Sebastian Thrun’s recent statement that Udacity’s MOOCs are “a lousy product” not providing the educational results expected has attracted much attention within higher education media.

mooc-movement-problemSome have seized on his words as validation of criticism, while others merely see a pioneer acknowledging the fact that there is more work to be done, not refuting the entire value of his creation. Less well-noted are his statements about the improvements needed to realize the full potential of massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The irony of Thrun’s observation is that it comes from someone with much to gain by the acceptance and use of MOOCS rather than objective, academic sources with an understanding of pedagogy, instructional design, and the ingredients necessary to learning.

In fact, the uncritical acceptance of MOOCs by politicians and academics in their current form, as a panacea for problems of access, cost, and equity, would be laughable if the reality was not so embarrassing.

With no apparent due diligence, major universities rushed to be a part of the “MOOC Movement” without assessing whether any real learning was being produced.

Had the institutions offering MOOCs been for-profit, it is safe to say that Senator Harkin would have convened a Congressional hearing to determine why fewer than 5 percent of enrollees ever finish and why one “course” of over 100,000 students produced only seven “certificate” graduates, even with no tuition or tax dollars at stake.

As Kurt Vonnegut noted in Cat’s Cradle, “In this world, you get what you pay for.” For MOOC participants, no cost equates to little or no validated learning. Or, so we assume.

In fact, little effort has been made to determine whether actual learning occurs.

In an era where regulators and accreditors alike are demanding objective proof of learning outcomes, MOOC providers, sponsoring academic institutions, and third-party recommenders of college credit are paying little attention to outcomes.

Rather, it appears the assumption has been made that if the instruction originates with a superstar faculty presenter from a prestigious institution, then of course learning results.

See page 2 for a look at the taxonomy of MOOCs…

This is the old “input” model of quality assessment at work. Instead, what is both essential for such an innovation and missing are the results of secure third-party testing using statistically valid instruments.

The fact that the outcome exam is prepared by an instructor from MIT is simply not sufficient to ensure the validity of the instrument, despite what one edX executive once told me.

Plus, when there is at least the potential for thousands of exam takers from around the world, there is a need to be concerned about both identity verification and instrument security.

Absent such validation, other indicators suggest MOOC offerings today are unique forms of entertainment rather than serious vehicles for the advancement of learning.

While the fostering of learning continues to be a concern with MOOCs, there are areas where potential benefits can be seen. A type of taxonomy for MOOCS might look like this:

Use Description
Continuing Professional Education The original and some think best application. Offerings in cutting edge topics help keep busy, educated, technical professionals current in their fields.
Faculty Reputation Building At a time when few books sell more than a 1,000 copies, displaying expertise and skills before tens of thousands can both further reputation internationally (since 70% of MOOC participants are abroad) and help build one’s tenure portfolio.
Build Institutional Brand With most universities having little name recognition outside of the U.S., MOOCs provide an opportunity to create awareness, and be seen on a stage with “super stars” (i.e. Stanford, MIT, Harvard), all while at least suggesting a level of tech savvy and commitment to open access to knowledge.
Marketing In a yet to be fully appreciated application, MOOCs allow an institution to preview a specific offering for free while simultaneously creating awareness showcasing instruction and program differentiation. Even with single digit completion rates, participants could represent thousands of pre-qualified prospects for on-going credential programs – at regular tuition.
R&D As MIT and Harvard have made clear from the start, edX is all about experimentation and the informing of instruction on campus and online. A sustainable business model has not been the objective (though one seems to be evolving in the form of fee for service to other institutions). The diffusion of innovation has certainly been a by-product.
Delivery of Instruction for Credit As already noted, this appears to be where MOOCs fall down. Certainly, their highly impersonal structure does not seem appropriate for traditional age students who may need more personal forms of attention/interaction. Older, more independent students may find value here but it is difficult to understand why they would choose a MOOC over the free courses available through Open Educational Resources and the Open Courseware initiative. Often created by the same big name institutions, OER courses are intended to support the learning needs of independent students. Additionally, when used in conjunction with credit-by-exam assessments, there are rarely questions about credit or its acceptability within degree programs.


As this taxonomy demonstrates, MOOCs have tremendous potential if we think about finding ways to hold student interest, provide better instructional design, improve interactivity, strengthen our faculty, and carry out meaningful assessments of outcomes.

If we take these steps, increased learning and retention are bound to follow.

With more than half the world population under the age of 25, innovations such as the MOOC hold great promise in providing access to the knowledge required for participation in a global economy.

The numbers are simply too great for this to be achieved through traditional means.  India alone estimates that it will need 1,000 new universities within the next ten years if it is to just maintain current participation levels.

However, if MOOCs are to live up to the hype, the provider community will need to partner with entrepreneurs like Thrun to clearly articulate—and measure—the many different uses of this evolving phenomenon.

John F. Ebersole, LPD, is president of Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., one of the oldest accredited, private, nonprofit distance education institutions in the country. In his 25 year career in higher education, Dr. Ebersole’s personal experience as a post-traditional student has informed his approach to adult education. He has held teaching and management positions at John F. Kennedy University and Boston University as well as management positions at the University of California – Berkeley and Colorado State University. He developed the “Berkeley Worldwide” international education program; the Colorado State University “CSUN” Network for Learning; and Boston University’s “BU Global.”