been a consistent feature of his writing for many years. He’s wrong about MOOCs because he’s wrong about the relationship between labor and technology, not because of his particular professional interests.

              • It’s funny how any criticism of technology in a technoutopia society is considered dystopian.

                • tt


                  To me, the future seems to be, in a world where bosses rule with total control, one of massive unemployment in the face of continued technological advancement. The 1% can get even more money while the masses suffer the long-term degradation of institutionalized poverty.

                • Tell me how this isn’t happening.

                • tt

                  If it is happening, that makes you a correct techno-dystopian.

                  I think the current unemployment situation is exactly what a Keynesian should expect given the world’s anemic macro policy response. It has little to do with technology.

                • BrianLeiterSaysHello

                  Erik Loomis calls for a return to the world of grinding one’s own corn, weaving one’s own clothes and writing with a quill pen plucked from one’s own goose.

                  While, of course, typing on a modern computer and advertising his neo-Luddite views on the internet.

                  At least it makes for good comedy.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Does anyone else suspect that BLSH is actually BL? I mean, not a lot of 5-dollar words, but certainly the same trollish, sockish attitude.

                • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

                  Wouldn’t BL troll Paul’s threads instead though?

            • Yes, actually wanting students to get a good education is totally the same as the “protection of my entrenched class interests.”

              • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

                I think that for some people, “education” and “information transfer” are more or less synonymous. So how could MOOCs be a step backward? After all, they facilitate more effective and efficient information transfer, so it’s all good, right?

                • Incontinentia Buttocks

                  As pointed out upthread, books remain the killer app for efficient information transfer. So I’m not sure that MOOCs even win in this limited terms.

                • RedSquareBear

                  I’m not sure when the last time you took a 101-level class. There isn’t a lot of deep soul searing education going on in an “Intro to Finance” class. And, unless you’re lucky (or privileged enough to attend a Small Private), probably isn’t a lot of meaningful interaction offered by the professors either.

                  A lot of modern university education is the checking off of boxes. I happen to have been passionate about my major and even I did my share of box-checking when it came to fulfilling my geneds. Why shouldn’t these be taught at less cost to the student? Why should students pay more to have someone lecture them from the front of a lecture hall in the flesh?

                • BrianLeiterSaysHello

                  The irony here is that the defenders of the entrenched academy assume that it provides a high-quality education. This simply is not the case – which,presumably, is why they are unable to provide facts, rather than ideology and assertion, as part of their argument.

                • The American higher education system is probably the best in the world and almost certainly was before the public deinvestment of the last 20 years.

                • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

                  I’m not sure when the last time you took a 101-level class. There isn’t a lot of deep soul searing education going on in an “Intro to Finance” class. And, unless you’re lucky (or privileged enough to attend a Small Private), probably isn’t a lot of meaningful interaction offered by the professors either.

                  It’s been a long time since I took one, but only about two years or so since I taught one. And since my students were “lucky” enough to be attending class on an open-enrollment, until-very-recently-only-a-two-year-college campus, then yeah, I feel pretty confident in saying there was “meaningful interaction” available there.

                  And FWIW, it was an Intro to Macroeconomics class. So not much soul-searching there either.

          • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

            Of course you don’t. Because you don’t actually read this blog. Because you are most likely a paid agent of some MOOC company.

            • mantooth

              That any dissent can only come from paid agents is some Alex Jones-level paranoia. “My ideas are so dangerous that nefarious agents have been deployed to stop me! A worldwide cabal is the only thing holding me back! Wheels within wheels, my friend!”

              • John Protevi

                Dude, you are overly literally. The reaction here is that the Hartley brothers exhibit such clichéd opinions that they are just like paid commenters. Not that they are paid; it’s that they write as if they were.

                • mantooth

                  He stated that he had a good experience with MOOC. Not sure how that is cliched.

                • RedSquareBear

                  Erik’s first response to the first criticism of his position was to accuse the poster of being a shill.

                  If we’re not meant to take this literally I would welcome any contextualization you could offer.

                • John Protevi

                  Erik’s first response to the first criticism of his position was to accuse the poster of being a shill.

                  This sounds like a paid advertisement for the MOOC industry.

                  Do you really not know what the phrase “sounds like” means? It means, literally, that someone is not X, but sounds like X. Similes–they are your friend.

                • mantooth

                  Is this not ‘literal’:

                  This is hilarious. Can’t beat paid trolls for awesome comments.

                • Note that the guy’s brother actually does have a vested interest in MOOCs.

                • RedSquareBear

                  It’s not actually clear that “Skipper” has a vested interest in MOOCs, just that:

                  We also develop MOOC style courses for internal use. In particular we make them available to the firm at large to train and promote people.

                  Which (with all possible respect to Skipper and his work) I suspect doesn’t mean a whole lot more than “we put a bunch of videos on our SharePoint site, and a lot of people could access them and comment on them therefore MOOC”, in much the same way that any trendy term gets shoehorned into any position description it can conceivably fit into (witness “Multimedia”-anything in the mid-90’s).

                  But apparently my reading comprehension skills are poor so what do I know.

