The Unfair MOOC Backlash

Two years ago, the media (and almost everyone else) couldn’t stop talking about how great MOOCs were. Even I got pretty excited about them. Some people got a little crazy predicting the imminent death of the traditional higher education system, but the reality was impressive. High quality courseware was getting put online for free and people all over the world were taking advantage of it.

About a year ago the media started reporting a steady stream of negative MOOC stories including:

These stories were all true too. Creating a good MOOC is hard–just like creating a good course is hard. MOOCs are disproportionately taken by people in the developed world who already have college degrees. It’s often easy to “coast” in a MOOC when you don’t have peers or faculty right next to you pushing you forward. I certainly have a harder time getting my online students to engage as much as my traditional classroom students.

What’s sad is that people have short memories, and the original stuff that got everyone excited is still true. MOOC’s are still reaching disadvantaged people in far points of the globe and this is still amazing. So what if they are a minority of MOOC takers today. It will take time to reach everyone. The world’s poor need more and faster Internet access. They need to know MOOCs exist. And many MOOCs will need to be translated into native languages or made more culturally relevant.

The bottom line is that mass online education is in its infancy and still has incredible potential. Luckily, the hype doesn’t matter too much. Coursera, Udacity, EdX, Khan Academy, and the rest will continue to make progress and the world will get smarter as a result.