Three Cheers for Higher Education: The Disruptive Technology of MOOCs Unravels

by Dr. Luanne Fose - The Tweed Geek on December 4, 2013


The advent of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — (or as I like to call them “Monstrous Odious Online Courses”) in our educational world has been considered by many to fit Harvard Business School Professor Clay M. Christensen’s definition of a “disruptive technology.” defines a disruptive technology as “… a new technology that unexpectedly displaces an established technology” and which “lacks refinement, often has performance problems because it is new, appeals to a limited audience, and may not yet have a proven practical application.”1  Amazingly, the last two years of MOOC hyperbole has been congested by a lack of refinement, incredible performance problems due to universities not able to even begin to comprehend the extreme server demand issues as well as the demand on the faculty/student assistant workload. Even though massive online classes were offered, the audience was still rather limited in terms of a total world scope. And yet, educators seemed hesitant to yell out that the Emperor had no clothes. Yes, I think that definition sums it up quite nicely – MOOCs were a disruptive technology but now, thank goodness, they are finally unraveling.

A couple of weeks ago, educational news feeds were trying to keep up with the MOOCs collapse as one of its main proponents, Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity — often deemed the “godfather of the MOOC,” openly admitted that his company’s courses are often a “lousy product.” I cannot lie, I was not overcome with unbearable sadness with the news. I did not kick the can of despair down the street with my head hung low. As friend after friend sent me links to the articles in  Slate and Wired Campus declaring MOOCs were collapsing, I realized my dislike of MOOCs was readily apparent to all those around me. All I wanted to say that day (as I’m sure was true of many other educators who held the same negative view of MOOCs) is:  “I told you so!”

The possibility that MOOCs held for some early advocates was that various parts of education could be unbundled. Learning could be “set free” from a degree. The flicker of a candle of hope was that students would flock to MOOCs full of the vigor of learning for learning’s sake and eventually be tested to prove their accomplishment towards some sort of certificate or degree that could be a representation of their learning for future employers. Point of Failure #1: Very few students are internally motivated to “learn for learning’s sake” when they initially begin working on a college degree. Our hope as educators is that within the process of their university education, the flicker of that flame is stoked and takes off as a wildfire of learning. This wildfire is usually caused by a particularly inspirational professor, which we always hope will be us (after all, this is why most of us became teachers to begin with, right?).

Many had hopes that MOOCs would expand the educational audience to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current university systems structure with its burdening expenses and lofty Ivy League stature. Point of Failure #2: It didn’t turn out that way. In fact, in his admission of the MOOCs failure, Sebastian Thrun practically blamed students of low income for the failure of San Jose State’s remedial math courses. Thrun’s viewpoint was so sweetly captured by Rebecca Shuman in the Slate article that I just have to share what she said on this topic:

“What’s got the academic Internet’s frayed mom jeans in a bunch, however, is that Thrun’s alleged mea culpa is actually a you-a culpa. For Udacity’s catastrophic failure to teach remedial mathematics at San Jose State University, Thrun blames neither the corporatization of the university nor the MOOC’s use of unqualified “student mentors” in assessment. Instead, he blames the students themselves for being so damn poor.”2

I think that many academic institutions were swayed toward developing MOOCs by the chance to appear altruistic – offering free courses to 35,000 or more students at at time for the sheer benefit of others learning — especially the disadvantaged. However, I always cynically suspected there was some hope by these institutions that there would be something in it for them… eventually. Maybe the institutions that immediately jumped on the MOOC train were afraid of being lost in the shuffle since at the beginning of the MOOC explosion, Thrun was boasting that in fifty years time there would only be 10 universities remaining in the entire world. Heaven forbid that Harvard, Stanford, or San Jose State, for that matter, not stand the test of time by allowing such disruptive innovation to change the educational world without their institutions having a large piece of the pie. Point of Failure #3: Educational decisions made by administrators should be based upon improving learning, not on raking in dollars for the university.

My greatest distaste for MOOCs comes from my own personal belief of what a good online course is and what it is not. MOOCs clearly flew in the face of what we have learned about how students learn best in terms of proven valid learning theories. MOOCs focused primarily on the online lecture format (videos) without much concern for problem-based learning, collaboration, connectivism, reflection, and various other pedagogical methodologies that have proven to be successful in both traditional face-to-face and online courses. MOOCs also seem to have little care or guidance in terms of student accountability and assessment beyond the multiple-choice exam. All of these faults in pedagogy were clearly reflected in the poor statistical percentage of students actually completing a MOOC course (i.e., less than 7 percent completion).

Mr. Thrun notes that his company, Udacity, will now attempt to focus on more vocational-based learning in a for-profit structure since it has truly failed on the higher education front. I commend Mr. Thrun for having the chutzpah to publicly declare that he was mistaken about what higher education needed and to bring the conversation back to learning and outcomes. Bravo, Mr. Thrun! I hope your endeavors in vocational training are very successful and I thank you for admitting the failures of your attempt. In acknowledging this failure, you are contributing to the future successes of higher education. It’s not that higher education doesn’t need improvement… it certainly does, but let’s check MOOC off the list as applicable for improving higher education, shall we?

~ Dr. Luanne Fose – The Tweed Geek


1. Rouse, Margaret. “Definition of Disruptive Technology.” August 2011. Web. 03 Dec 2013.

2. Schuman, Rebecca. “The King of MOOCs Abdicates the Throne: Sebastian Thrun and Udacity’s “Pivot” Toward Corporate Training.” November 19, 2013. Web. 03 Dec 2013.

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