In This Issue
Fall Bridge Issue on Engineering, Technology, and the Future of Work
September 15, 2015 Volume 45 Issue 3


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Author: Louis L. Bucciarelli and David E. Dre

In the past few years leading, world-class universities have initiated massive online open courses (MOOCs) with the goal of providing high-quality educational experiences, free, to people around the world. Now a variety of institutions offer such courses, some for free, some for a fee.

MOOCs may reshape higher education. Or they may not last long in their present form.


MOOCs have provoked new thinking about strengths and weaknesses in traditional undergraduate education as well as how best to take advantage of the technology of online learning

At this stage, it is not at all clear how the ideas, methods, and structure of MOOCs might be deployed and used to advantage by teachers1 and students. Some see an opportunity to significantly cut the costs of postsecondary education as, in an ideal form, a MOOC has little need for staffing once the video lectures, readings, and exercises have been posted online.

We focus on the MOOC as a phenomenon of online learning that is unique in several ways: First, the courses are offered free of charge, for now at least and for the most part. Second, they are built on existing courses at a variety of colleges and universities and designed for undergraduates at these institutions.

The online courses are produced and made available through independent providers (e.g., Coursera and edX) that operate an online platform for access to and enrollment in the courses. They serve as a clearinghouse for MOOCs offered by universities all over the country and indeed the world, from Johns Hopkins to Peking University, the University of Edinburgh to the University of Michigan.


Providers trumpet a new approach to education, claiming the MOOC dramatically expands access to high-quality instruction for study and professional growth. Coursera, for example, bills itself as “an education company that partners with the top universities” to provide “millions of students,” with a “world-class education that has so far been available to a select few…to empower people…improve their lives, the lives of their families and communities they live in.”2

On the home page of edX one reads that it “was created for students and institutions that seek to transform themselves through cutting-edge technologies, innovative pedagogy, and rigorous courses” and it “present[s] the best of higher education online, offering opportunity to anyone who wants to achieve, thrive, and grow.”3

Thomas Friedman (2013) of the New York Times sees a day

where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world—some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh—paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment.

Hard Questions

We first describe an “ideal” MOOC and subject it to critique. This idealization is meant as an extrapolation to an extreme along an axis of increasing automation of the MOOC—a strawman.

In what ways might the ideal form of an online course divert interest and effort from valued and true pedagogical and curricular reform, or raise false hopes about possibilities for solving problems of access and affordability? In its thrust toward democratization of education, might not what’s construed as “education” via MOOCs be but a shallow imitation of what goes on in “residential” (face to face) learning?

Our objective is to test how the ideal MOOC might live up to the providers’ lofty ambitions. We argue that for more mature students (e.g., those who already have a degree) the MOOC might work in its present form, depending on the registrant’s motivation and interest. For younger students (e.g., undergraduates)—the intended audience inferred from the rhetoric—we doubt the ideal MOOC will work at all.

The Ideal MOOC

The ideal MOOC offers a set of professionally produced videotaped lectures that can be viewed anytime, anywhere; they come in 5- or 10-minute segments, are professionally done, and may include well-crafted simulations and artfully done illustrative material from relevant sources. The video can be paused to be viewed over and over, and may be accompanied by a scrolling of the lecturer’s words. No notes need be taken.

The ideal MOOC takes advantage of the interactive capabilities of digital media in the graphic simulation of phenomena and laboratory tasks. Exercises are included both to actively engage the student and to test comprehension and progress. A distinct advantage of these exercises is that feedback can be instantaneous. In addition, the student may have more than one opportunity to get it right before the correct response is revealed.

Assessment of a student’s progress and overall performance relies on machine grading. Some MOOCs may set out scoring rubrics for student evaluation of one another’s work; in the ideal case, no faculty need be involved once rubrics have been posted online.

The ideal MOOC also offers a forum for discussion, in which the student seeking clarification can pose a question and another student respond. Participation in the forum of the ideal MOOC is limited to students; there is no need for faculty intervention once the rules and protocol have been promulgated.

