Clay Shirky
Clay Shirky (Image via Eirik Solheim)

One could be forgiven for believing that MOOCs had simply faded away. When they first came on the scene, MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — were widely and wildly predicted to be about to change the world, and they would do this in three to four weeks. The high cost of higher education would plummet to near zero; second-tier academics would find themselves out of work as the first tier monopolized the MOOCs in their field with the attendant global reach of the Internet; the big-name colleges and universities would be left floundering with their high cost structures and inflexible design; and a new highly-educated global workforce would raise living standards everywhere. Venture capital began to pour in and one institution after another desperately climbed on the bandwagon while the music was still playing. Whether the vision of the MOOCs was utopian or dystopian depended on your point of view — and vested interests. We heard quite a bit about the virtues of face-to-face education (taught increasingly by stressed adjuncts who can’t rub two dimes together), the role of the inspired instructor standing before attentive students, and the “experience” of living in a community of scholars. For many undergraduates a residential education is a study in sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll: when we talk about institutional support for an education in the classics, this is what we mean. And the MOOCs were going to take all that away.

One could be forgiven–and one would be wrong. As Clay Shirky points out in a trenchant essay on Medium, online education is alive and well and growing at a rapid clip. The reason we don’t see this is that we have fallen for the old magician’s trick of distracting us with one hand while the other reaches into the hidden pocket to pull out a pigeon. Have the MOOCs changed the fundamental experience of undergraduates at Harvard, Amherst, Pomona, and Yale? No, and that’s the distraction. Meanwhile, the students at less prestigious institutions are taking more and more courses online; enrollment is growing; online education has found a foothold in the education marketplace. The MOOCs have not faded away, but they have been transformed to meet the actual needs of the non-elite students, who make up the majority. Readers of the Scholarly Kitchen, who are among the elite and who work with the elite, may have overlooked the MOOCs simply because they are themselves not part of the primary MOOC audience.

As I wrote that paragraph It occurred to me that some background may be in order. To begin with, what the heck is Medium? If you are not familiar with this service, check it out. It was founded by Evan Williams, who already has Blogger and Twitter to his credit, making him one of the few entrepreneurs who have transformed the digital world more than once; we do not have his equal in the world of scholarly communications (but Vitek Tracz is a credible nominee). Medium is a community long-form writing platform, and it may be the platform you will be using in the future. Indeed, why is the Scholarly Kitchen still sitting atop WordPress when it can use the easier tools and free services (including superior discoverability) of Medium? And after you answer that question, consider all the time and money that goes into open access hosting services. Why not Medium? It’s there, waiting to disrupt.

As for Clay Shirky, he is, I think, the most insightful observer of digital media we have. Google him; he is everywhere. Anyone who believes in the democratizing power of digital media — open access advocates, this means you — should look at Shirky on the Web’s Power Law. But I recommend starting with his first book, Here Comes Everybody, which describes the world of social media and explains how it differs from other media. Less persuasive is his Cognitive Surplus, the thesis of which is that humanity has a surplus of intellectual power that can be released and made productive through the careful use of collaborative technology. And where will we find the under-optimized surplus? Why, in all that useless television watching. The notion that people can be “improved,” genetic engineering aside, strikes me as grist for satire, but not everybody shares my sense of humor. In any event, Shirky apparently has not actually watched television in the past decade; his views are still anchored in what Newton Minow called “the vast wasteland” of fifty years ago. If we are suboptimized while watching The Wire, Wolf Hall, and The Sopranos, I wonder what standard Shirky would have us live up to. Pinterest?

One final point on Shirky before returning to online learning. There is something of gratuitous politicization in his writing (cognitive surplus/surplus labor: get it?). Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes a group of people is just a group of people and not a political movement. Shirky, with his talent for neat turns of phrase and barbed aphorisms, seems to imply that we are all complicit with the reactionary forces that his collaborative community is cleverly overturning. He is an exasperating figure, who can pick a fight with you even when you agree with him.

And I do agree with him. The force of Shirky’s arguments is that he shows us how to think of online media in its own terms rather than as an extension of traditional media. It takes nothing away from Downton Abbey and Empire to say that the Mechanical Turk and Hadoop operate on different principles. When we return to the MOOCs and view them with Shirky’s guidance (i.e., online education is something that is not traditionally associated with the form of instruction at Princeton or Yale), we can begin to see their appeal.