                • Jason Hartley

                  My brother has a vested interest only in the sense that it is another way to evaluate candidates and then provide further education to people in his organization. Erik is a professor arguing that you can’t replace professors. I’ll leave it to you who is less likely to see the issue clearly.

                • Do you really not know what the phrase “sounds like” means? It means, literally, that someone is not X, but sounds like X.

                  “Screams from the street…it sounds like someone is in trouble. Which means, I suppose, that no one’s in trouble.”

                  “I got up at 4 am and went to the factory, where I worked for 16 hours straight.”
                  “Sounds like you had a hard day.”
                  “Hey, screw you! I did have a hard day!”

      • CP Norris

        Is that the question? I don’t think Coursera can or should replace university courses, so we agree there. But I don’t think the professor who teaches a Coursera class is a scab either, so there is another question at work.

        • If you take a position with Coursera for a job that you know other schools are using to replace professors, then you are stealing work from your colleagues.

          • Jason Hartley

            But if the outcome for the students is better, should you care that you are taking educators’ jobs? I’m not saying that it IS better, I’m just saying that it could be in many cases, and while I don’t want anyone to go unemployed, some jobs become obsolete, even highly skilled ones. If I’m a professor who is reaching more students and educating them better through a MOOC (or any other means), should I feel bad about that?

            • Linked again.

              At research universities you’re not just taking the jobs of educators, you’re taking the jobs of people who are advancing scholarship.

              • Jason Hartley

                That link is definitely intriguing, but it doesn’t answer our question: can MOOCs take the place of traditional classroom learning in some cases? Completion rate as a whole is an okay stat, but since there is essentially no barrier to entry in the MOOC world (right now), then it could be that many of these people starting without finishing wouldn’t have enrolled in a school with a significant tuition cost. What I would like to see is a study where a population that has a certain likelihood of success in a traditional setting are put in the MOOC environment. That would give us a more valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

                • What I would like to see is a study where a population that has a certain likelihood of success in a traditional setting are put in the MOOC environment.

                  This might depend on what you think of places like this. To an extent a lot of what the OU (a research university) is delivering is a MOOC. And they have a MOOC-named tryout here.

                  Those who deal with distance education seem to be of the consistent opinion that it is hard to do well. That doesn’t go for all students; if you learn well in that manner you’re set and you’re very lucky. There is a LOT of research on it, and I haven’t yet figured out why MOOCs are considered to be a different category.

                  “MOOC” is a Hot New Acronym for something that’s been going on all over the world in various forms. I am not surprised that the buzzword gets traction in HR departments, where buzzwords rule, but the University of Phoenix gives accredited education and I don’t think that goes over well for hiring (nor does most distance ed).

                • slightly_peeved

                  MOOCs have to offer a compelling match for the final year thesis/project before it’s even worth considering, seeing as:
                  (a) that is the part which requires the most student-teacher interaction,
                  (b) for a number of degrees (Engineering, Computer Science) it is the single most important part of the course.

      • Mike D.

        I haven’t yet been able to catch up with what basically is at issue in The Great Early Twenty-Tweens MOOC Freak-Out, so I’m glad for this clarification from Prof. Loomis:

        “the question at hand is not expanding opportunities for people who can’t access higher education. That’s fine. The question is whether said courses should replace real courses within university systems.”

        I honestly was unclear whether the issue was that I, a midwest-Big-State-U-BA schlub who probably doesn’t belong in a graduate program at all, can watch the Yale European History survey course lectures with John Merriman for free on iTunesU or not. I was worried that it was, and I’m glad to find out that it’s not.

    • Cody

      MOOCs are great… for free.

      Curious how long till Harvard will offer their diploma for free over a MOOC.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        But they don’t offer the diploma for free, just the information. In the neoliberal fantasy, education = information transfer + credentialing. You can monetize one or both side of that equation.

    • RepubAnon

      It sounds as though the point of the MOOC is extracting tuition from students rather than imparting knowledge to students. (Except, of course, for PT Barnum’s observation about fools and their money).

    • cs

      Wow, what a lot of talking past each other and useless accusations. I think Erik’s actual point got lost in the mess, his actual point was this:

      In any case, the question at hand is not expanding opportunities for people who can’t access higher education. That’s fine. The question is whether said courses should replace real courses within university systems.

      • RedSquareBear

        I will now address the actual point:

        How nice to learn that the Professor Of Real Classes Erik approves of the expansion of educational opportunity to populations poorly served by [the hilariously overpriced debt-indenture-machine that is] modern American post-secondary education. But don’t think for a second that Professor Of Real Classes Erik will ever treat these educational opportunities as more deserving of respect than YouTube cat videos.

    • Tyro

      The professor and MOOC program in question are clearly ripping off and shafting the students.

      I’ve take more than my share of online tutorials, but MOOCs shouldn’t be confused with a university-level class.

  • tt

    This seems like a pretty silly criticism. A poorly-run MOOC is going to run poorly, just like a poorly-run lecture class. That doesn’t imply that no MOOC could be the equal of a lecture class.

    The prof’s strategy isn’t even going to work. If it’s a popular class, answers will appear on the internet whether he wants them to or not.

