MOOCs Revolution Hits the Universities?

MOOCs Revolution Hits the Universities?

I usually enjoy reading the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, especially when he writes about the social impact of technological change. But his January 26, 2013 editorial entitled “Revolution Hits the Universities” struck a nerve.  The editorial was a gushing account of how MOOCs will revolutionize higher education by making the best educational content available to the global public for a fraction of the cost of a regular bricks-and-mortar course.  So, where is the problem? Well, it was the last paragraph that gave me pause:

I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment.

Therefore, according to Friedman, one of the consequences of MOOCs is the further concentration of power in elite institutions such as Stanford, Wharton, Brandeis, and Edinburgh. So much for democratizing global education!

It turns out that I was not the only reader who objected to Friedman’s vision. Here is an excerpt of a comment posted by a New York Times reader (“dpen” from Boston) who eloquently articulated my worries:

If MOOCs succeed in the way that Friedman envisions, it is likely to mean the end of academia as a viable career path for most people. If a handful of the most elite universities can successfully teach billions, then what need is there for the thousands of ordinary universities out there that currently employ the bulk of faculty. At most, there would be a need for an army of poorly paid graders and on-line discussion facilitators (to respond to the thousands of comments the professor will never read). … Teaching has so far been a craft, and now it is entering the era of mass production.

Revolutions are nothing if not unpredictable. They unleash all kinds of unintended consequences. And MOOCs are grand educational experiments. We must admit that no one knows what the outcome will be. So, let’s avoid hyperbolic predictions. They scare people.

Carl BlythCarl Blyth is Director of COERLL and Associate Professor of French, UT Austin.  His research includes CMC,  cross-cultural and intercultural pragmatics, interactional sociolinguistics, and pedagogical grammar.  He is project director of eComma, an open-source annotation application to facilitate more “social” forms of reading.



  1. I’m intrigued by how MOOCs have become the newest buzz word, thanks in part to Friedman’s columns and I’m always surprised that the public view of higher education, his included, is still built on a lecture-based model of classroom teaching. No one ever talks about pedagogy or how classroom interaction/community might be built into these online courses.
    Everyone agrees that getting quality education to every learner everywhere in the world is a good thing, that higher education is too expensive, but I hadn’t thought about the danger of MOOCs to intellectual diversity, that each field might be dominated by a few super star professors. Could MOOCs really kill off the teaching profession and replace it with a system of slave labor adjuncts?
    I’m also increasingly alarmed that university administrators see online courses as a cash cow. I don’t think that online classes will be cheaper if they are done right. And will MOOCs only work for the super motivated student? What happens to the 80% who drop out? As you say, Carl, there are many, many unknowns in this MOOC revolution.

    • Why do so many intelligent people lose any sense of objectivity when they write about technology? Why does technology trigger such hyperbole? The Friedman editorial is the kind of over-the-top evangelizing that really makes me groan. And judging from the hundreds of critical comments this editorial generated, I am not the only one who finds this problematic.

  2. As a Russianist, the word “revolution” does not carry the most positive connotation. That said, MOOCs and other attempts to put classes online usually fail to include that all-important essential component of discourse: the human factor. Unless, as Karen mentions, these projects include extremely costly add-ons, the value of the face-to-face educational interaction is lost. Even in large lecture classes, the value of addressing — in real time — the unexpected question or comment, the buzz of conversation around the lectern after class ends, and, perhaps most importantly, the one-on-one interaction during office hours when ideas are explored, papers come together, and some of the most “teachable moments” are encountered. What MOOCs offer are NOT online “courses”; they are, at best, captured lectures that can provide uni-dimensional instruction with delayed interaction. Providing a “course,” at least for now, still requires the human factor: a live educator.

  3. I confess the entire concept of MOOCs is still new to me, and it is difficult to see what the results and the reaction to them will be. But it seems that they will work better for some disciplines than for others. Putting a language course into a MOOC represents many logistical challenges that would need technological innovations still waiting to be created. Language learning requires interaction with others, and certain types of feedback that have been shown to be more effective than others, which would be problematic in this environment. Certain tech people have told me that you can create certain types of interaction but others are ‘still a long ways off’. Virtual interaction is not always the same as talking to someone face-to-face. If we rely on learning to interact via technology, what happens to learners when they have to deal with a native speaker of a language in person? When would they learn all the nuances of communicating, including gestures, stances, perspectives, pragmatics, etc.?

  4. Friedman’s trope of choice is a little worn out, with regard MOOC’s and otherwise. Gawker says so….

  5. It seems to me that the MOOCs are just OERs used in a synchronous way; that is, they’re really not that different than what you at COERLL have been doing so well for a long time, except that a faculty member can be engaged in different levels and methods of ways, with the most engagement (face-to-face) being at a premium. I agree that we need to move forward, but avoid the hype.

  6. AnaBeaven says:

    If nothing else, the heated discussions around MOOCs and the effects there will have on the future of University education can be seen as an opportunity to think about, and discuss, what education is all about. Is it about transmission of knowledge, about co-construction of knowledge, about the development of skills? What are the roles of teachers and learners? Are the answers to these questions different if we consider the teaching of chemistry, maths, languages or philosophy? Our assumptions regarding these questions will affect how we view the potential effect of MOOCS.

  7. I agree that there is too much hype around MOOCs and it will be a while before we figure out what role, if any, they will play in teaching and learning. However, it also bothers me when we take traditional face-to-face teaching as the golden standard. If all traditional courses were the kind of transformational experience that @tjgarza describes, I would also resist any form of substitute. Unfortunately, I have taken and observed many traditional courses that are nothing like that. And if MOOCs are simply canned talking heads, then were are really robbing students of the opportunity to take advantage of the human factor. The reality is that one extreme is not so rosy and the other is not so grim.

    • Carl Blyth says:

      Thanks, Frubio! Ah, the voice of reason–balanced and objective. I am looking forward to your post about your own experience teaching a MOOC. Most of us don’t have experience teaching a MOOC…yet. So, we need to hear what it is really like–without the hype.


  1. […] We need to get over the hype that this first wave of MOOCs is generating and also refrain from making apocalyptic predictions about the impact of MOOCs on higher education. (See MOOCs Revolution Hits the Universities?) […]

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