Let’s take a look letter by letter:

  • Massive. Why must an online course be massive? Why cannot it be narrow and targeted? While there are millions who can and should learn calculus, there is a much smaller number who need to learn the basic accounting of, say, running a restaurant or managing a small hotel. Have we been so seduced by the big numbers that we have overlooked the need to train people to handle the small ones? Why is it that we solely praise those who “think outside the box” when the frustrations of daily life stem largely because there is inadequate thinking inside the box?
  • Open. Open everything would not be a bad thing, if we could figure out how to make it work. In the meantime — for the next ten thousand years — having people pay for services they receive has the benefit of creating a competitive market, where buyers can be matched with sellers, and right now. This is not the perfect solution but the practical one, especially considering the lower cost of online delivery compared to site-based education and the possibility (and moral responsibility) of subsidizing the impecunious.
  • Online. Well, yes, but does that mean face-to-face education is without value? It is worth examining how outcomes could be improved by combining online content delivery with classroom-based discussion. Some things should be online-only, but some may best be hybrids.
  • Courses. This seems self-evident, but we have to be careful not to impose the structure and assumptions of the traditional classroom on online learning. Should an online course be the equivalent of a fourteen-week semester, or are there topics that can be handled meaningfully in shorter (or longer) programs?

The MOOC, in other words, has not disappeared. It has begun to adapt to the world it operates in, starting with a big utopian idea and gradually finding new uses and new users. This is the way it is with digital media, indeed of all media.  The new medium starts out as an alleged replacement for an established medium and then gradually finds its own way as it discovers its underlying nature and marries those capabilities to genuine interest and demand in the marketplace. We will be seeing more MOOCs (no doubt expressed as a different acronym) in the future, which represents a genuine area for growth for publishers that are stymied by what appears to the unimaginative as a flat or declining marketplace.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


9 Thoughts on "MOOCs Rise from the Ashes"

Joe, another really thoughtful piece. I read both this and the Shirky piece you linked.

There are at least two other critical factors here. You can’t discount the significance of for profit higher education. Forget the feasibility of online versus on campus for many adult students for a moment. For profit schools have been pitching to that audience for decades now and with some pretty terrible consequences (dismal completion rates, extreme debt).

Here’s the other distractor– even public higher education has become incredibly expensive. This means that the ideal of college available to everyone (yes, at the time of life we have typically associated with college) is disappearing under the weight of expense. I would love to see a graph that depicts the expansion of higher education post WWII and GI Bill and the opening of colleges to minorities and women, mapped against the increasing cost for public 4 yr schools. What we’d see is that high quality higher education for everyone is kept elusive.

The question that interests me is what this means for academic publishing, all and not just STEM, STM.

MOOC’s and Open Access seem to have some underlying commonality as does the blogging site Medium cited in your article and where Shirkey contributes. Many, even academics, are seeking a platform or voice via vehicles other than sound bites on Twitter or vehicles such as Word Press which , as near first generation are still awkward. With the rise of ever smarter AI search and write engines, much of this material is accessible and potentially able to be vetted with increasing effectiveness to challenge the gate keeping and increasingly problematic issue surrounding “peer” review. This is and will be increasingly addressed with the growing understanding of the study of the “resistance to innovation” (c.f. Oreg and Goldenberg’s recent book)

When it comes to academia, the institution, it’s a lagging indicator. e-learning is an evolving form of distance education and is barely 2 decades old. Peer review is an evolving form of peer sharing with the rise of the scientific journal.

Shirkey seems to have focused on the idea of access for the disenfranchised (many elements) and a liberal guilt that many have within the privileged class who can maneuver within the system. He is less concerned about what that education is than that one have the “street credits”after their name.

On the other hand, there is, as noted, a shift in the composition of faculty tenure and thus the nature of the university within developed economies and also changes occurring internationally.

There are still increasing numbers of new academic journals, many in the OA area. There are increasing venues for “publishing” outside of the plethora of academic journals as well as other venues for knowledge dissemination. Outside of the very selective academic institutions and journals, as with other “designer labels” is there change rumbling in the distance.

Change is slow but inexorable, though maybe not much in the lifetime of most of those reading this blog.

One must remember that e-learning reaches down to PreK-12. And education with early college reaching down to grade 9 that those coming up the system will, by default, increase the pressure to enter the increasing VR world that will be part of the educational and even research experience

Echoing others, this is a really thoughtful piece.

