The Four-Letter Word Higher-Ed Struggles to Understand

ImageWhile there has certainly been rapid growth in education technology the last several years, few new developments have had such an immediate and global impact as the MOOC. When these free Massive Open Online Courses launched in 2012, they were called “the single biggest change in education since the printing press” (Rosen, 2012).  MOOCs were greeted with nearly unanimous praise by both the education press and the public and, what some viewed as simply a new technology product roll-out, quickly evolved into a “revolution that has higher education gasping,” (Pappano, 2012).

As background, the first MOOC known to have been offered in the United States was a course entitled “Online Learning Today and Tomorrow,” at The University of Illinois Springfield in 2011.  The MOOC course attracted 2,500 students – a very high enrollment for such a new program at the time (Sandeen, 2013). Just two years later, however, millions are participating in MOOC courses all over the world.

The three largest MOOC platforms – Coursera, Udacity and edX – all launched in the summer of 2012.  Coursera and Udacity were created by two Stanford University professors and edX was launched by a MIT professor in partnership with Harvard (Sandeen, 2013).  Among these three major MOOC platforms, Coursera is the largest with over 4 million enrolled students (Anders, 2013).   Coursera employs a decentralized model and partners with large established universities in the United States and around the world who are responsible for providing content, curriculum and faculty for a wide variety of course offerings (Sandeen, 2013).

While MOOC courses tend to focus on fairly traditional academic content including course offerings in history, math and science, the technology they employ is anything but conventional.  I am actually currently enrolled in a MOOC course on the history of China and have been very impressed with the technology utilized online. The course utilizes engaging video, music, interactive maps and a variety of other applications to both educate and entertain MOOC students. 

MOOC courses work hard to maintain student interest.  Since these offerings are free, content developers recognize that students don’t always have a vested interest in completing a course.  In fact, while millions of students are enrolling in MOOC courses, a large number never actually complete a full course as the vast majority of MOOC participants do not enroll with the intention of applying their learning experience toward the completion of an academic  degree.   

Currently most academic institutions that sponsor MOOCs do not grant academic credit for such coursework. But that may be changing, which has some leaders in higher education quite concerned.  Last May, the American Council on Education was awarded a grant in the amount of $895,484 from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “support building the bridge between informal MOOC learning and college credit by testing the viability of MOOCs as a direct-to-student use case” (“Gates Foundation,” 2012).  The Council agreed to apply its respected course review and credit recommendation service to the MOOC environment and completed a pilot review of five courses on the Coursera platform.  Following the review, all five courses were recommended for some form of academic credit” (Sandeen, 2013).

In addition to the efforts by the Council, many other institutions are currently examining the issue of credits and measurement. According to Masterson (2013), San Jose State University is partnering with MOOC providers to offer for-credit MOOCs to their students. Empire State College is working with foundations to establish and test MOOC assessments. And a bill in California could create a list of approved MOOCs for basic college courses that public colleges might be required to accept for credit.

Such efforts are receiving increased attention now as government leaders and citizens voice concern about the escalating cost of a quality college education.  As Coursera states directly on their website “Many students face enormous financial obstacles in pursuit of their degrees. We want to help more students enter college with credit already accrued and exit college on time, on budget and with a degree in hand” (Coursera, 2013). 

While it is difficult to argue with such a worthy mission, there are many in higher education that say further study of MOOCs and their long term impact is warranted (Rivard, 2013).  Faculty groups are worried that MOOCs will threaten their intellectual property rights and, potentially, their livelihood.  They also fear that the loss of traditional face-to-face education will negatively impact student learning.  Many administrators worry about the financial impact of granting credit to courses taken for free – and some partner institutions have threatened to walk away from existing MOOC agreements “because of worries that corporations – and not universities – will end up controlling the future of higher education” (Rivard, 2013).

This debate is far from over, and, as the largest MOOC provider, Coursera, will help lead the ongoing conversation on the future role of MOOCs in higher education.  They are most certainly well prepared to do so.  Just as their enrollment surpassed 4 million students earlier this year, Coursera announced that they had raised $43 million in new venture capital, which tripled the amount of cash available for growth.  They are  currently exploring a potential public stock offering, as well (Anders, 2013).



Rosen, R. (2012). The Single Biggest Change In Education Since The Printing Press.  The Atlantic.  Retrieved from

Pappano, L. (2012, November 2). The Year of the MOOC. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Sandeen, C. (2013). Assessment’s Place in the New MOOC World. Research & Practice In Assessment. Retrieved from

Anders, G. (2013). Coursera Hits 4 Million Students and Triples Its Funding. Forbes.  Retrieved from

Gates Foundation Grant Release. (2012, November). Retrieved from

Masterson, K. (2013, May 1).  Giving MOOCs Some Credit. The Presidency – The American Council On Education Magazine For Higher Education Leaders. Retrieved from

Coursera Blog Post (February 7, 2013). Retrieved from

Rivard, R. (2013). Beyond the MOOC Hype. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from


9 thoughts on “The Four-Letter Word Higher-Ed Struggles to Understand

  1. bonnybarr says:

    Interesting. I have to say I have heard about MOOCs but knew nothing about them. So are all the current providers for profit companies? I certainly would rather see public universities engaged in the MOOC offerings and also accrediting bodies. I am surprised to hear that not many students complete them. I presume they are done at your own speed? Such a concept would certainly be a wonderful way to get educations to people in remote areas, and even better if college credit was available. Thanks for educating me on MOOCs.

