The darker side of MOOCs

Photo ParisTech Review / Editors / June 24th, 2013

No sanctuary remains untouched. Sector by sector, Internet is literally overthrowing business models, forcing gratuity everywhere and reversing traditional forces that used to separate actors. Trade, the media, and obviously the press organs have experienced this traumatic yet fascinating metamorphosis driven by the Net. The writing is now on the wall for education, notably for higher education. With online courses, university is the latest facility to be overwhelmed by a digital tsunami. Technically speaking, the concept of online learning is not new. Online courses, in most cases slap-happy videos taken during live classes, addressing several tens of students have existed since the 1990s in many universities, and were used as a bolt-on educational tool. The real revolution now takes the form of MOOCs, short for Massive Open Online Courses, composed of sophisticated video assemblies, with all the tools of augmented digital reality, accompanied in certain cases by questionnaires and live digital interaction with course tutors. And all this is for free.

MOOCs suddenly came into the limelight when both Harvard and MIT joined the adventure, jointly creating edX, a new MOOCs platform which modestly entertains the ambition to reach out to no less a figure than one billion student followers! According to its regulatory statutes, edX is a non-profit organisation, but has clearly demonstrated – thanks to some household brand names associated with the courses – that it had the power to carve out sizeable and, more important, inexpugnable markets niches. By way of a comparison, the fact that anyone cannot make a free enquiry on Google has not prevented this search engine from effectively dominating the planet.

Inasmuch as the USA represent both the promised land for marketing and a country with a high propensity for education and teaching, they are naturally taking the lead here. In 2013, over 100 universities are now proposing MOOCs, among which we find some of the ‘front line runner’ institutions such as Berkeley (Ca), Brown (RI) and Princeton (NJ). Just to give an order of magnitude for the potential in this phenomenon, we can recall that in 2012, the 230 free online courses had already attracted 2M students located all round the world, and this figure has doubled up since.

Generally speaking, the universities involved do not propose their courses directly; what they do is offer them via joint show-cases (which are online specialist agencies). Apart from edX, we can cite Udacity, Canvas, Udemy and especially Coursera (which proposes its services and even selects those universities that can provide content). Certain of these go-between agency platforms are created through alliances signed by the institutions; others are pure players in this field.

The majors and minors
The major Anglo-Saxon Universities have discovered a way to tap in to the potentially gigantic market of students who (as yet) are not bankable. Capital-risk agencies and business angels have invested tens of millions of US dollars in start-ups, some of which are progressing faster than Facebook or Twitter (in terms of audience growth) when they first began. This entirely novel form of teaching/training is in keeping with the format of new technologies available today. Coursera and Canvas are already accessible via i-pads. The FutureLearn platform, combining the efforts of 21 UK universities, will be the first in Europe to offer courses that are specially designed for mobile terminals, phones and pads.

There is, understandably, a ferocious appetite to access MOOCs in larger emerging countries such as India or Brazil. For only a small fraction of what a student would spend for a year’s tuition at Harvard, a student living in Bangladesh will be able to acquire “a certificate of aptitude”, with the edX or the Coursera rubber-stamp. This certificate will not possess the value of a diploma or even that of a course credit, but, notwithstanding, it will look smart on a CV scrutinised by a potential employer. For millions of students in these countries, given the abyssal lack of basic intellectual training, the dilemma is quite straightforward: it’s MOOCs or nothing.