    • Manny Kant

      I thought MOOCs were all taught by academic superstars who represent the the best and brightest that their field has to offer.

      • tt

        You thought wrong.

        • Manny Kant

          This is certainly how MOOC advocates have been selling them.

          • tt

            Then they are greatly overstating their case. Not sure what your point is.

    • Gregor Sansa

      “Isn’t even going to work”

      So, he gives the same stupid class, which he spent “months” creating, for say 8 years running, charging money all along. Then in year 8 there’s a cheating scandal and all the honest students of that class have their work retroactively tarnished (because the scandal will be the first Google hit for the class name). So he only gets 8 years of fees.

      Wow, it must suck to be him.

      • tt

        1. I don’t see how this plays out differently than if he just gives out the answers.
        2. It won’t last 8 years. The answers will be the first result for the obvious google search.

        In the long run, I don’t think credentialing based on online tests can work. Too susceptible to cheating.

        • This is actually my first concern about MOOCs, and one I rarely see acknowledged: they’re basically all run on the honor system.

          • delurking

            And — though I really do think highly of my students, and I’m not just saying that — I have been doing this far too long to rely on their honor, when that honor stands between them and their keeping their financial aid / scholarships / health insurance.

  • CIP

    Nothing makes me more certain that MOOCs will succeed than the pathetically low level of some of the attacks on them. I’m a student in Gautam Kaul’s Finance class, and I don’t agree either with his policy or his rationale for it, but hurling insults (like “scab”) is pathetically juvenile as well as a ridiculous misuse of the term.

    The content free attacks on students like Mr. Hartley who show up trying to explain the value of the MOOC is hardly going to persuade anyone that the authors deserve to have a place educating anyone.

    • Rob

      Nothing tells me more of the failure of MOOCs to deliver an education is the fact those who are getting ripped off don’t realize the fact.

      • BrianLeiterSaysHello

        Nothing tells me more about the failure of the traditional academy to deliver an education than the fact that those who are getting ripped off so passionately defend the institution which failed to provide them with a grounding in basic logic.

        • Gregor Sansa

          well, that’s a check mark on BLSH having BL levels of snootiness.

      • Meg

        I’m not really sure how you can claim that people are getting ripped off, when the majority of MOOCs are offered free (including Gautam Kaul’s Finance Class). Personally, I don’t think of MOOCs as a substitute for college education, but instead are another form of self-education and learning. Books are great, but other forms of media can really enhance learning. I am enrolled in a MOOC and I think of it as another form of self-improvement. It’s been much better than a self-help book.

      • CIP

        The arrogant dismissal in your comment might intimidate me if I was some unfortunate college student in one of your classes, but I’m not. I’m pretty familiar with the basics of the university system, having earned a few degrees from it as well as having taught numerous courses in both universities and community colleges.

        I don’t think MOOCs are the answer to every educational problem, but they are great for me. As in traditional schools, some teachers and classes are a lot better than others, and some educational strategies are better than others.

        I don’t blame the untenured (or the tenured) for finding MOOCs scary, but you won’t help yourselves much by the kind of ignorant hysteria and ad hominems Mr – excuse me, Professor – Loomis traffics in. A professor ought to have enough professional pride to at least pretend to present a coherent, reasoned argument. That’s really hard when you don’t know what you are talking about.

        I’ve completed five MOOC courses, and learned a lot. Prof Kaul’s Finance, still underway, is far from the best, but it’s still a lot better than much of what I got in brick and mortar institutions. I learned a good deal from him. If Erik Loomis’ remarks here are characteristic of the subtlety and breadth of his thought, I have a lot of trouble believing I could learn more from him.

        • Tyro

          If someone isn’t giving me the answers to the questions on the tests after I’ve taken the tests, then I am getting ripped off.

          • CIP

            By all means ask for your money back. No doubt the MOOC will refund your full tuition.

  • Sebastian H

    Argh, anecdotes aren’t data, even on your side.

    Are all MOOCs like this? Is this the only way MOOCs can develop? Have you really never heard of horrible lecture classes at universities? Does the price difference between MOOCs and universities mean nothing?

    If you want to say “this MOOC sucks”, fine. But you seem to be trying to say that this MOOC sucks, and that proves all other current and future MOOCs also suck, which is both a poor argument and probably wrong.

    Universities are hideously expensive and saddling lots of students with life crushing non dischargeable debt. Their cost has been going up more than triple inflation for the better part of decades. There really is a problem here. I realize you think that MOOCs can’t be part of the answer. Other people disagree. The technology is young and trying to strangle it doesn’t sound good to me.

    • As we have said here a thousand times before, professors are not the reason for the ridiculous cost of education. It’s administrative bloat, athletic programs, the race to create nicer and nicer dorms for students, capital construction costs, rising health care costs for all employees, etc. My piddling salary is not the reason. To some extent it is true that the insanely high salaries paid to business professors plays a role.

      • Jason Hartley

        Seems possible that MOOCs could help address some of those issues: fewer dorms, less construction, fewer employees, and lower salaries for inferior business professors. Then you could put those savings toward increasing salaries for good professors. Please take a moment to see that I’m saying it’s POSSIBLE before launching attacks on my character.

