The MOOC Revolution: A Sketchy Deal for Higher Education

Early on in the 2012 presidential campaign, the New York Times reported on Mitt Romney’s promotion of a for-profit Florida university called Full Sail. This advocacy, which seems to have helped Romney expand his donor base (the Times found that Full Sail’s CEO contributed to the Romney campaign), received critical press coverage, in large part because of Full Sail’s questionable academic record. Romney’s broader and ardent support for for-profit online institutions, however, received little attention beyond some remarks by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books.

The neglect of Romney’s higher ed proposals is surprising, given that a wide array of influential commentators and pundits became enamored of for-profit online education over a period that coincided exactly with the 2012 presidential campaign. Beginning in late 2011 and throughout the following year, major U.S. publications devoted a good portion of the space in their pages not consumed by election coverage to stories and opinion pieces lauding recently founded online education startups like Udacity, Coursera, and edX, and the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) they offer. The New York Times education section dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” and the paper’s celebrity columnists Thomas Friedman and David Brooks have been hailing MOOCs as a “revolution” and a “tsunami.” Time announced in a cover article on MOOCs that “College is Dead. Long Live College!” and USA Today assured us somewhat less hyperbolically that “college may never be the same.” Already, a president of a major institution, the University of Virginia, has been deposed (and then quickly reinstated) by the trustees over her failure to throw the college headlong into what the Chronicle of Higher Education has dubbed “MOOC Mania.” The Washington policy intelligentsia is taking notice: there was a panel discussion in December at the think tank Education Sector on whether President Obama should appoint an “Undersecretary of MOOCs.”

Romney’s promotion of for-profit online colleges proceeded logically from his stated conviction that any services that can be outsourced to the private sector should be. The “liberal media,” even as it neglected the Republican candidate’s plans for the future of college, has embraced Romney’s faith that the private sector will save higher ed through a process of creative destruction. But most MOOC-boosters do not talk about privatization of public services or the insertion of competition and profit into the mainstream of higher education; instead, they consistently present MOOCs and the companies that offer them as a “democratizing” force that will, in MOOC enthusiast Nathan Harden’s words, allow us to educate “as many students as possible, as well as possible, as affordably as possible.”

The tendency to imagine technology companies as uniquely “democratizing” is not new. In recent years, we have been promised that Twitter and Facebook would topple authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe, China, and the Middle East, and as Evgeny Morozov shows in his 2011 book The Net Delusion, Western governments have to some extent responded by outsourcing their efforts at democracy promotion to social networking sites. Much of the global policy elite treats the major Silicon Valley corporations as if they were humanitarian organizations rather than profit-seeking enterprises. As Morozov recounts, Google’s 2010 decision to pull out of China was celebrated by world leaders and pundits as a victory for democracy and human rights, when in reality the company had compelling business reasons to withdraw from the country, including threats to its intellectual property. Google and similar companies are undoubtedly eager to encourage the more generous interpretation of their agenda.

Given these trends, it is not surprising that MOOC-promoting companies like Udacity and Coursera have successfully marketed themselves as fundamentally philanthropic in their motivations. And the companies have chosen an opportune moment to promise universal access to high-quality education. With college increasingly inaccessible to the majority of U.S. students without the accumulation of crippling loan debts, free and flexibly organized college courses for the masses seem like an idea whose time has come.


The “democratization” of higher education in the United States has already occurred once. The creation of excellent, taxpayer-funded, affordable state university systems was a major driver of upward mobility and widespread prosperity in the mid-twentieth century. Most pro-MOOC coverage fails to mention that high-quality education at no or little cost has been a progressive political goal for over a century, and was to some extent realized for several decades (it’s far closer to reality in a number of other wealthy countries). In recent years, public universities have become more and more like their private counterparts in terms of the increasingly high tuition they charge and their reliance on tuition, donations, and grants rather than tax revenues. This is a basic consequence of the Reaganite program of “starving the beast” through low tax revenues and greater outsourcing of formerly public goods to the private sector. The fact that we now look to the Silicon Valley to “democratize” education indicates how successful that project has been: even those who care about public goods like universal access to education are willing to let the world of hi-tech entrepreneurship take up the burden.

