Hey Educators, Shut Up About MOOCs Already!

That’s massive open online courses, to you and me. And MOOCs are everywhere. But they may also be polarizing in a way that is hurting the future of education.

Hey Educators, Shut Up About MOOCs Already!
[Image: Flickr user Angelo DeSantis]

I can’t remember if it was “MOOCs are Everywhere,” or “Rise of the MOOCs,” or what headline I had just read when I finally lost it. I yelled out “Oh God! STFU about MOOCs already!” into the dark corners of my Spartan, tech-nerd-bunker, like a crotchety old loon of 34 shaking my angry fist at nothing. It had been a long day of hustle and grind, I had lost it for a few seconds, and I’d like to share those few seconds of thinking with you here today.


I won’t bore you with the details, but at the same time I’d still like to provide enough context to make my complaints as personally gratifying as possible. So, let’s do this by imagining that we took the last two years of media coverage related to “education innovation,” pureed it in a Vitamix, then drank it. Our Jacob’s Ladder style fever dream that ensued sounds like this: “MOOCs MOOCs MOOCs. College is expensive. Student loans. Debt. Unemployed graduates. Is college even worth it? MOOCs will solve everything. Wait, hold on. Is college really worth it? MOOCs. Wait, how come no one’s actually said that out loud before? MOOCs. Pfffft, college is totally worth it, as long as my parents are paying. MOOCs!”

So what’s a MOOC? Exactly. I even work in the sector of “education innovation,” and still, I think my sweet old mom knew what a MOOC was before I did (she took a few herself). For the rest of you (like me) who just a second ago made the exact same facial expression that De Niro did when he said, “what’s a mook?” in Mean Streets: a MOOC is a “massive open online course.”

In 2012, some in the “education innovation” industry referred to this as “the year of the MOOC.” This was back when everyone was freaking out and bouncing off the walls about how MOOCs were going to completely replace teachers and revolutionize the way students learn, make my clothes brighter, give me a lustrous, full head of hair, and make education free.

Then in 2013, there was some backlash against MOOCs. The most recent and important in my mind is the San Jose State/Udacity debacle. Basically, a gargantuan fraction (something like 80% maybe?) of students who took the classes offered by those two entities together straight-up flunked. Surprise! People don’t try as hard sometimes when no one is watching. But that’s not what is important about the SJSU/Udacity thing. What’s important is that after SJSU suspended their offering of online courses (which they’ll pick back up at some point, I’m sure), it gave everyone in the newsosphere (or whatever it’s called) a thing that we love so, so much–a clean, black and white, sticky headline about the future attached to credible numbers that allow us to misrepresent information about a complex topic in the form of headlines, that make things “simple.” It lets us declare superlative ideas (this headline would be a good example of such a thing), for example: that this event is conclusive and unequivocal evidence of online education’s ineffectuality.

The nay saying blog commenters of the world and the contrarian-for-the-sake-of-being-contrarian groanings of teachers or otherwise invested parties who are unreasonably concerned about being made obsolete by MOOCs certainly have a point that online education will not boldly improve live learning unless it includes genuine, specific, individual interaction between students and teachers. That’s simply a fact and something to keep in mind as online educations evolves, but it is not by any means a reason why online education “doesn’t work.”

Yet we seem to remain focused on shiny polarizing topics of online versus offline education. MOOCs work, they don’t work, etc. It sounds like what they tell you to say as extras on a set when they want a “murmur,” Watermelon, cantaloupe. Watermelon cantaloupe. Rhubarb Constantinople. SUMMARY: Even today, MOOCs are the main focus of anyone in any kind of online education capacity, and MOOCs are polarizing in a way that is hurtful to the discussion. MOOCs are also (at least today), only the repackaging of and a new delivery mechanism for traditional education. Being disappointed that MOOCs haven’t changed the world yet is like switching over from cassette tapes to CDs and then being disappointed when the CDs don’t contain untold and unimagined wisdom.


What we need is some version of a Jeff Bridges character with a huge mustache to shoot a gigantic revolver up in the air, and in the following silence, announce, “Online education is gonna happen. Just like the telephone, just like cars, just like the Internet. So best we all just get on now and talk about something useful, I reckon.” Then, maybe, we could stop bothering with the silliness of having discussions as though online versus offline education was ever a possible reality to begin with. I’m sure there was a period of debate in the media if this “car thing” was gonna take off or not, and I’m sure that was annoying as well.

How fun would it be to talk about the crazy awesome things we can do now with education as it becomes technologically enabled? As an experiment, see if you can get personally excited here instead of angry over two random concepts that come to mind first:

1. How can we mesh MOOCs with four-year universities in a way that is effective and game-changing?

What if you had a some of the highest “star-power” super profs team up with a cutting edge group of developers and built some sort of SuperMOOC version of say, Economics 101. Instead of having all universities continue to make their own mediocre or occasional shining stars each, imagine if the efforts of many universities combined to nail it solid for the classes we all have to take anyway.

2. How do we make trade schools, or bootcamp-style universities cool again (or at least “acceptable”)?

My favorite example of why we’re in trouble are the two roommates Joe, a Harvard sociology graduate who makes 28K writing copy for a daily deal site, and Bill, a master electrician who went to trade school and makes 140K. When Joe and Bill go to bar trivia on Tuesdays at the fancy upper-west side bar, Bill gets looked down on and Jim is looked up to by their group of friends. Sound crazy? It is crazy, but that’s how we as Americans feel about trade school. It ain’t cool, but it should be. At my last company, we hired a software developer from a “boot camp” style university (a 12-week crash course in coding called Dev Bootcamp). When our CTO asked what he should pay this one guy who did the best in the interview but didn’t have a four-year degree, I said, “Uh, whatever you would pay the four-year degree guy?! If he is better pay him more?.. Duh?” Why is learning on the job for four years with no debt, a few raises, working on practical real world stuff, and kicking the asses of your four-year degree buddies when they finally graduate in skills and pay UNCOOL?!

In the next piece on this subject, I’ll try to highlight a few folks I think have a great head on their shoulders and some fantastic, real, concrete ideas on what we could do (right or wrong) with where education is headed.


About the author

I've been in love with building businesses since my first lemonade stand. In 2004 I started a lucrative gambling software business, cut short by legislation.