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Will MOOCs Destroy Academia?

By Moshe Y. Vardi

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 55 No. 11, Page 5

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"Thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee," wrote the prophet Isaiah. This phrase has been popping into my mind as I have been following the recent raging discussions over the topic of MOOCs.

For those readers who paid no attention to recent developments, a MOOC is massive open online course; it is a tuition-free course taught over the Web to a large number of students. While online education has a long history, the current wave started in the fall of 2011 when about 450,000 students signed up for three computer-science courses offered by Stanford University. Since then, MOOCs have become the hottest topic of discussion in higher education in the U.S. Within months of the Stanford experiments, several start-up companies debuted, including one that immodestly claims to be "the first elite American university to be launched in a century." Many leading U.S. universities now offer MOOCs, either on their own or in partnership with some of these companies, even though no business model has emerged for MOOC-based education. Some describe the current environment as "MOOC panic" or "MOOC mania." John Hennessy, Stanford's president, describes the phenomenon as a "tsunami."

Early rhetoric about the educational value of MOOCs was quite lofty, talking about the goal of reaching the quality of individual tutoring, but it is difficult to reconcile such rhetoric with massiveness as an essential feature of MOOCs. A more honest comment from one of the early MOOC pioneers was: "We were tired of delivering the same lectures year after year, often to a half-empty classroom because our classes were being videotaped." In fact, the absence of serious pedagogy in MOOCs is rather striking, their essential feature being short, unsophisticated video chunks, interleaved with online quizzes, and accompanied by social networking.

The bitter truth, however, is that academic pedagogy has never been very good. It is well established that a professorial soliloquy is an ineffective way of teaching. We do know what works and what does not work when it comes to teaching. Much has been written in the last few years about "active learning," "peer learning," "flipping the lecture," and the like, yet much of academic teaching still consists of professors monologuing to large classes. We could undoubtedly improve our teaching, but MOOCs are not the answer to our pedagogical shortcomings.

To understand the real significance of MOOCs you must consider the financial situation in which U.S. colleges and universities have found themselves in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The financial crisis dealt a severe blow to U.S. higher education. Private institutions saw their endowments take significant hits, while public institutions saw state support, which was already shrinking, decline even faster. While outstanding student debt has exceeded the $1T mark, students are facing a highly constrained job market, challenging their ability to repay their debt. After years of college tuition escalating faster than inflation, the very value of college education is being seriously questioned; an Internet entrepreneur is even offering a skip-college fellowship. In this environment, the prospect of higher education at a dramatically reduced cost is simply irresistible.

It is clear, therefore, that the enormous buzz about MOOCs is not due to the technology's intrinsic educational value, but due to the seductive possibilities of lower costs. The oft-repeated phrase is "technology disruption." This is the context for the dismissal (and later reinstatement) last summer of Theresa A. Sullivan, University of Virginia's president, because she was not moving fast enough with online education. The bigger picture is of education as a large sector of the U.S. economy (over $1T) that has so far not been impacted much by information technology. From the point of view of Silicon Valley, "higher education is a particularly fat target right now." MOOCs may be the battering ram of this attack.

My fear is the financial pressures will dominate educational consideration. In his recent book What Are Universities For?, Stefan Collini, a Cambridge don, describes universities as "perhaps the single most important institutional medium for conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific and artistic heritage of mankind....we are merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create, and which is not ours to destroy." If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear, but I am afraid that we have let the genie out of the bottle.


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Terence Linkletter

Just so I can understand better, may I use a more modern translation of Isaiah 49:19? "Those who devoured you will be far away." (The ironic second meaning of those words reinforces your implied point that the Internet is a means by which a few distant, high-quality education providers can meet many educational needs for motivated students around the world.)
But back to your main thesis: it is that MOOCs will destroy the current structure of universities, and then will go away to allow the universities to recover? (Isaiah is actually speaking of the need to reunify the tribes of Israel after the Assyrians nearly destroyed Israel.) Are you really that pessimistic in both senses? Will there be destruction rather than acceptance of the challenge to build a new knowledge sharing paradigm? Will the new paradigm somehow subsequently be withdrawn?
I rather prefer Stanford President Hennessy's more activist challenge to utilize the open medium and go develop a new business model for the good of the learning community, academia, and society. Speaking from the audience at a William Bowen lecture, Hennessy said, "How do we preserve what we most love and treasure [about higher education]... while improving learning and reducing cost? That's the fundamental question." (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/october/tanner-lecture-two-101512.html)