For economy of development effort, sequencing of lessons follows the path laid out in the syllabus of an established and proven residential course, but the start date need not be tied to the beginning of a semester or term.

In summary, with the ideal MOOC,

  • lecture video clips are available online anytime, anywhere;
  • students benefit from instant feedback on exercises, opportunities to redo their work, and peer evaluation;
  • a self-directed discussion forum engages students with one another;
  • flexibility in start date frees the courses and students from seasonal constraints; and
  • there is no need for faculty or staff to intervene.

If one conceives of the MOOC in this form, then one is justified in claiming an audience of millions and, with no need for faculty or staff to intervene, the ideal MOOC promises to dramatically reduce the cost of a university education.


There are several things wrong with the “ideal MOOC”:

  • It pays little heed to who the students are and cannot accommodate the need for face-to-face interaction among students and teachers.
  • It treats knowledge as information simply to be conveyed from teacher—or rather server—to student.
  • It relies on very constrained forms of exercises to engage students and assess their performance.
  • There is very little information about how different, independently developed MOOCs relate or might be brought together to constitute a coherent program.
  • It says nothing about the educational system within which the MOOC might be deployed (for better or worse).

We elaborate on these deficiencies in the following sections.


The ideal MOOC is characterized by a number of challenges to the student experience.

First, it fails to take account of the importance of face-to-face interaction between student and teacher. The discussion forum offers the opportunity for student-initiated questions and commentary but in its ideal form—indeed, in its contemporary form—it is, at best, an impoverished imitation of what is encouraged in a residential classroom. Early data show that only a small percentage, on the order of 3 percent, of the total number of registrants actively participate in a discussion forum by posting questions, commenting, or debating with one another (Breslow et al. 2013).

The lack of faculty or staff intervention in the ideal discussion forum won’t work. Prompting, oversight, and monitoring are needed. But what should these entail? What are the best ways to encourage the substantial, the reflective, the probing? And to do so in a timely fashion? When, if ever, should the window on comments be closed? How responsive ought staff be to direct queries?

Second, a well-crafted suite of exercises can give students the sense that they are being personally attended to but it is all in terms set by the machinery. The student is given well-posed questions and expected to respond in a limited and defined number of ways. Correct selections are rewarded with a green check mark.

Third, there is a significant discrepancy between the promotional words of providers about the types of students who take advantage of MOOCs and the reality. The providers imply that most MOOC students are like those populating the university’s residential course of the same name. But the distribution of MOOC registrants shows an average age of about 30 and a significant number more than 50 years old. For example, a former high school English teacher in her 80s, Myra Lesser of Great Neck, New York, wrote in a letter to the New York Times (December 12, 2013)4:

A little over a year ago, I read about Coursera in The Times, went to the website and signed up for some courses. I had no intention of seeking any credit or taking exams, but I did watch the lectures and read a great deal of the supplemental material.

Hurricane Sandy arrived and I was housebound, but constantly engaged and enlightened by always interesting, often positively brilliant lectures. The courses gave depth to my understanding of current global realities and frequently helped me look at today’s world in an entirely different way. I have many friends who are similarly enthusiastic. In short, I think these courses are a great benefit to huge numbers of people.

In May 2013 the age distribution of registrants in all MITx courses showed an average age of 30.9, and for students in an online MIT freshman physics course 31.3 years,5 more than half of whom had a bachelor’s or higher degree (Belcher 2013).

The University of Pennsylvania surveyed approximately 35,000 students who had enrolled in at least one of 32 MOOCs offered on the Coursera platform and reported that “Across all geographic regions, MOOC students have very high levels of educational attainment: 83.0% of students have a post-secondary degree (2 or 4 years), 79.4% of students have a Bachelor’s degree or higher and 44.2% report education beyond a Bachelor’s degree” (Christensen et al. 2013, p. 4). The authors also found that 60 percent of the students were over 30 years of age and 10 percent were over 60. The majority (62.4 percent) were employed full-time or self-employed, and 13.4 percent reported being unemployed or retired.