I found myself nodding at your observation that MOOCs are continuing to chip away at the educational marketplace, though in less fundamental or revolutionary ways than had originally been predicted (or feared) way back in 2012. One area where a shift seems to be occurring is within professional development, where you typically have a group of motivated, self-directed, educated learners who aren’t getting what they want from the current system. Given this lack of satisfaction with current professional learning opportunities among teachers (an hour of “sit, get, and forget”) and school leaders (practically non-existent), it makes sense that MOOCs might help fill this need.

With this in mind, my colleagues and I at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State have been designing MOOCs specifically for an audience of educators for the past 3-4 years. With our MOOCs for Educators Initiative (, we’ve found success in applying the principles of effective professional development to a MOOC-like environment. Our courses are self-directed, peer supported, job-embedded, and rely on multiple voices or perspectives.

Our audience is nowhere near as extensive as those with six figure enrollments, but we’ve found that those who have taken our courses have not only learned the content itself but have, more importantly, taken that knowledge back into their classrooms or schools. That said, we’re also clear-eyed about the impact of a 6-8 week course can have by itself, which is why we think of our MOOCs as part of a broader, blended professional learning experience in which our courses play a role.

MOOCs are here to stay in one form or another. Now the hard work really begins…

Joe’s opening paragraph about the breathless hype of the MOOC in the early days is an excellent example from an adjacent industry (to publishing) of one of the principles that the futurist Paul Saffo has proposed(1):

“Technologies take time — as much as 20 years — to move from invention to arrival in our lives. Because we assume adoption will be more rapid, we inevitably overestimate the short-term and under-estimate the long-term impact of new technologies.”

We do this in our own industry, often overstating short term consequences (e.g., that OA will make everything free quickly) and understating the long-term consequences (that it will inevitably shift funding and power relationships, but also open opportunities for new types of businesses, good and bad). There are undoubtedly some places in the workflow where we are still in the horseless carriage days — I think online manuscript management systems of today are still at that stage — before something very new can emerge. Often it seems to take time for a change to be absorbed before a pivot can happen. E.g., now that we have finally stopped saying “e-journals”, it is possible for something different to happen with journals.

I liken this to the early days of automobiles — “horseless carriages” — when we saw the technology as removing some limitation, rather than enabling transportation options for people who would never have had a horse in the first place. Probably the same is going to happen with autonomous vehicles — “driverless cars”!

Joe’s previous post — about startup CEOs’ grand ambitions — would be fun to refactor with the hindsight of the MOOC experience.


I believe the idea attributed here to Paul Saffo comes from Arthur C. Clarke. I have also heard it attributed to Bill Gates, but Gates was borrowing from Clarke, as we all do.

Back in the early 1970’s when I taught the history and philosophy of technology at Carnegie Mellon, the standard average number was 30 years and that did not come from Clarke. It is still a good number and the basic point is correct. What the hypesters often overlook is that new technologies require new systems of human behavior and these take a long time to develop. A technology is not a tool; it is a tool in use.

The concept of “flipped learning” is relevant here. The basic concept is that the things that have traditionally been done in the classroom (passively receiving information and instruction, “lectures”) can be done at home (online or offline, but increasingly digitally), and classroom time can be devoted to what has traditionally been homework (practicing, solving problems, interaction).

Another important point is that online education is becoming better able to tailor the experience to the individual learner–better than the traditional classroom teacher is able to do. Today’s educational platforms increasingly monitor and manage what students are doing, what they are learning, where they need more help, etc., and can adapt accordingly. Those same platforms inform the teacher of these things, so s/he knows almost in real time how the student is doing, where the student needs help or greater challenge. (“Metrics” is the new metadata.) So when the student and teacher interact, that interaction is much better tuned to the needs of the particular student at that particular time.

All of which is to say that looking at online vs. in-person education as an either/or is the fundamental mistake. The best approach is to optimize the combination of them. That’s what’s happening in education now.

–Bill Kasdorf

Penn State has had its World Campus operating since 1998, and very successfully: It pre-existed MOOCs and provides the kind of more focused service that Alex Dreier describes, though it does offer full undergraduate and graduate degree programs. E.g., it offers degrees in turfgrass management, a area where Penn State has probably the best program in the world. Whatever the fate of MOOCs, online education of the kind the World Campus provides is here to stay. (At one point, when I was director of the university press there, we discussed some cooperative programs between the press and the World Campus.)

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