    • jvap2013 says:

      The top three MOOC providers (Coursera, edX and Udacity) are all non-profit organizations. And several have public university partners. The University of Texas system is a partner of edX, for example. As for data on the completion rate of MOOCs, one study recently found that the actual completion rate of 29 MOOC courses that were analyzed was only 6.8 percent (Parr, 2013). Many of those who enroll in MOOCs do so simply to try out this new technology. It is free – so there is no financial loss associated with not completing a course you enroll in. Finally, the lack of credit for completion is an obstacle, as well. While most of the MOOC courses allow the awarding of a certificate of completion – too few university partners still prohibit the transfer of earned MOOC credits to their institutions. Hopefully that will change as the technology evolves and more accreditation authorities such as ACE recognize the valuable content and approach that many MOOC courses offer.


      Parr, C. (2013). Not Staying The Course. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

  2. Ahhhh…the dreaded MOOOOOOOOOCCCCCC! 🙂

    As someone who followed with interest the MOOCs run out of Canada by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2009 and Jim Groom’s ds106 from nearby UMW more recently, it is hard to escape the discussion. I have taken three MOOCs – completed one. The one was fun and I truly got engaged and learned. The other two were boring and consisted of a “noted” professor reading his book – in 40 minute installments!

    My own institution is going to launch two MOOC classes this coming summer, but we are not pairing with Coursera or EdX. And they will include paying students earning credit alongside open students taking it for free (but no credit).

    The MOOC I completed and thoroughly enjoyed started with 42,000 students, with over 4,000 completing. But interestingly, 73% of the “students” already had PhD’s (like me). So one questions whether this is REALLY changing higher education…or simply opening up worldwide study groups of like-minded individuals.

    • jvap2013 says:

      I like the approach your institution is taking to offer a course that includes both paying students for credit along with traditional MOOC students. I am enjoying the China course I am taking on edX but, as you note, much of my work involves program with Chinese Delegations so it may indeed be a worldwide study group for me !

  3. gbarnes05 says:

    Thank you for sharing your post. I think that you did an excellent job in explaining the growing popularity of sites like Coursera and the MOOC debate. I actually learned about Coursera about a year ago from a presentation by Daphne Koller entitled “What We’re Learning from Online Education” on TED. I found it interesting that top universities are offering some of their most intriguing courses online free of charge for students. I also found it amazing that anybody from anywhere could have the opportunity to learn from some of the top universities worldwide. I actually completed the Model Thinking at the University of Michigan on the site and look forward to continuing to take advantage of the opportunity to study a subject at one of the world’s greatest institutions free of charge.
    Like most, I was skeptical because I really did not know what to expect. However, I must say that the structure of the course offered easy to understand video lectures, a clear syllabi, weekly quizzes and deadlines similar to my current experience at Creighton. It is also very simple to use and easy to navigate.
    Conversely, I can definitely understand why there is debate surrounding MOOC’s. Plagiarism is something that is very difficult for the site to police. I do understand that the site has improved its monitoring of plagiarism by investing in software upgrades, however, the problem still difficult to remove due to the huge number of students who can participate in one course.
    Overall, I think that sites like Coursera offer tremendous benefits for students who are in search of further development. I do not think that these courses should offer for credit courses because earning admissions into a “top” global institution needs its deserved recognition. Therefore, I think that the courses offered by Coursera should only receive training and development recognition from employers and colleges. In addition, I disagree with those who state that loss of face-to-face education will negatively affect student learning. Instead, I would argue that sites like Coursera offer students the ability to enhance their learning experience by having the ability to form a learning community with teachers and students worldwide. Friedman (2007) stated, “And the more people have the ability to push and pull information from anywhere faster, the more barriers to competition and communication disappear” (p. 195). Truly, Coursera serves as a device that has helped “flatten the world” by remove barriers that once prevented individuals the opportunity to access information from universities worldwide. Now, regardless of place or background, one can use information from sites like Coursera to develop the skills necessary to compete within the global marketplace. Thank you again for sharing.
    Friedman, T.L. (2007). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Picador

  4. lrc00053 says:

    MOOCs have been a hot topic in higher education for a few years now and for many, the question still remains unanswered: how will we use MOOCs? I am not sure how MOOCs will evolve however, one thing is for sure – they are not just about providing free knowledge. MIT OpenCourseWare has been in operation for more than 20 years giving away all types of knowledge however there does not seem to be as much hype about MIT OpenCourseWare as there is for MOOCs.

    In my opinion, MOOCs have gained popularity due to the social aspect of learning they provide. MOOCs have become a social learning platform where one can find like-minded individuals from across the world to share ideas and build connections. Thompson (2013) states, “once thinking is public, connections take over… and making connections is a big deal in the history of thought – and its future” (p. 166). Stephen Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From says, “Chance favors the connected mind” (Johnson). With this in mind, it appears that our good ideas can become better once we offer them up to the crowd via the Internet. Hopefully someone will write us back with a suggestion, or comment that makes us think differently about our previously held beliefs.

    Johnson, S. Where Good Ideas Come From Quotes. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from Good reads:

    Thompson, C. (2013, September). Thinking out loud. Wired Magazine, 21.09, 162-178.

  5. moirawalsh says:

    MIT OpenCourseWare does ask for donations quite a bit, but it provides a marvelous source for information worldwide, and I suspect, a source for those interested in communicating with others. Many people do take these courses to “meet” others, as well as for information (Personal communication, 8 November 2013).

  6. new s today says:

    Very good article. I’m facing a few of thesee issues
    as well..

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