What MOOCs can’t teach

“I like to think of education as giving people superpowers.” With this metaphor, Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng summed up the purpose of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, at The Atlantic‘s Silicon Valley Summit on Monday: They’re designed to help people gain discrete skills like coding or algebra or French.

Education watchers have wondered how MOOCs will affect traditional classroom experiences from the elementary school to the university, and some have even argued that online education will fundamentally change the way students of all ages learn.

But according to entrepreneurs working in this space, MOOCs were never meant to stand in for regular classrooms. “To make to make this look like a silver bullet somehow—this was never meant to replace schools,” said Sal Khan, the creator of Khan Academy.

Both Khan and Ng described their products as educational supplements: Online courses help to fill a “skills gap” for people who are looking to get jobs in a certain industry or transition to a new career. But if someone is “debating between attending Johns Hopkins or taking free Coursera courses—for God’s sake, go to Johns Hopkins,” Ng said.

This may seems surprising for the founder of an online higher education start-up, but he and Khan gave a few reasons why traditional classrooms are more valuable than online classes.

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