More than just representing progress, MOOCs signal a major breakthrough, witness an association such as the Khan Academy (2006), a forerunner of MOOCs based in California which is a non-profit educational website created by educator Salman Khan, who graduated from MIT and Harvard Business School. The Khan Academy is supported by the philanthropist benefactor Bill Gates, and opened the way to free maths courses in video format, and which rapidly proved successful despite some technical glitches and imperfections. In many of the “receiver” countries, local educational schemes are engaged in an unequal fight with MOOCs. Their Universities there will experience lots of difficulties when they try to emerge, or even survive. At the very most, they will be allowed to choose from a platform menu. In Rwanda, for example, the association Generation Rwanda is building a university with 400 staff entirely based on MOOCs with courses and pedagogical tools for local tutors whose mission it will be to guide the online students through the more difficult sections of the courses. The first credits will be awarded on completion of a course known as ER22X (on legal systems), under the direction of Professor Michal Sandel, political philosophy, Harvard and another course called “Critical thinking in the face of global challenges”, directed by Mayank Dutia and Celine Casquineau from the University of Edinburgh. Online certification of students will be assured by the Southern New Hampshire University. In short, there is a virtual curriculum built locally with “bricks” selected from an essentially Anglo-Saxon global catalogue.

Circulating high level contents to the least developed countries is enabled by tremendous technological progress, but, almost paradoxically, it encounters technological hurdles. In some countries, bandwidth available is simply not wide enough to accommodate streamed courses; the latter have to be downloadable and this leads to new problems of data integrity. Incomplete courses or courses lacking vital explanatory sections can be circulated and thus damage the image of the MOOC support brand names. Further, course developers are considering possibilities for students to comment or annotate courses and to be allowed to circulate their comments on Internet. Last but not least, by far, is the issue of reliability of on-line certification and exams. The latter could be remotely monitored (at great distances) using webcams. On line cheating is now largely rampant, and safe and sure authentification processes will have to be developed and implemented if the MOOC organisers wish to award diplomas with an acceptable level of credence.

Changing the face of the world?

The societal objective of MOOCs is a worthy cause, viz., democratising access to high level university education. Seen from this angle, it is simply a digital extension of older projects such as the Britain’s Open University (1970) or France’s Université populaire (1963). Let us consider the flagship course delivered by Professor Andrew Ng, Artificial Intelligence, Stanford, California, one of the world’s most expensive universities. The course on AI was followed by 160 000 students in 190 different countries, calling for 10 hours’ work a week over 6 weeks. Internet has radically changed the scene. The small team of teachers, who, up to then, had accompanied 400 students, can now handle and train 10 000 or 100 000 times more. With an audience of this size and scale, the online platform can prove profitable even with a very low level priced certificate.

In the US, the proportion of students who follow at least one on-line course was 9% in 2002. By 2010, the figure had risen to 31% and it is estimated that there are around 700 000 students who study exclusively on line. The US, admittedly, is a country that has vast inequalities when it comes to teaching. College students have to take out huge loans and their aggregate debt in the national economy amounts to one thousand billion US dollars, an amount in excess of the country’s total credit card debt! Seen in this light, free online courses also represent a revolution in the US. And, when we consider that the annual US education market represents some 800 billion US dollars per year, we can easily imagine the economic upheaval that free and massive online education might generate.

The world’s universities – aware as they are of the impending risks tied to abandoning their prerogatives and this stupendous “soft power” leverage to the “Anglo-Saxon majors” – are considering how to join the fray. In France, the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique joined the American platform Coursera; in Switzerland, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), integrated edX, proposing courses in English to begin with but rapidly extending their offer to courses in French for the French-speaking African populations. In 2013, the first MOOCs came timidly on line, the offers coming, notably, from Switzerland and Canada.

The question then arises, could free very high level education change the face of the world? In the highest ranking universities, MOOCs are seen as representing a novel and attractive path to teaching, alongside classic lecture-hall interactions between teachers/students, addressing specifically the upcoming “digital generations”. In reverse, the medium ranked establishments have every reason to worry. Whenever their Administrators consider expanding or extending campus facilities or hiring more academic staff, the option of opening up a MOOC will be tempting. The very physical notion of the classroom is called to question and might very well disappear.