        • Ian

          What you’re saying is possible in such an abstract and unlikely sense that it’s hard to believe you’re arguing in good faith. Do you believe what you’re saying?

          • Jason Hartley

            Yes, I do believe it. For instance, why would spending less time in class not reduce the need for facilities (like parking services, for instance)? How would using fewer professors not reduce costs? I know that universities are likely to keep some of those savings and some might cut services merely to make money regardless of whether their students are getting the best possible education. But I also know that some institutions will keep tuition lower (especially state schools with a mandate to educate those in greater need) or invest the savings into improving the education the students are getting at the same cost. I may be naive, but I think many here are overly cynical, which is worse because it leads to inaction.

            • Cheap Wino

              But I also know that some institutions will keep tuition lower (especially state schools with a mandate to educate those in greater need) or invest the savings into improving the education the students are getting at the same cost.

              It’s statements like this that make people think you’re just an industry flak sent here to advocate. You absolutely do not “know” this to be true and if you were arguing in good faith you would not phrase things as if you were writing a fact sheet that came from an accounting company hired to study a small town privatizing their trash collection and amazingly came to the conclusion that it would undoubtedly save the city millions while improving its cleanliness.

              • If you’re treating your university like a business, you compete. I’d be shocked if “improvement” is in the works, but apparently the margins are high enough for this place to do what it’s doing.

                • Cheap Wino

                  Hah! What do I get the feeling that $40k/$7k is about the same ratio as quality of graduates of the 40k program to those of the new 7k program?

                  At any rate, I think Jason Hartley’s statement would only apply if the people paying 40k in tuition were to see a drop in that cost. The GT program, as you alluded, is a pure money grab, independent of the school in general.

              • Jason Hartley

                I know this because I went to a state university with that kind of mandate and my mother is the dean of a school that seeks out new ways to provide better education for their current students and to educate a wider range of students. Are they always successful? No. But if you are suggesting that all universities will squeeze every penny out of their students that they can, regardless of the consequences, then MOOCs are not the problem. We need to replace those in charge wholesale. I don’t believe that is the case because I know it’s not the case.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        You forgot public disinvestment in public education.

        • Yes! The most important factor!

          • RedSquareBear

            And for the sins of the baby boomers the younger generations get to take on debt to cover the divestment?

            Got it.

            • Sebastian H


            • I don’t know about Erik, but the kind of liberals I hang out with are supporters of student loan debt forgiveness and raising taxes to pay for European subsidy levels for higher education.

      • Sebastian H

        I don’t understand why you believe administrative bloat vs professor pay is an important point to the student who is getting fucked over with debt in a system where she has much less control than you.

        If she comes from the upper half of the lower class, or the lower portion of the middle class and is going to any big name school that doesn’t have the endowment of the top six or so, she is facing crushing debt, without much hope of need based scholarships doing enough to mitigate it.

        Professors are a very major part of the system which screws over real poor and middle class people through that method.

        In the face of that, you want to further contribute to screwing them by shutting down alternatives at the experimental phase. Don’t blame the administration, that is you.

        You frame it as a labor vs scabs issue, but it is at least as much a rich people with lifetime tenure vs poor people trying to get a college degree issue.

        If you want quality control or anti fraud regulations to stop MOOCs from screwing people at a fraction of the price that universities screw people, I’m right there with you. But your flat out anti MOOCs position isn’t that.

        • Because the tuition will continue to rise and administrative bloat will continue, even if all professors are replaced by MOOCs.

          What amazes me about defenders of MOOCs is that despite all the evidence, people continue to believe that capitalism in education is actually going to lead to better and/or cheaper education.

          • Cheap Wino

            As I was reading through the comments I’m thinking, “Are there really people out there who believe the purported savings from MOOCs will be passed on to the students in any way, shape, or form?” That’s either wildly naive, or disingenuous to a high degree.

            • It’s really quite remarkable. Do these people know nothing of how the economy works?

              • mantooth

                personally, I’ve long thought that we should all have a card where our gross yearly income is scanned and prices are then a percentage of your income, not a flat rate for all)

                Should the guy who made this pie-in-the-sky statement be railing about other people’s understanding of the economy?

              • Snarki, child of Loki

                Well, they’re going to get an education in Capitalism.

                And they’re going to get it good and hard.

            • djw

              Yes, this. It treats higher education delivery as some sort of perfect market, ignoring the actual drivers of high cost (credentialing oligopoly, federal loan system). Critical thinking exercise for those who make this assumption: in recent decades, the rampant reliance on extremely cheap adjuncts rather than full time employees has reduced instructional costs, and yet none of these savings have been passed on to the student–quite the opposite, in fact. Why not? And why will MOOCs be different?

              • ChrisTS


          • Sebastian H

            So students are screwed, why shouldn’t you get to get paid in the process? That’s awfully big of you.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks

              No. More like the fact that students are getting financially screwed is not much of an argument for screwing them educationally, too…especially since the proposed innovation does nothing to make students less financially screwed in the future.

