Why the fuss about MOOCs? Political, social and economic drivers

November 16, 2014 Tony Bates
Daphne Koller's TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

Daphne Koller’s TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

The end of MOOCs

This is the last part of my chapter on MOOCs for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. In a series of prior posts, I have looked at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. Here I summarise this section and look at why MOOCs have gained so much attention.

Brief summary of strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs

The main points of my analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs can be summarised as follows:


  • the main value proposition of MOOCs is that through the use of computer automation and/or peer-to-peer communication MOOCs can eliminate the very large variable costs in higher education associated with providing learner support and quality assessment
  • MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection
  • MOOCs can be useful for opening access to high quality content, particularly in Third World countries, but to do so successfully will require a good deal of adaptation, and substantial investment in local support and partnerships
  • MOOCs are valuable for developing basic conceptual learning, and for creating large online communities of interest or practice
  • MOOCs are an extremely valuable form of lifelong learning and continuing education
  • MOOCs have forced conventional and especially elite institutions to reappraise their strategies towards online and open learning
  • institutions have been able to extend their brand and status by making public their expertise and excellence in certain academic areas


  • the high registration numbers for MOOCs are misleading; less than half of registrants actively participate, and of these, only a small proportion successfully complete the course; nevertheless, absolute numbers of successful participants are still higher than for conventional courses
  • MOOCs are expensive to develop, and although commercial organisations offering MOOC platforms have opportunities for sustainable business models, it is difficult to see how publicly funded higher education institutions can develop sustainable business models for MOOCs
  • MOOCs tend to attract those with already a high level of education, rather than widen access
  • MOOCs so far have been limited in the ability to develop high level academic learning, or the high level intellectual skills needed in a knowledge based society
  • assessment of the higher levels of learning remains a challenge for MOOCs, to the extent that most MOOC providers will not recognise their own MOOCs for credit
  • MOOC materials may be limited by copyright or time restrictions for re-use as open educational resources

Why the fuss about MOOCs?

It can be seen from the previous section that the pros and cons of MOOCs are finely balanced. Given though the obvious questions about the value of MOOCs, and the fact that before MOOCs arrived, there had been substantial but quiet progress for over ten years in the use of online learning for undergraduate and graduate programs, you might be wondering why MOOCs have commanded so much media interest, and especially why a large number of government policy makers, economists, and computer scientists have become so ardently supportive of MOOCs, and why there has been such a strong, negative reaction, not only from many traditional university and college instructors, who are right to be threatened by some of the claims being made for MOOCs, but also from many professionals in online learning (see for instance, Bates, 2012; Daniel, 2012; Hill, 2012; Watters, 2013), who might be expected to be more supportive of MOOCs

It needs to be recognised that the discourse around MOOCs is not usually based on a cool, rational, evidence-based analysis of the pros and cons of MOOCs, but is more likely to be driven by emotion, self-interest, fear, or ignorance of what education is actually about. Thus it is important to explore the political, social and economic factors that have driven MOOC mania.

Massive, free and Made in America!

This is what I will call the intrinsic reason for MOOC mania. It is not surprising that, since the first MOOC from Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller attracted 270,000 sign-ups from around the world, since the course was free, and since it came from professors at one of the most prestigious private universities in the USA, the American media were all over it. It was big news in its own right, however you look at it, especially as courses from Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford professor, and others from MIT and Harvard followed shortly, with equally staggering numbers of participants.

It’s the Ivy Leagues!

Until MOOCs came along, the major Ivy League universities in the USA, such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley, as well as many of the most prestigious universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and McGill, and elsewhere, had largely ignored online learning in any form.

However, by 2011, online learning, in the form of for credit undergraduate and graduate courses, was making big inroads at many other, very respectable universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, and the University of Maryland in the USA, and also in many of the top tier public universities in Canada and elsewhere, to the extent that almost one in three course enrolments in the USA were now in online courses. Furthermore, at least in Canada, the online courses were often getting good completion rates and matching on-campus courses for quality.

The Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities that had ignored online learning were beginning to look increasingly out of touch by 2011. By launching into MOOCs, these prestigious universities could jump to the head of the queue in terms of technology innovation, while at the same time protecting their selective and highly personal and high cost campus programs from direct contact with online learning. In other words, MOOCs gave these prestigious universities a safe sandbox in which to explore online learning, and the Ivy League universities gave credibility to MOOCs, and, indirectly, online learning as a whole.

It’s disruptive!

For years before 2011, various economists, philosophers and industrial gurus had been predicting that education was the next big area for disruptive change due to the march of new technologies (see for instance Lyotard, 1979; Tapscott, undated; Christensen and Eyring, 2011).

