Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


MOOC madness: Let’s inject a healthy dose of skepticism

As we in higher ed continue to draw on all the wonderful techie tools at our disposal, it might also be wise to ask tough questions regarding Coursera and MOOCs.

When it comes to MOOCs, students, counselors, faculty, administrators and employers should proceed cautiously.
REUTERS/Eric Thayer

A few weeks ago the University of Minnesota announced it will join many other top universities to offer Massive Open Online Courses (aka the unfortunate sounding “MOOCs”) – in other words, free Internet access to several popular college-level courses. While heralded by many as a win for hungry minds everywhere, I suggest a healthy dose of MOOC skepticism. Students, counselors, faculty, administrators and employers should proceed cautiously.

Zack Sullivan
Zack Sullivan

To be clear: I’m no technophobe. In fact, as a faculty member in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, I often use online teaching tools and have instructed many classes fully online since 2005. In my experience, online teaching platforms (like Desire2Learn and Blackboard) can improve just about any existing course, and fully online courses are a reasonable choice for certain student populations.

So what’s my beef with MOOCs?

Existing online education is already somewhat oversold. Fully online courses can augment a full-time class schedule for highly motivated, traditional students. They can also provide an avenue for older students to complete degree requirements around tight work and family commitments. What these courses can never do is adequately replace a traditional college classroom experience. Interpersonal communication skills, emotional intelligence, and, frankly, learning to be somewhere on-time, prepared, and ready to rock — these are traits that even the very finest online courses cannot sufficiently develop. These traits form a skillset that employers demand and that too many traditional-aged college students lack.

When I work with students in an online format, I provide a similar level of support to that of a traditional in-person class. In other words, I reach out to those struggling, I am available for in-person meetings, and I personally facilitate interactive discussion and simulations. This is only possible because my class sizes are the same regardless of delivery method (no more than 40).

Abysmal attrition rates

MOOCs pose a much greater concern than existing online courses at reputable colleges and universities. They may boast enrollment in the tens of thousands but they have abysmal attrition rates, around 85-90 percent. As of now, MOOCs are free and not for credit.

Article continues after advertisement

The University of Minnesota has partnered with the dominant MOOC provider Coursera, a for-profit educational technology company. Readers familiar with capitalism may recognize that businesses tend to prefer return on investment. How is this possible by providing free courses?

Ultimately, Coursera seeks to monetize these “free” offerings by charging for MOOC credentials or certificates. This is the bothersome part. Are such credentials meant to create an alternative to a traditional college degree? If so, how will MOOC students develop a sense of community and an interpersonal skill set that are such an important part of the undergraduate college experience?

Beware unquestioned support

Look, I am thrilled that top institutions are willing to share their classes with students and professors on a global scale. I will gladly incorporate a powerful MOOC activity or lecture into one of my existing online courses. Unquestioned support for entities like Coursera is problematic, though, in that profit motives will always be in tension with the altruistic quest to provide free educational tools. My biggest concern, specifically, is that future MOOC certificate programs will lure vulnerable students to bypass a much more meaningful college experience in the name of an untested approach of questionable value.

As we in higher ed continue to draw on all the wonderful techie tools at our disposal, it might also be wise to ask tough questions regarding Coursera and MOOCs. I suggest we start with this one: “Exactly how is earning credit or credentials in massive online learning environments in the best interest of Minnesota’s students, communities and employers?”

Zack Sullivan, Minneapolis, serves as political-science faculty at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below, or consider writing a Community Voices commentary. For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at