        • Rob

          And iPhones are free since the labor used to make them is basically zero.

          • Scott Lemieux

            Don’t forget how it’s free to attend an SEC football game.

  • tt

    Calling a MOOC professor a scab is like calling a movie actor a scab for attacking the livelihoods of people in theatre.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Or it would be, if showing your used movie/theater tickets were the only way to get most jobs.

      An creative-commons MOOC is not scabby. A MOOC produced by or for a company that is or is planning to monetize it through credentials, is. These days there are more of the latter than the former being produced.

      • tt

        I don’t see why that’s the relevant distinction. Most movies are monetized and don’t go into the creative commons.

      • Sebastian H

        Currently existing universities are making a killing on monetizing credentials already…

        It is a little weird to get social justice critiques from the very people making their livelihood being a key part of the system which is screwing the lower and middle class right now.

        Erik’s argument is pretty hard to distinguish from: MOOCs, if all cases are like their worst examples, if they never improve, and if people are willing to pay lots more for them, MIGHT someday screw students as much as the system he is actively a part of now.

        Ummmm, great????

        • The idea that an assistant professor of history is a key part of an educational system that is screwing the lower and middle class is pretty hilarious. For one, I am completely disposable to the people who actually are a key part of the educational system. Two, I guess the answer that would satisfy you is for me to resign my position in favor of MOOCs for all and jobs for none? Three, people in the Humanities provide actual education to students which MOOCs cannot and will not do.

          • Sebastian H

            Professors that teach large classes are completely disposable? That is a problem.

            I don’t really see how universities as they currently function could work without professors, so they are a rather key part, but I guess I could be wrong.

            I’m not asking you to resign. I’m asking you not to be so damn sanctimonious about other options. And to stop being so dismissive about your part in the ongoing awful institution. And to stop being so snide about the fact that universities typically only served a very narrow portion of people who need education and who might need education opportunities that universities aren’t likely to be able to provide.

            • The American university has served a wide swathe of the population, one that was expanding until state legislatures reduced funding in the last two decades. If you want to blame someone here, blame first state legislatures and second university administrations for moving their institutions toward a capitalist model that concentrates resources at the top.

              I’d think you’d at least try to understand the actual problems and issues here before being so sanctimonious yourself.

              • Sebastian H

                There is plenty of blame for everyone. I blame legislators plenty. I blame easy federal loans plenty. I blame fucked up administrators who waste the loans plenty. I blame people who screw people over requiring a degree for jobs that dont need it. And I blame teachers who want to put up heavy roadblocks to outsiders plenty.

                We’ve never had anywhere near a majority of people getting a bachelors (all time peak right around 30%), so your “wide swathe” comment seems like a dodge that is writing off 70% of the population. And the skyrocketing tuition is a forty year trend which well predates the reduction of public funds. The rotten system has plenty of rot all over the place.

                • Makes higher education in real schools free then. Plenty of these have open enrollment already. More could do so.

      • Lasker

        I don’t understand this. If your priority is keeping the price of education / wages of educators high, wouldn’t a free alternative be worse than one that cost money?

        And if a good is essential for survival, wouldn’t that strengthen, rather than weaken the argument that increasing access to it is a more important goal than protecting the interests of those selling it?

        If you want to fight MOOCs, I think your case has to be built on their potential damage to education, not their damage to the livelihoods of professors, except to the extent that you want to make the argument that damage itself threatens education. It seems to me that there is plenty of room to fight them on these grounds alone, so I really don’t understand the “scab” stuff.

        • Emily

          When cable television first came into existence, It was less than $10/month (possibly less than $5/mo; I don’t remember. I was 5 or 6. But it was cheap enough that my parents who only watch PBS paid for it because, why not?). How much do you pay now?

          This “free alternative” is only free until it becomes standard and necessary to a large enough group of people. Then it will cost money. Eventually, perhaps, as much or more as the current “in person” education.

          This is currently happening with online newspapers. First free, now a nominal charge to access more than X articles per month, soon enough it will be a substantial monthly line item in your personal budget. [caveat: I am not necessarily saying this is a bad thing wrt major national newspapers. Good news coverage takes money to produce, and we should not necessarily expect to reap the benefits of this service for free. But it fits the pattern of being free, then cheap, then likely not so cheap as its importance grows]

          • If they end up costing as much or more, as people are arguing here, and are inferior, then why would someone choose them? The argument seems to be that MOOCs will lead to most professors losing their jobs and students who want to study with said unemployed professors not being able to give them money for instruction. Possible, but it seems somewhat unlikely.

          • I didn’t realize that somebody who signed up for cable television many years ago agreed to pay for it in perpetuity at whatever monthly rate cable companies charged them.

          • Pseudonym

            Cable television providers usually have a monopoly or duopoly in their areas of service. I suppose satellite TV is a possible substitute, but that doesn’t provide internet access. DVRs have also killed the traditional commercial advertising model. Netflix and BitTorrent are starting to provide compelling alternatives, but except for the latter, all those delivery mechanisms depend on paying a handful of content providers. I don’t see the same mechanics applying to MOOCs or even newspapers (outside of a few like the WSJ).