The evidence suggests that MOOC companies are eager to see themselves in the same messianic terms as their boosters. Udacity’s website describes the company as “on a mission to change the future of education,” while Coursera proclaims that “we hope to give everyone access to a world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few.” Yet these celebrated humanitarian enterprises, currently bankrolled by venture capital, must also ultimately find ways to turn a profit, unlike taxpayer-funded institutions.

Many enthusiasts cite Napster’s transformative impact on the music industry as the paradigmatic case of web-driven creative destruction and make it a heroic prototype for MOOCs, with “bricks-and-mortar” universities playing the part of the beleaguered old record companies. The more recent “open culture” world of Web 2.0 offers more oft-cited models: YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify for music, and Google Books. These profitable open-culture enterprises provide content for free and bankroll their platforms with ads. Yet as technologist Jaron Lanier argued in his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, the world of open culture as it exists today is an intensely unequal one, in which much of the creative and intellectual class is obliged to surrender its work to the web for no or minimal compensation. Those who profit from this arrangement are the aggregators who run the go-to websites that make goods available for free or at cut-rate prices. The profitable future envisioned by Udacity and Coursera, we can assume, would be one in which they aggregate educational content in a similar manner.

Universities are often derided in celebrations of MOOCs as another plodding old-economy “dinosaur” awaiting extinction, but the real breakthrough for MOOCs over the past year or so is that the country’s most prestigious universities are now fully on board. In a New Yorker article on the Stanford culture of entrepreneurship that begot Udacity and Coursera, Ken Auletta quotes an important Stanford donor repeating the usual cyber-utopian mantra: “We’re on the cusp of an opportunity to deliver a state-of-the-art, Stanford-calibre education to every single kid around the world.”

Universities are often derided in celebrations of MOOCs as another plodding old-economy “dinosaur” awaiting extinction, but the real breakthrough for MOOCs over the past year or so is that the country’s most prestigious universities are now fully on board.

The promoters of MOOCs claim to see universities as dinosaurs, but their business model is parasitic upon the very institutions they claim to be rendering obsolete. Udacity designs its own curricula rather than aggregating pre-existing university courses like Coursera and EdX, but without the Stanford credentials and backgrounds of its founders it is highly unlikely it would have gone anywhere. The affiliation provides startup companies with a highly desirable brand: the “top tier” of higher education, according to the U.S. News and World Report (which always rates the wealthiest and most selective schools as the best). A similar motive drives the colleges themselves: much like encouraging over-application to enhance their selectivity and thereby their U.S. News ranking, or establishing campuses in Abu Dhabi, China, and Singapore, the promotion of MOOCs is a way for highly competitive university administrators to enhance global brand visibility and give themselves an aura of cutting-edge innovation. The media’s celebratory response confirms the initial success of the strategy.

A recent Time article gives anecdotal support to the claim that MOOCs are a boon to previously marginalized populations by highlighting the experience of Khadijah Niazi, an eleven-year-old Pakistani girl who took Udacity’s college physics course. Yet the overall trends of MOOC enrollment so far do not match this picture. The New York Times has reported that in two courses offered on Coursera, more than 70 percent of the students already had degrees and about a third already had advanced degrees. Perhaps a higher percentage of students like Khadijah will enroll. But many will also drop out before completion. In most MOOCs that have run so far, around 90 percent of the students do not complete the course. Moreover, MOOCs will disproportionately benefit highly self-motivated students, much like other areas of internet open culture. Making something available for free does not alter the many social factors that condition its availability or utility to many people. The benefit of treating universal access to education as a political issue to be addressed through public debate and legislation is that there is every incentive to take these other factors into account. Udacity and Coursera, on the other hand, have the primary goal of maximizing the value of their shares.