The Armherst College case
It is only natural to observe contrasted reactions of some sectors undergoing the Internet shape-up. The detractors of MOOCs point to catastrophe scenarios. Their prime concern relates to the real added value of on-line teaching. Their argument is that teaching is not just a downloaded transmission of knowledge. Learning combines social and emotional processes that contributed to a critical mind. Being party to a shared experience – which experience simply cannot be replicated in a virtual manner – is an integral part of any campus student’s education. Does it make sense, we wonder, to offer an online course on, say, Socrates’ meiotic or one on comparative criminal law? Maybe – it is a fair question – the objection might be to tell the detractors that online learning is better than no learning at all.

The rather high rate of drop-out is another concern.

So after an initial wave of wild enthusiasm (reminiscent of the furore of e-learning in the early 2000 years), several discordant opinions are now being heard. In Spring 2013, the Academic Board of Trustees of Amherst College (MA) one of the top 5 liberal arts colleges in the US, refused by a majority vote an invite to join edX, for which candidates, incidentally, are enrolling in their hundreds. It is a rare event to see any institution reject a joint offer from Harvard and MIT… The Amherst vote served to recall some hard facts.

Firstly, the idea that while MOOCs are free for the students who register, the courses cost a lot to the institutions who produce and deliver them: consultancy expenses, course formatting and packaging and on-line diffusion. EdX charges 250 000 US$ per course, 50 000 US$ for each Internet rediffusion and takes a commission on any extra earning that the course may generate. Academic manpower is also needed. To ready and launch a MOOC, a teacher will spend at least 100 hours, and be able to give approx. 10 hours per week during courses session schedules, all of which is detrimental to his/her normal academic campus activities. And indeed today there is no clear assurance that there will be any future return on investment for MOOCs.

The Amherst refusal is emblematic, not that the College has any financial difficulties – it is endowed with 1.6 billion dollars! – nor did it stem from a refusal to commit academics and staff to more work. The Trustees held mainly philosophic stances. Amherst College has always held the credo of providing its students with “an inquiry-based introduction to critical thinking and active learning at the college level,” whereas MOOCs could “perpetuate teaching based on information distribution.” And to be more prosaic, they contend that MOOCs represent a serious threat for the more vulnerable establishments and “could lead to centralisation of higher education in the USA, rendering the BA (bachelor of arts degree) – where attested following of live lectures is primordial to the degree award – rapidly and definitively obsolete.

Lastly, the Board felt that there was a high risk that the MOOC platforms or agencies might succumb to the temptation, in order to cover their costs, to sell personal data, obtained from and about millions of students, to companies who track potential customers. Thanks to available web technologies, they can follow in great detail the behavioural trends of e-students and, as a consequence, improve the course contents. The theoretical final objective here is to map the Internaut’s profile and knowledge base so as to be in a position to propose a completely tailor-made cursus. Naturally, other far more lucrative uses can be enabled by analysing big data and data mining. For some multinational, globally present companies, data banks of this kind would be infinitely worthwhile targets for prospective marketing on a totally unimaginable scale.

Two conclusions may be drawn after this rapid overview. One is that a real revolution is underway, modifying, as it already is, the world’s university scene, reinforcing the weight of the major players to the detriment of the weaker ones. The future alone will tell us if a strategy like that adopted by Amherst is tantamount to that adopted by the entrenched ‘Druids’ Village’ in Roman times or whether today’s institutions will find a niche to survive. The other is that the award of a recognised live course diploma still remains a trump card. The question is – for how long?


  • Online Courses Put Pressure on Universities in Poorer Nations (MIT Technology Review, nov. 2012)
  • The edX platform, created by Harvard and MIT

More on paristech review

By the author

  • Agriculture and food: the rise of digital platformson February 12th, 2016
  • The education tsunami – 9 pieces to make sense of a revolutionon July 22nd, 2015
  • Energy transition Series – Smart consumption: technology to the rescueon June 26th, 2015
  • Jean-Philippe Hoang

    For those who are interested a study on MOOCs in executive education: download here

  • Pingback: Why business model innovation is critical to MOOCs – Gandhi’s business model solution! | gerardjrego