            • It actually is a lot like private colleges, or summer camps. The same arguments Matt Yglesias gives for why college is expensive can then be used to show MOOCs will eventually become expensive.

    • Ed K

      That’s the single stupidest trolling comeback in this entire thread full of them.

  • Skipper Hartley

    Here is one thing to consider. Most of the people where I work love MOOCs. We also develop MOOC style courses for internal use. In particular we make them available to the firm at large to train and promote people. We are also more than willing to hire someone that completed some of our favorite MOOCs and can demonstrate a deep understanding of the topics. In our technical field a college degree just doesn’t even matter anymore.

    And yes – I am Jason’s brother.

    • Jason Hartley

      And of course I’m sharing a portion of my MOOC-supported salary with my brother.

      • Nina Hartley

        You’ve convinced me: I will share a portion of my movie earnings with you, Jason, as well as with Skipper. My favorite part of MOOCs: the “M” stands for “massive.”

        • Jason Hartley

          Now we’re finally getting somewhere.

    • Skipper Hartley

      I should also add that we ask job candidates what MOOCs that they have taken. We think it is one reasonable measure of intellectual curiosity.

      • mgmonklewis

        This is quite possibly the most shallow, self-serving comment I’ve read in months. That’s quite a comprehensive, in-depth job search you’ve got there.

        “We ask job candidates what gardening catalogues they’ve read recently. We think it is one reasonable measure of intellectual curiosity.”

        “We ask job candidates what Wikipedia searches they’ve done recently. We think it is one reasonable measure of intellectual curiosity.”

        This is fun! Also, it beats the drudgery of evaluating candidates on actual merit.

        • RedSquareBear

          Are you saying that “So, what have you been reading recently?” is really an unreasonable interview question in your book?

        • Jason Hartley

          mgmonklewis: He wrote, “we think it is one reasonable measure.” Your comment suggests he is replacing his entire evaluation process with the MOOC question. He is not. If you have to hire people frequently, especially when they have nearly identical credentials, it is helpful to get more information about whether a candidate is going to be intellectually curious or is merely intelligent. The latter will be a good employee, but the former might be a star. Having taken a MOOC is not the only indicator of that quality, but it is a good one. People who go out of their way to learn on their own during their free time make great employees. If someone told me they hadn’t taken a MOOC but exhibit the mindset of someone who has, then that’s okay too.

          • So what you are saying is that you want the employees to self-train rather than invest in them?

            • RedSquareBear

              So what you are saying is that Skipper’s firm, alone among the American business world, does this?

            • Jason Hartley

              Developing courses, evaluating existing courses, then giving employees resources and time to develop new skills through these courses is a major investment.

            • CIP

              I probably wouldn’t hire an employee without significant ability to self-train. Technical organizations in particular need people who can function without a lot of hand holding.

          • dl

            “The latter will be a good employee, but the former might be a star. ”

            Or, the former might spend all his time at the office dicking around watching MOOCs.

            • Jason Hartley

              Luckily, there aren’t that many tenured positions outside of academia.

    • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn

      University education != corporate technical training.

      • Skipper Hartley

        No one is claiming it is. But every student should consider whether or not it is worth it to pay (borrow) possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars to get that sort of experience. Especially given Erik’s comments above that most of the money goes to admin, sports, business professors and resort style dorms. Perhaps you are wealthy enough to afford it, but most are not.

        • John Protevi

          Hartley brothers: please read this blog carefully: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/

          • John Protevi
          • Skipper Hartley

            John – I don’t think you understand. We really don’t need someone to have a degree. in our case if you know multi variable calculus, linear algebra, computer programming, and can talk about them intelligently you should be good. all of this is available free online on khan academy, udacity, coursera, edX, and mit’s open courseware. If you have self discipline and a love of the material it shouldn’t cost you anything

            • John Protevi

              If you have self discipline and a love of the material it shouldn’t cost you anything

              I’m glad we agree on the principles of no user-fee public higher education, as set forth here in the 1960 Master Plan for HE in California.

              STUDENT FEES
              For the state colleges and the University of California it is recommended that:
              The two governing boards reaffirm the long established principle that state
              colleges and the University of California shall be tuition free to all residents
              of the state.

              Now if you would bother to read Newfield you would see how we have been driven away from those principles.

            • slightly_peeved

              You can’t, and don’t, learn computer programming in big lecture courses or Coursera. You learn it by programming big systems and then having them assessed by someone who actually gives a shit whether they work or not.

              Which could mean that the whole monetizing part of the MOOC model is going to fall in a heap, since they’ll never be able to offer credible 3rd and 4th years of courses, and without them their credentials will never be worth anything.

              In the case of MOOCs providing full credentialed degrees, the issue is not how they compare with the big lecture courses; it is how they compare with the honours year or the final year project.

              And this is talking as someone who has taken a Coursera course and found it quite useful. The most useful stuff I learned in undergrad wasn’t in the big lecture theatres; it was in the labs and on the projects.

  • Jeff

    As others have said, this is nothing new. Had many teachers who used the same tests every year. They never had a problem offering correct answers.

