The media has finally figured out that MOOCs may not be the salvation of America’s higher educational system. I congratulate them. For a somewhat nuanced piece of discussion, read Keith Devlin’s piece in the Huffington Post. I think Professor Devlin argues too much from anecdote in providing a few emails from students thrilled to be able to access education outside the usual system, but he does make a point that seems to be borne out by evidence: MOOCs are a great resource for motivated students who are already capable of taking advantage of them.
A lot of the recent media buzz is driven by Sebastian Thrun’s discussion of the fact that MOOCs are failing in the goals that many had set for them. Most notably, this is driven by the San Jose State University experiment in using a MOOC format for remedial math, the most notoriously difficult place to apply any educational theory at any time. Devlin accurately notes that for Thrun, the Udacity pivot is just that — a pivot, which in Silicon Valley-speak is simply what businesses do after trying an idea and finding that something slightly different might make for a better business.
And that is what I fear a lot of people are missing in the discussion — these are businesses! Academics are used to working in a non-profit world and have long experienced tension with for-profit businesses in the education sphere. Witness for instance the controversies surrounding for-profit publishing and their paywalls. Most online education companies need to make money, and even non-profit universities want to avoid losing too much money. MOOCs are one way of increasing access to educational materials, but they are not the only option. The options that survive will be the ones that have found an economic sweet spot.