Why MOOCs aren't all they're cracked up to be

  • Commitment issues: Hands up if you've started a MOOC with the very best of intentions and possibly even joined a course team only to drop out less than halfway in. In your enthusiasm, you signed up for too many courses, you got overwhelmed, you got busy, you forgot all about it. You told yourself you'd sign up again next time and do it properly. Sound familiar?
  • Stigma: MOOCs can be great for personal development (and I'm a huge believer in learning for the love of learning) but some people are looking for more. They're looking for accreditation, qualifications, a springboard into a career. Sadly there is still a stigma attached to pure e-learning. Initiatives like Coursera's Signature Track are looking to get beyond this but there is still work to be done and most of that work is on a psychological level.
  • Challenges around assessment and quality control: Back to faculty concerns. How do you grade the work of a class of 50,000 students? Some studies indicate that peer assessment programmes are fairly reliable and broadly speaking do correlate with teacher assessment but will you ever get the same depth of individual feedback from an established expert?
  • Limited teacher-student interaction*: Some argue that MOOCs aren't for everyone. For a variety of reasons from lack of accountability and commitment to differing learning styles. Struggling or disengaged students may need face-to-face interaction. Related to this is the idea that MOOCs are unable to transfer enthusiasm and energy in the same was as a phenomenal teacher with an infectious love of his/her subject and a genuine personal interest in your learning.


  • Democratisation or commoditisation: Now there's a scary thought. How will institutions compete in a world where education is turned into a commodity? Will low-endowment brick-and-mortar schools be driven out of business? And is this a bad thing or just Clayton Christensen's "Digital Darwinism" at play?
  • Strengthening the education divide: Is it possible that there may be less and less incentive for governments to fund or subsidise public education as MOOCs proliferate? Will we end up in a world where only the rich and privileged can afford live teaching with valuable teacher-student interaction and feedback loops while the less privileged have to make do with recordings of lectures?
  • MOOCs as a form of intellectual imperialism: Now this is a bold accusation but I've heard it quite a few times now. Firstly, you have the idea that the one-size-fits-all approach of MOOCs fails to take into account the student's cultural context. A more sinister claim is that MOOCs are simply vehicles for mass-distributing the beliefs and opinions of elite Western professors, often completely missing the rich and diverse set of perspectives the rest of the world can bring. More of an issue for some subject areas than others, of course. Happily, though, we are seeing a rise in the number of "Eastern" institutions grabbing a seat at the table with IIT Bombay, HKUST and Peking University (among others) having joined Harvard and MIT's EdX platform. With foreign language MOOCs also on the rise, hopefully we will start to see more culturally-tailored courses - tailoring isn't just about language, it's also about local learning styles and feedback mechanisms.

*Note: In this blogpost and others on MOOCs, we're talking about Massive Open Online Courses - the free ones - not formal online education (e.g. the Open University) or blended learning/flipped classrooms. The distinction is important.