    So if the MOOCs use the same tests every years, it seems to me that there’s a tremendous business opportunity here, selling the answers to MOOC tests.

    • Rob

      That will be an additional fee for future courses.

  • rea

    In my somewhat limited experience, exams get misgraded, or soemtimes are poorly drafted so that the answer the isntructor wants is not the only objectively correct answer. If you don’t tell your students the correct answers for your exams, your msitakes get covered up. This, of course, can happen in other contexts besides MOOCs

  • Dan Nexon


    Providing free online education and edutainment is great. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with putting a large lecture class online. The problem seems to be rent-seeking, both in the form of the for-profit firms charging Universities to do this and in the eventual move to MC[losed]OC models, in which participants must pay for the course to acquire credit for it. The latter can be fine as well… what matters is how administrators *use* the product.

    Now, that being said, MCOCs and MOOCs replicate the *single worst form of instruction,* the large lecture class. I’ve said this before, but it is just plain odd that the some of the same educational reformers bemoaning medieval sage-on-stage modes of instruction are now all hot and bothered about MOOCs and MCOCs.

    • Jason Hartley

      The large lecture class is indeed awful, but the alternatives we have would be to break those classes up into smaller ones which means higher costs to the university for the classes that provide the (arguably) the least educational value. For instance, my Geology 103 class freshman year had maybe 100+ people in it, and I got an A in it without taking notes or reading the book. I’m not that smart, as perhaps you can tell from my comments. MOOCs provide a possible alternative, where you still have the survey-class model, but the lecturer is one of the best in her field. I think if that is the scenario, that is an improvement, especially if there is an active student forum. Not perfect by any means, but providing freshman-level classes across many topics is crucial because many freshmen don’t know what they are interested in yet, and might be surprised that lo and behold, geology if for them! But that wasn’t going to happen if you took my geology class.

  • Patrick Pine

    I loved attending a small liberal arts college and subsequently obtaining a professional degree – the in person contact with professors and fellow students has provided lifetime benefits and lifelong friendships. But my two adult daughters faced much more substantial financial challenges than I did (even though I came from a relatively ‘poor’ family) and the arrival of MOOCs is an alternative for many people in light of the costs of traditional brick and mortar institutions. That does not make MOOCs ‘better’ – except it often is more financially feasible. In my traditional college experience, I had mostly great professors – but a few, well, as they say, “Not so much.”

    As to providing correct answers to exam questions I recall cases where a professor might not provide correct answers on a “broadcast” basis – but might share some insight on a one to one basis. The idea of a “correct” answer can vary based on the subject matter and the ‘testing’ approach.

    In an ideal world, I would be thrilled if millions had the same opportunity I had to attend a great traditional college with excellent faculty and many hardworking students. But the reality is that the school I attended is now financially ‘out of reach’ for many – and definitely harder to finance than when I attended college (even then I worked virtually fulltime while in college)and therefore, some of the newer MOOCs – like Coursera or Khan Academy – do provide access to many who cannot realistically access the traditional schools. Having parents who were teachers and a nephew who is a professor I appreciate the value they brought and in my nephew’s case, still bring to students – but only a few will ever realistically have that opportunity.

    So Erik I may agree with your criticism in this specific example but do not extend that to a broader condemnation of MOOCs.

  • Johnny Sack

    Reminds me of all those casebooks with the helpful, insightful, but most of all confusing and open ended questions with no answers. Basically useless. All those other complicated textbooks where you need the “teacher’s edition” to know if you got it right.

    Blah blah ask the professor talk to each other. Yeah, you know what, I did that. But it’s the principle of the thing. It’s like some schools are no longer making legal writing pass/fail because students take graded classes “more seriously.” Any reasonable student in professional school should resent being treated that way.

    I’m sure these same administrators/professors lecture about responsibility and whatnot while maintaining similar policies. They honestly don’t see the irony and the disconnect in preaching responsibility on the onehand, and treating students like children on the other. Sends a terrible, terrible message.

  • Roman Levin

    Christ, the paranoia over people in the comments being payed shills for the “MOOC industry” is fucking hilarious.
    I’m not sure why a person who says they had a positive experience with MOOCs is suspicious. Regardless of any anti-poor-professor agenda MOOCs might or might not have, why should a person who takes a class in one have a bad experience?
    I’ve taken many classes in MOOCs, and while some were great and some were pretty meh, a MOOC would have to be trying pretty fucking hard to piss one off even half as much as the average mediocre professor. Not because I’m being payed by Salman Khan, but because if I don’t like a MOOC class, I just stop attending.

    • Leo Klein

      Exactly. They don’t realize how such paranoia undermines whatever legitimacy their argument may contain.

      Personally I’m not overly enthused with MOOCS but if all we have on the traditional academic side are bile-obsessed responses along the lines of:

      “This sounds like a paid advertisement for the MOOC industry.”

      — We truly are lost.

  • Johnny Sack

    One of my good friends went to the honors college of our local community college, and then transferred to the same school I was at. He had good grades in high school too. Wish pride hadn’t held me back.

