Two Big Problems with MOOCs

You know of MOOCs, right? Massively Open Online Courses. It seems like such a great idea, a solution to education, productize courses and make them available. If only it were just about the learning. We have Udemy, Udacity, Khan Academy, and dozens of others. After all, learning is learning. It doesn’t take tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. Does it? But there are two big problems with MOOCs.

I believed in the allure of massive online learnings since the early 1980s when I was first exposed to it. The idea has always made sense. We could spread learning out into the world much faster using technology.  Reading. Listening. I taught myself computer programming (early 1980s BASIC, then Pascal, then Visual Basic). So of course I see the value. And I’m even offering my own MOOC right now, as author, with my course on Lean Business Planning hosted by the Economist Group at

Problem One: MOOCs and Certification. Degrees Validate.

The first problem is about certification. A degree is certification. It means somebody followed the rules, completed tasks, buckled down for a period of years. It means an institution looked over their shoulder while they did. A college degree means so much more than just learning. Completely aside from the learning, it’s a standard used by employers and clients. It means an acceptable minimum of doing hard things, meeting deadlines, getting stuff done. And as a society we’ve confused the learning with the degree.

NYU prof and entrepreneur writer Clay Shirky writes (In David, yes. This. — Medium):

 “The jury is still out on the long-term effect of MOOCs, but one thing we now know for certain — the unbundled value of the content of an Ivy League classroom is $0. Similarly, the job premium for getting an excellent education but falling one credit short of a degree is smaller — considerably smaller — than getting a mediocre education with a degree. Certification, not learning, is the thing the market says is worth paying for. There are still fields where there are alternate-to-college certificates (physical therapy) and even quasi-collegiate training programs (cooking schools.) There are still fields where you can apprentice and work your way up (restaurants). But the big arc of work in the U.S. since the early 1970s has been to group all work into two categories — pays well, requires degree, and pays badly, does not require degree.”

Problem Two: MOOCs and Education and Learning Together

The second problem is the common confusion of education with earning power. I posted earlier this month about the common lie that pits education against entrepreneurship, as if they are opposites. Underneath that lie is the problem of people thinking education, the college degree, is just about increasing earning power. The assumption is that the value of education can be calculated by subtracting tuition costs from the increase in future earnings. But it’s not that simple. Unfortunately education is more than learning, and more than earning power.

Is the MOOC ever going to really disrupt education? I don’t know. I found this infographic interesting:

History of MOOCs


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