Online learning in credit courses though was being quietly absorbed into the mainstream of university teaching, through blended learning, without any signs of major disruption, but here with MOOCs was a massive change, providing evidence at long last in the education sector to support the theories of disruptive innovation.

It’s Silicon Valley!

It is no coincidence that the first MOOCs were all developed by entrepreneurial computer scientists. Ng and Koller very quickly went on to create Coursera as a private commercial company, followed shortly by Thrun, who created Udacity. Anant Agarwal, a computer scientist at MIT, went on to head up edX.

The first MOOCs were very typical of Silicon Valley start-ups: a bright idea (massive, open online courses with cloud-based, relatively simple software to handle the numbers), thrown out into the market to see how it might work, supported by more technology and ideas (in this case, learning analytics, automated marking, peer assessment) to deal with any snags or problems. Building a sustainable business model would come later, when some of the dust had settled.

As a result it is not surprising that almost all the early MOOCs completely ignored any pedagogical theory about best practices in teaching online, or any prior research on factors associated with success or failure in online learning. It is also not surprising as a result that a very low percentage of participants actually successfully complete MOOCs – there’s a lot of catching up still to do, but so far Coursera and to a lesser extent edX have continued to ignore educators and prior research in online learning. They would rather do their own research, even if it means re-inventing the wheel. The commercial MOOC platform providers though are beginning to work out a sustainable business model.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Of all the reasons for MOOC mania, Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan resonates most with me. It should be remembered that by 2011, the consequences of the disastrous financial collapse of 2008 were working their way through the economy, and particularly were impacting on the finances of state governments in the USA.

The recession meant that states were suddenly desperately short of tax revenues, and were unable to meet the financial demands of state higher education systems. For instance, California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts between 2008-2012, resulting in a shortfall of 500,000 places in its campus-based colleges. Free MOOCs were seen as manna from heaven by the state governor, Jerry Brown.

One consequence of rapid cuts to government funding was a sharp spike in tuition fees, bringing the real cost of higher education sharply into focus. Tuition fees in the USA have increased by 7% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with an inflation rate of 4% per annum. Here at last was a possible way to rein in the high cost of higher education.

Now though the economy in the USA is picking up and revenues are flowing back into state coffers, and so the pressure for more radical solutions to the cost of higher education is beginning to ease. It will be interesting to see if MOOC mania continues as the economy grows, although the search for more cost-effective approaches to higher education is not going to disappear.

Don’t panic!

These are all very powerful drivers of MOOC mania, which makes it all the more important to try to be clear and cool headed about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. The real test is whether MOOCs can help develop the knowledge and skills that learners need in a knowledge-based society. The answer of course is yes and no.

As a low-cost supplement to formal education, they can be quite valuable, but not as a complete replacement. They can at present teach conceptual learning, comprehension and in a narrow range of activities, application of knowledge. They can be useful for building communities of practice, where already well educated people or people with a deep, shared passion for a topic can learn from one another, another form of continuing education.

However, certainly to date, MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate that they can lead to transformative learning, deep intellectual understanding, evaluation of complex alternatives, and evidence-based decision-making, and without greater emphasis on expert-based learner support and more qualitative forms of assessment, they probably never will, at least without substantial increases in their costs.

At the end of the day, there is a choice between throwing more resources into MOOCs and hoping that some of their fundamental flaws can be overcome without too dramatic an increase in costs, or whether we would be better investing in other forms of online learning and educational technology that could lead to more cost-effective learning outcomes. I know where I would put my money, and it’s not into MOOCs.

Over to you

This will be my last contribution to the discussion of MOOCs for my book, so let’s have it!

1. Do you agree with the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs that I have laid out? What would you add or remove or change?

2. What do you think of the drivers of MOOC mania? Are these accurate? Are there other, more important drivers of MOOC mania?

3. Do you even agree that there is a mania about MOOCs, or is their rapid expansion all perfectly understandable?


Bates, T. (2012) What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs, Online learning and distance education resources, August 5

Christensen, C. and Eyring, H. (2011), The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education, New York, New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons,

Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility.Journal of Interactive Media in Education, Vol. 3

Hill, P. (2012) Four Barriers that MOOCs must overcome to build a sustainable model, e-Literate, July 24

Lyotard, J-J. (1979) La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir: Paris: Minuit

Tapscott, D. (undated) The transformation of education dontapscott.com

Watters, A. (2013) MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive, open online courses The Digital Shift, 18 April

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