    My first year of college I took maybe one class that wasn’t a 100-level gen ed class. If I had to do college again today, I’d want to do my gen eds online through a source that didn’t gouge me, rack up the credits, then move onto the substantive major and graduate after 3 years. Maybe 2.5 if I used summers wisely.

    The smart people who went to our flagship state from my high school used their dual enrollment/AP credits to either graduate early or tack on an extra major. A ROTC friend of mine finished his undergrad major a semester early and got most of his M Eng paid for by the army. There are ways to make it cheap if you’re enterprising, but mostly it’s expensive.

  • Pseudonym

    I took my introductory AI course from Daphne Koller (Coursera founder) and learned a ton from it, despite missing or sleeping through most of the lectures. Having good lecture notes and books, challenging problem sets and projects, and smart students for partners are what I think made the course valuable. If a MOOC can duplicate that environment, is it a bad thing? I have a harder time seeing it work for many humanities or lab science courses, but for mathematics or computer science I think it has potential. I might even try it myself if I manage to overcome my laziness. Does this make me a paid shill or a traitor to my class?

    There seem to be multiple issues intertwined here that Erik hasn’t been too keen on dissecting. First, there’s the question of what level of education MOOCs can provide in comparison to traditional classroom settings. Second, there’s the economic issue of colleges adopting MOOCs as substitutes for traditional classes and how that will affect students’ educations and tuitions. Third, there’s the matter of how MOOCs will affect the job market for college professors.

    I think the answer to the first question is that it depends, on subject matter, student motivation, teaching and evaluation quality, lots of factors. I’d bet that there are many courses for which a MOOC will never be able to provide an adequate substitute. There’s also a lot of potential for abuse.

    The second question is more interesting. The economic model of higher education in the US seems to be broken and getting worse. Costs and prices have gone up and subsidies have gone down. MOOCs seem to address at best a very small portion of the costs of higher education, while providing a golden opportunity for private enterprises to get a potentially exploitative relationship with public and non-profit institutions. In theory free-market competition should drive down prices while increasing quality, but in theory competition should already be doing this, and it isn’t. Libertarians will say it’s because of government interference in the free market, which is why Peter Thiel is paying people to skip college. I think Erik probably has a different reaction. But it doesn’t seem like MOOCs are either the cause or the solution to this problem, merely a catalyst. What policies would you recommend, Erik? Increased state funding of colleges, cutting administrative staff and “amateur” sports teams?

    The third issue seems tangential, although it’s easy for me to say that as a non-professor. If MOOCs really were viable replacements for in-person teachers, why would we mourn the MOOC takeover any more than we regret ATMs replacing bank tellers? The reason, I suspect, is that professors do more and provide more educational value, but that’s really a recapitulation of the first issue.

    • Regarding the second question–universities have already drastically reduced the costs of faculty through the massive conversion of tenured positions to adjunct positions. The amount of those savings seen by students? Well, you know the answer to that question.

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  • Tyro

    This thread reminds me of a study which pointed out that blog comments were much more active when topics veered towards global warming and transit– precisely the topics in which so much money was at stake that it paid to have an army of people willing to chime in and stir the pot in the comment sections of blogs.

  • MacK

    Eric Loomis’ critique of MOOCs might have a sound basis if all MOOCs were alike – or all professors committed to teaching their students. The reality is very different – I hear very good things about MOOCs in STEM subjects, especially advanced subjects, with researchers and professors actually attending them for infill on subjects they want to learn about and students using them to cover for bad teaching. At the same time, it seems that MOOCs are becoming a gold-rush with all sorts of bad entities trying the MOOC strategy. Some of those entities are in fact colleges, unaware of how awful some of their professors are at teaching.

    As one academic I know put it “a lot of people have no idea how much they will have to raise their game to give Coursera quality classes.” Many, as he put it, have zero presentation skills, never gave a shit about teaching anyway- seeing it an an inconvenience, don’t really give classes or lectures and are probably beyond redemption – and for a good few the public comparison that putting a set of classes online would result in would be catastrophic.

    Therein lies the basic weakness in Eric Loomis’ argument – it assumes virtue on the part of existing college faculty. Many cannot or will not do a decent job of teaching. Not many MOOC defenders have fallen into the trap of suggesting that all MOOCs are good – some are clearly terrible.

    • Jason Hartley

      At the risk of looking liking like a shill for Bill and Melinda Gates, this looks like a promising study: http://www.moocresearch.com/

  • Skipper Hartley

    this might interest some of you. this guy is trying to replicate a four year degree in one year using MOOCs and is blogging about it. he reviews classes, etc. seems pretty evenhanded


  • Skipper Hartley

    if anybody out there actually wants to see what an extremely high quality MOOC is all about check this out


    they assume no prior knowledge of computer programming, yet they teach you how to build a rudimentary search engine in seven weeks. i have been programming for over 30 years and i thought this class was a blast

    i thought this class on music production out of berklee was fabulous


    if you have ever been interested in special relativity, i *highly* recommend this out of stanford


    it assumes you only know basic algebra and pythagoras (and it reviews that as well) and teaches you about one of the most important scientific and creative breakthroughs in the history of science. the professor has a phd in the history of science so he gives lots of historical context

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