“My MOOC is a pale imitation of the class I teach on campus.”

28 03 2013

I’d like to thank all my friends on social media for making the last diatribe I wrote the single best-read post in the history of this blog (by far). The fact that I used the word “assholes” three times in it would make my Mom particularly proud.

For any of you who might be sticking around this blog for more posts like it, you should understand that I’ve been writing about online education in general and MOOCs in particular for many months now. So if you want to know why I think MOOCs are inferior to regular college history classes, check out the posts in these categories.

You should also understand the intended audience for this blog. It’s one professor (namely me) writing to other professors, grad students and related higher ed professionals. That doesn’t mean others aren’t welcome, it’s just that I don’t expect you all to share all of our concerns.

Perhaps the weirdest thing for me about that Jay Gould post was the way it quickly crossed over into this wider realm. From what I can tell, this was largely due to Erik Loomis. He managed to attract the attention of Matthew Yglesias at Slate, who wrote a post there that I actually mostly agree with:

It’s worth noting that lower quality is often a better value-proposition and that’s exactly why there’s a profit opportunity. Ikea, for example, has not risen to power by manufacturing better furniture than other companies. If anything it’s worse. Deliberately worse. The profit opportunity is that it turns out that cheap Nordic modern furniture is something a lot of people want. It turned out there was a big market for “somewhat worse but much cheaper” furniture. Lots of people listen to music, but very few people choose to invest in the highest-end products. Things like “it’s cheap” and “it’s convenient” drive people to listen to a lot of MP3s over earbud headphones.

I constantly go back and forth with respect to MOOCs on the question of whether students will laugh at the idea of an online, no-direct-contact-with-the-professor higher education or whether university administrators will successfuly force them to accept that scenario because it will be the only higher education available to most people. Where I differ with Yglesias is over the question of whether higher ed on the cheap is a good thing. I’ve covered this elsewhere, but the quick version of my response would be that educating the entire world is of no use to anyone but university administrators if the economy has no place to employ the recipients of all those online degrees.

What’s most refreshing about that Yglesias post to me is how he freely admits that a MOOC education is an inferior good. Getting back to my original subject, did you ever notice that you never hear anything like this from superprofessors? Just once, I want to hear a superprofessor say (or write):

“My MOOC is a pale imitation of the class I teach on campus.”


“The fact that I have a 90% drop out rate in my MOOC partially reflects the fact that many of my students find me boring.”

Why don’t you hear/read obvious statements like these? Ego, again.

While recent news has made me sorely tempted to call for a shunning campaign against all superprofessors, instead I want to reiterate my call for a campaign of moral suasion. Adopt a superprofessor today! And while you’re explaining to them how their choices might affect your future employment prospects, you might subtly hint that destroying the market for other people’s labor by distributing an inferior product could actually hurt their academic reputations in the long run rather than make them more cool.



13 responses

28 03 2013
John Protevi

Love your work. But I think you should reply to Yglesias asking him why he thinks MOOCs will lower tuition. They might lower production costs inside the university, but previous means of doing that (increasing ratio of adjuncts vs TT faculty) haven’t resulted in reduced tuition (far from it). Instead the increased “profit” from cost savings have been kept in-house. Why should we expect the savings from MOOCs to be treated any differently?

28 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


You’re right, of course, but it is complicated. Sometimes I think I should stop blogging and just write a manifesto.

28 03 2013
John Protevi

I hear you. One other angle I’ve just started to learn about is debt-fueled construction on a lot of campuses. In this U California system case, a better deal on the bonds was gotten by pledging future tuition increases as collateral. So no matter how many MOOCs are adopted, the UC system is still on the hook for increased tuition: http://keepcaliforniaspromise.org/404

28 03 2013
Sebastian h

The dropout rate almost certainly is related to the fact that you can’t get credits that count…

28 03 2013
1 04 2013
Real college classes have writing assignments and required reading. | More or Less Bunk

[…] with the proprietor of the blog Capitalist Imperialist Pig about that question in the comments here. They challenged me to look at all the excellent readings in two MOOCs, Gregory Nagy’s […]

2 04 2013
Torill Bye Wilhelmsen

Got to complete my first MOOC before I join in the discussion… however, I would never have taken the course I signed up for if I had to move to another country with my family to get it. (Or maybe, or maybe not….). Anyway, I expect it to be fun. If not, I will quit too. I expect high quality content, not less than if I attended a regular course. And more structured. So there.

29 03 2013
Jonathan Rees

Give credit and the course would have to be harder, if for no other reason than for accreditation purposes. [The fact that MOOCs generally do not require any reading is a bug not a feature.] That will send the dropout rate way up again and lead students to demand access to the professor. When they don’t get it, the dropout rate will be back around 90%.

29 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


Are the readings required or just recommended?

30 03 2013
Jonathan Rees


There we go! Who cares if you even pass the quizzes if all you want is a completion certificate?

The problem here isn’t that interested people like you get free exposure to famous lecturerers. The problem is that potential college students might not get anything else. No required reading. No interaction with the professor. Just video.

We profs provide a useful service. Just because you don’t want to pay for it doesn’t mean we should be eliminated entirely for almost everyone.

30 03 2013
Jonathan Rees

Open book tests. Not exactly the way it works at Harvard.

I think what we have here is a difference in priorities. I want to educate everyone. You only care about the people who are motivated enough to educate themselves.

31 03 2013
Jonathan Rees

Lordy, do you want me to rehash my entire blog in every post? Read the MOOC tab at right if you want my detailed explanation to why MOOCs are inferior. I have many, many posts on that subject.

With respect to working people there’s this thing called online education which I also have problems with but at least gives students access to the professor.

A lousy education benefits neither profs nor students, just administrators and MOOC providers.

31 03 2013
Jonathan Rees

Assume I believe you. Why should I teach history the same way Thrun teaches CS? They’re different subjects designed to teach different skills.

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