Take pedagogy. The techno-fetishist crowd wants people to believe that, just because a course is online, it must be interactive. But this is simply false. Though some MOOCs are genuinely interactive, in the sense of having online tutorials and tests that provide genuine feedback on learning, many – particularly those from Coursera – are literally nothing more than traditional lectures, uploaded to the web. As Tony Bates and others have pointed out, not only is there nothing new here, it is remarkable how much weaker the new online providers are in terms of online pedagogy compared to established online education providers like Athabasca and the Open University. Strike one.
Next, let’s take credentials. No MOOC provider is in the business of offering degrees. For the most part, they aren’t even providing them for credit, although in the US the American Council for Education has now certified a handful of courses as being “of college standard”, meaning that traditional universities may now start accepting them as a form of transfer credit (though this will require a fee, and possibly some extra Prior Learning Assessment work). For adults who are looking to pick up some knowledge or skills, or just be entertained, this is not a big deal. For traditional undergraduates looking for a degree to start their career, it’s a deal-breaker. Strike two.
(Actually, the best defense universities have against MOOCs is precisely the signaling power of their degrees. But they don’t like to say this too loudly because their claim on public money stems from an understanding that the value of a degree lies not in its signaling function but rather in the human capital formation it embodies. Rhetorical contortions ahoy.)
Then there’s the lack of a business model. EdX is currently financed by large wealthy universities doing stuff for free, Udacity is powered by VC money, and Coursera uses a bit of both. To be sustainable, money has to start changing hands at some point. Once that happens, students are going to want assistance and services which don’t exist in the current MOOC model, with predictable effects on enrolment. One University of Washington course saw enrolment fall from 25,000 to 5 when a fee was charged.
Now, this isn’t immutable. Maybe MOOCs will eventually get around all these problems and become wildly successful. But until they do, tales of revolutionizing the undergraduate experience will remain just that: stories.