Another way MOOC students differ from residential undergraduates is in their much lower rate of perseverance. Some 44,000 individuals registered for the 8.02x physics course; the second exam was taken by roughly 2,500 students; and 1,715 completed the course and received a certificate. Similarly, only about 7 percent of the students who registered for 6.002x, the electrical circuits course, earned a certificate. The large percentage of “listeners” and dropouts is characteristic of MOOCs. 

Information vs. Knowledge

We distinguish between information as facts (e.g., the periodic table, universal constants) and as narrative (textual presentation of concepts, principles, and methods), and knowledge as the constructive renderings of information by an individual in a particular context confronted with a particular question or problem. MOOCs are best suited to the one-way transfer of information from server to student.

A textbook contains facts and narrative information that can be stored in bits on a server and transmitted to students. No ambiguity here. But knowledge—a grasp of what that information means, implies, and how it might be used—will vary from one individual to another.

Science and engineering “knowledge” is deceptively well suited for packaging and transmission via a MOOC as information, with the expectation that all students will know in the same way. Exercises that admit but a single correct answer imply as much. The deception is in the prevailing notion that textbook science and engineering theories, concepts, and methods are fixed for all time and beyond questioning. As such, the ideal MOOC’s rendering of science and engineering “knowledge” is thoroughly decontextualized, presumed as relevant to a student in rural India as to her cousin enrolled at MIT. Moreover, it fails to take account of a registrant’s prior experience; norms and values instilled through previous schooling; a registrant’s broader cultural context(s) (e.g., socioeconomic background, demographics, language skills) and how they differ, including in technical access; or individual motivations and interests.

Faculty and students who see learning as an interactive process—more like kindling a flame than depositing stores of knowledge in a bank—will not find MOOCs very attractive.

Exercises and Evaluation

One of the advantages claimed for the ideal MOOC is its ability to respond instantly to a student’s submission of a solution to a problem posed online. This is true, but only for a type of problem that reinforces the image of knowledge as information to be conveyed from teacher to student.

With thousands of students enrolled in a MOOC, the opportunity for exchange with the instructor is severely limited, if not wholly absent. In a residential university science or engineering course the instructor or a teaching assistant has the opportunity to read through and evaluate a student’s method of solution and offer feedback (admittedly, not all do). The same sort of exchange is not possible for the student of an ideal MOOC.

MOOC exercises that require an essay response would seem to require a reading by staff. But even here the connection with the student is problematic. It is characteristic of the MOOC to constrain staff to communicate with students through the discussion forum, where the postings are accessible by all.


The stand-alone MOOC may work very well for a mature student seeking to brush up on a subject or to broaden understanding in an area, but for students of university age and interests, a course is but one component of a program of studies leading to a degree. And on that subject, the ideal MOOC is silent.

One can imagine how a set of MOOCs in a particular domain, chosen from the rich menus of offerings of two or three prestigious universities, might be strung together on paper for degree certification by the universities themselves or a third party, but this falls far short of the learning experience at a university. A patchwork of courses does not make for a coherent program.

Alexander Astin (1999), a leading scholar of higher education, has noted that, in the voluminous research about college impact, course content turns out to be a small contributor to the growth that students experience as undergraduates. Opportunities for growth, understood in a traditional sense, are limited online.

A residential student’s learning experiences may include project-based learning, collaborative design tasks, public service, study abroad, research in a professor’s lab, and substantial advising. And we should not ignore the connections students make with their peers, social as well as intellectual, as members of a community. All this is missing from the MOOC experience.

Educational System

Consider the whole of the educational system within which the MOOC might be deployed. How will the course fit with traditional ways of teaching/learning at the university? How might it affect institutional, faculty, and student thinking about the essential ingredients of a university education? How might it change the status of faculty, the security of teaching staff? How will the value of successful completion of a MOOC be judged and by whom?

MOOC lectures may be professionally prepared, with a top scholar in the field leading the cast, and this may very well be seen by faculty who are urged (or required) to adopt the MOOC in their own teaching as a deficiency and a constraint on learning. Such faculty will have their own perspective on and approach to the knowledge domain and these may differ in important ways from those of the MOOC lecturer.