Beyond the basic concern about outsourcing public goods to the private sector, there are other reasons to be wary of the MOOC revolutionaries. The now-legendary founding moment of “MOOC Mania” was Sebastian Thrun’s fall 2011 “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” class at Stanford. Practically all articles about MOOCs recount how Thrun and his colleague Peter Norvig opened the course to about 160,000 students worldwide, and at the same time allowed their Stanford students to take the course online rather than attend lectures. They found, among other things, that most of the top-performing students were not the full-time Stanford undergraduates, and that the Stanford students who took the course online performed better than those who came to class. Stunned by the success of the enterprise, so the story goes, Thrun left his tenured position and founded Udacity.

Is it true? Time’s “College is Dead” article affirms the anecdote, and I have not read any account of Udacity’s founding that disagrees. But given Thrun’s background, it would be surprising if he had never previously considered that computers and the internet would one day upend traditional classroom education. Thrun has dedicated much of his career to proving that computers can be better drivers than people, a project that culminated in Google’s driverless car venture. The key advantage computers have over human drivers, according to Thrun’s widely viewed 2011 TED talk, is that they do not fall victim to “human error.”

The assertion that computers can outpace humans by eliminating their frailties and limitations is closely linked to the ideas of Bay Area futurist guru Ray Kurzweil and his hypothesis of singularity. Kurzweil posits that convergent technological innovations will result in a super-intelligence; ultimately, humans will escape biology and mortality by being effectively “uploaded” into the computational cloud. Thrun and Norvig are both faculty members at Kurzweil’s Singularity University, a well-funded Silicon Valley research institute where artificial intelligence enthusiasts congregate. Not coincidentally, the founders of Coursera are also Stanford artificial intelligence researchers.

Thrun has probably been wise not to publicize his connection with Kurzweil and Singularity in his promotion of Udacity. Singularity is not a widely understood concept, but to most outsiders it sounds at best like a geeky fantasy and at worst like the stuff of classic science fiction nightmares. There has been no public discussion of how MOOCs fit into the broader Kurzweil-inspired intellectual agenda (what Morozov calls a “cultish ideology”). What can be said with certainty is that by embracing MOOCs as the future of college, we are remaking education around information technology, rather than using information technology as a pedagogical tool. In the MOOC philosophy, education is understood fundamentally as a transfer of information, in line with the computational understanding of cognition in which the mind is a processing device being fed input and generating output. This is a twenty-first-century version of what Paulo Freire called the “banking method of education,” a model that Deweyan humanists and practitioners of critical pedagogy have long repudiated as reactionary and disempowering.

If they continue on their current trajectory, MOOCs will enrich a select class of content aggregators, strengthen the hold of Silicon Valley “cyber-totalism” on our intellectual life, and help perpetuate the dominance of the elite universities at the expense of low-cost public institutions.

If they continue on their current trajectory, MOOCs will enrich a select class of content aggregators, strengthen the hold of Silicon Valley “cyber-totalism” (Lanier’s term) on our intellectual life, and help perpetuate the dominance of the elite universities at the expense of low-cost public institutions. You do not have to be a critic of MOOCs to recognize this last point: Harden’s celebratory American Interest article cheerfully predicts “disaster for colleges and universities that are perceived as second rate.”

The institutions that have thrown in their lot with MOOCs are pursuing policies that benefit the well-established at the expense of the poor and vulnerable and compensate for it through ostentatious displays of generosity in the form of free online courses. The “top-tier” colleges are positioning themselves to be primary beneficiaries of a world in which “free” education, bankrolled by advertising and data-mining, is a branded global commodity controlled by marketing experts, engineers, and investors. Those of us who believed in free and open education before it was a Silicon Valley business scheme need to force university administrators and political leaders to discuss whether this is the future we want.


Geoff Shullenberger is a teacher and writer based in Monterey, California.