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Please Stop Selling MOOCs As a Cure-All for Higher Education

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, June 19 2013

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, promise to provide cheap or free college courses to any student with a Wi-Fi connection, but that's about it.

Companies like Coursera and Udacity and nonprofits like the Harvard and MIT partnership edX are striking deals to teach students at large institutions. College faculty across America and indeed the rest of the world are currently running thousands of experiments in online education. But a few years of testing and pilot programs have not created a utopian meritocracy in higher education.

Funny, then, that someone would suggest otherwise. Funnier still, because that someone is Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, in a recent piece that appeared on the Guardian's website:

"One way Moocs have changed education is by increasing access. Moocs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind. Up to now, quality education – and in some cases, any higher education at all – has been the privilege of the few. Moocs have changed that. Anyone with an internet connection can have access."

(It looks like the piece was from the Observer, the Sunday paper of the Guardian.)

Agarwal is putting the MOOC before the horse, and it would be irresponsible to let this kind of thinking influence public policy. Unfortunately MOOCs do not, by virtue of existing, eliminate the digital divide, which still exists for kids based on their parents' education level and their overall socioeconomic status and prices for high-speed broadband too high for many low-income and working-class families to afford.

In fact, a lot of what is actually known about online student outcomes on a large scale shows the opposite of what Agarwal posits. MOOCs aren't really "bank account-blind" at this point, and they're certainly not class or race blind either. An overview of online outcomes for community college students (just the kind of low-resource students Agarwal is aiming for) shows that such students are more likely to drop out of online classes than face-to-face courses, that online courses widen achievement gaps between white and black students as well as low performing and high performing ones, and that students who take online courses are less likely to complete their degree.

Agarwal goes on to make more blandly sunny, generally unfounded statements, but especially this one:

"Moocs are also improving the quality of education."

Compared to what, and how? An educational researcher would be better equipped to make that sort of statement than the head of a company (even a non-profit one) promoting MOOCs. Unfortunately, MOOCs in their present form are so novel — nearly two years old — that no major study has been done. One expert I've spoken with said it will be a year or two before there's anything close to definitive research to rely on. If the videos, online exercises, and peer review groups Agarwal describes really are so much better than boring college classes, you have to wonder how some combination of VHS and AOL chat rooms didn't disrupt the academic-industrial complex in the '90s.

Thankfully, Agarwal goes on to state his commitment to the college experience, and credits a San Jose State class that combined edX lectures with faculty study sessions with lowering the percentage who needed to retake the class from 41 percent to 9 percent (which somewhat undermines the case for taking classes solely online). His enthusiasm for expanding education to those that lack it is commendable, if clearly self-interested. But his techno-utopian rhetoric puts too much weight on MOOCs' shoulders and propels unrealistic expectations. Higher education in America is facing a number of crises, from impossible debt loads to degrees that guarantee less in the job market. There is a place for online classes, MOOCs and otherwise, to potentially relieve some of this systematic stress. Sure, why not? But selling MOOCs on unsubstantiated or seemingly false premises just muddies the water. Since the mammoth and societally vital institution of higher education is being called into question by this debate, it's in everyone's interest to keep those waters clear. Just saying a technology will cure what ails a society does not make it so — no matter who publishes that assertion.