Domain knowledge and paths to knowing are not the sole property of a single scholar—there are other narratives, priorities, and approaches to the subject matter. This is more obviously characteristic of courses in the humanities, but it holds in engineering and the sciences as well. For teachers who have developed their own approach to a subject, a series of video lectures would seem a straitjacket, limiting their freedom of expression and reflection and perhaps those of their students as well.

In fact, we have seen this reaction. In 2013 the California State University system began promoting the use of MOOCs. In reaction, the philosophy faculty at San Jose State University published an open letter objecting to the university president’s decision to add to the department’s curriculum a MOOC led by a distinguished Harvard professor.6 They explained,

When a university such as ours purchases a course from an outside vendor, the faculty cannot control the design or content of the course; therefore we cannot develop and teach content that fits with our overall curriculum and is based on both our own highly developed and continuously renewed competence and our direct experience of our students’ needs and abilities.

They then raised a fear others have voiced:

[S]hould one-size-fits-all vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.

Will MOOCs, which to date are productions of leading universities, reduce the status and value of second-tier institutions of higher learning? Will administrations promote the adoption of MOOCs and then feel they no longer need tenured faculty to teach their students? Such developments would make for a two-tiered system that would, in turn, diminish the overall quality of the institutional choices available to students. Will a growing inequality in higher education, exacerbated by MOOCs, mirror the growing economic inequality in American society?

At present each university (and the accreditation agencies) implements quality control, while respecting academic freedom. Now consider a world where many courses are presented as MOOCs and the accreditation system proves unable to cope. When MOOCs proliferate and compete in the open market, students may be drawn to the most entertaining courses, or the easy courses, or the courses that present a position they agree with. Millions of students could receive college credit for courses of little value (e.g., they teach theories that are outdated or held in disrepute).

Such fears may be overblown, and with time and trial MOOCs may emerge as useful and valid means of education. But in the meantime much mischief can be done in an atmosphere of hubris, optimistic promises, and inadequate information; for example:

  • Research on learning is limited to questions that are answered by click data (comparable to looking for the lost keys under the lamp post because that is where the light shines).
  • Certification is taken over by third parties, independent of providers, resulting in a loss of control over educational content on the part of faculty.
  • Costly, unpopular programs are dismantled without consideration of costs and benefits, and staff, even a university president, let go for lack of enthusiasm for the MOOC (Rice 2012).

Making More of MOOCs

MOOC providers and the media proclaim a new age of enlightenment for the youth of the world. But something is amiss. A look at who registers shows that the great majority already have at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. And while a significant fraction are the age of university students (like the individuals in a producer’s corresponding residential course) only a few of these gain certification. For example, Duke University’s first MOOC, offered through Coursera, had 12,000 registrants, 11 percent of whom had at most a high school degree or equivalent. Ten people in this group success-fully completed the course (Belanger and -Thornton 2013).

MOOC providers need to recognize this twofold character of “the market.” On the one hand are mercurial youth of university age seeking academic credit, and on the other are self-motivated, mature, older individuals who perhaps care less about certification.

In the discussion that follows, we define “youth” as students, regardless of age, who undertake study online in pursuit of a degree. The UPenn study showed that 13.2 percent of the 34,779 students surveyed enrolled to “gain knowledge to get my degree” (Christensen et al. 2013). We define “mature” registrants as all others, the great majority of whom already have a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent.

We divide mature individuals into two groups according to their interests. The first join a MOOC because it will enhance their skills on the job or help them to obtain a new job. Christensen and colleagues (2013) reported that roughly 60 percent of those surveyed said they enrolled to “gain specific skills to do my job better” or “gain specific skills to get a new job.” These students may or may not strive to complete all the course requirements for certification.

Those in the second group register out of curiosity or learning for learning’s sake. The UPenn study showed that 50 percent7 of the students surveyed had enrolled out of “curiosity, just for fun.” For these individuals, certification is not a priority.

Our recommendations, accordingly, address what needs to be done to accommodate the appetites of the mature learner and what needs to be done to provide effective online learning to meet the needs of youth.

MOOCs for the Mature

For mature individuals who participate in a MOOC to enhance their skills on the job or help in obtaining a new job and who do not seek certification, the ideal MOOC may work fine as is. And for those who register simply out of curiosity or to learn for learning’s sake, the ideal MOOC needs little tinkering.

The providers themselves need to relax and stop treating the mature viewer as if he or she were sitting in the front row of their residential class. Let these registrants participate to whatever extent accords with their -interests—watch the videos selectively, peruse the -posted texts on occasion, do the exercises when their interest is piqued, and participate in the discussion forum or not.

Think of the “MOOC for the Mature” as akin to a TV series, with a single character providing the narrative and with some expectation that the viewer will participate in the exercises as the course rolls along week by week—a digital production valued for the “edutainment” it provides. For the 80-year-old former English teacher the MOOC works in just this way, and that is worth something.

MOOCs for Youth

The main business of universities is to educate youth. For this the passive viewing of even an enlightening digital production will not suffice.

First, the ideal MOOC won’t work for youth because university education requires more than information transfer, no matter how professionally structured. For aspiring, overtested youth, there has to be a teacher to respond to their questions, to look over their shoulder, to lead them at times, to redirect them at other times. And the teacher or professor has to know not only the subject matter through and through but also how to make effective use of the MOOC resource.

Second, if one expects university faculty outside the production process to adopt and adapt the MOOC to their perspective and approach to the course material, then more openness is required. The platform should enable, if not encourage, the disassembling and reworking of the MOOC to fit the needs of faculty and students elsewhere.

The rhetoric will have to shift from promoting the MOOC as a professionally packaged, finished product to a collection of well thought out bits of content and a flexible, adaptable technology for engaging this content online by varied populations of faculty and students.

What’s It Worth Then?

MOOC providers should accept that, for mature course registrants, the worth of their well-done productions depends on the individual’s motivation and interest.

For youth, providers need to recognize that improving university-level education will take more than the development and posting of an ideal MOOC. It requires the recognition that knowledge as information, no matter how artfully, dramatically, convincingly portrayed online, is not the driver in the education of youth. What matters is what the students themselves bring to the show, how they engage the material, under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

The talking head may enlighten, the multiplayer game may engage, but if students are to learn they must be challenged to reflect and apply what they see and hear to situations less well defined, more open, and even ambiguous. For this teachers with their own narrative and perspective are essential, to encourage critical thinking and reflection, and to set a coherent path through the subject matter.


Astin AW. 1999. Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development 40(5):518–529.

Belanger Y, Thornton J. 2013. Bioelectricity: A quantitative approach—Duke University’s first MOOC. Available at

Belcher J. 2013. The MIT Physics Department’s experience with edX. MIT Faculty Newsletter XXVI(1), September/October. Available at

Breslow L, Pritchard DE, DeBoer J, Stump GS, Ho AD, Seaton DT. 2013. Studying learning in the worldwide classroom: Research into edX’s first MOOC. Research & Practice in Assessment 8:13–25. Available at classroom-research-into-edxs-first-mooc/.

Christensen G, Steinmetz A, Alcorn B, Bennett A, Woods D, Emanuel EJ. 2013. The MOOC phenomenon: Who takes massive open online courses and why? November 6. Available at or

Friedman T. 2013. Revolution hits the universities. New York Times, Sunday Review, January 26. Available at revolutio n-hits-the-universities.html.

Rice A. 2012. Anatomy of a campus coup. New York Times, Education Issue, September 11. Available at ouster.html?&_r=0.


1 We use “teacher” to refer to professors and scholars for students at all levels.



4 The letter is available at hopes-trimmed.html?_r=0.

5 The count of students in the freshman physics course (8.02x) was restricted to those who remained engaged in the course past the second exam.

6 “An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel from the Philosophy Department at San Jose State U.,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 2, 2013; available at 138937/.

7 The percentages add to more than 100 because multiple selections were allowed.

About the Author:Louis L. Bucciarelli, emeritus professor of engineering and technology studies, holds a joint appointment in the School of Engineering and in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. David E. Drew is the Joseph B. Platt Chair and Professor of Education in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University