Jeff Wahlgren

So the author would wave his wand, make MOOCs disappear and we can all go back to sleep for another 500 years of professorial soliloquy?
I am all for expanding the pedagogical modalities at the university level but financial pressures have ALWAYS dominated educational considerations and I think they probably will until we no longer use money. MOOCs simply replace something that "has never been very good" with something of very much the same style at a much lower cost. The battering ram is at the door of the ivory tower. Perhaps the professors should find a way to do something to improve upon "delivering the same lectures year after year."
Both venues have a lot of room for improving their teaching styles. While massiveness is, by definition, an essential feature of MOOCs I do not believe that "short, unsophisticated video chunks" needs to be. Nor does "professors monologuing to large classes" need to be an essential part of universities.
I would rather celebrate MOOCs as a possible means of freeing resources for universities to make the needed improvements.

Pavel Lepin

In my opinion, the last sentence of this article calls for a public apology on the author's part. I commented on the issue previously (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/8/153817-will-massive-open-online-courses-change-how-we-teach/fulltext#comments), and I will not repeat the argument word-for-word here.

Wishing for MOOCs to go away out of devotion to some abstract ideal of higher education (which, I submit, has never been actually realised in this here most perfect of all worlds) is grossly offensive. Right, who cares about thousands of students from all over the world drawing very real educational value from edX, Coursera and Udacity? It's the survival of tenured professors that's at stake here! Arooga, arooga, Ivy League in danger! Frankly, I just can't wrap my head around how would any sensible person say a thing like that, so pardon my sardonic tone. Complex intellectual inheritance? MOOCs are doing more for preserving that inheritance by making it available to whoever might wish to partake of it. And in context of ACM, Dr. Koller and Dr. Thrun, Dr. Ng and Dr. Norvig and all their colleagues are doing far more for the 'advancement of computing as a science and a profession' than any fourscore Cambridge professors of Intellectual History I can imagine.


Stefan Collini talks about universities as they existed centuries ago, when the job of the universities was to transmit received knowledge and not to participate in the creation of new knowledge.

An interesting anecdote, roughly sketched. As part of this transmission the university taught graduate students how to transmit the orthodoxy and not be swayed by arguments that it was wrong. That's why a doctoral student _defended_ a thesis. Because his thesis was orthodoxy known to be true by his examination committee and not new knowledge and his training was to refute claims that the thesis was not correct.

Sanjay Goel

Human Wisdom is far more valuable than Artificial and even Natural Intelligence. Any kind of over-centralization in society are dangerous and not sustainable. We need to talk about improving the higher education not ending it? Deep learning happens by doing and teaching. If there will be only very few superstar teachers to teach the whole world, the "learning" at large will suffer. The role of EDUCATION and TECHNOLOGY has to be understood more deeply and holistically. For regular students whose learning needs are open ended and multi-dimensional, MOOCs will only be an excellent supplementary resource rather than the primary resource for learning. The open ended multi-dimensional leaning needs can only be satisfied through a community of learners and facilitators with lot of face to face interactions and engagements in a university or university like setting. However, for working population whose leaning needs are very specific in terms of content, MOOC certainly offers an excellent alternative for training and continuing education.


North American universities have excess capacity in terms of teaching resources per capita, while one third of the population in Asia (viz. India and China) have very meager resources per capita and hungry for more. Now, what we have we heard about demand and supply? MOOCs seem to be a way to deal with this uneven geographical distribution of resources, and there are people willing to invest in it. Until the excess capacity is trimmed or put to good use there will be pressure from society on academia to cut.

Ian Sommerville

What seems to be rarely discussed when it comes to MOOCs is the low quality of the educational experience that they offer. They have the potential to drive down, not improve educational standards. My guess is that very few politicians will stop sending their kids to Ivy League institutions.

I have expanded on this in more detail in this blog post:



Let's not forget all the other reasons to have a university, besides these so called boring lectures. For example, why do universities argue and fight all the way to the supreme court for diversity? Becasue the make up of the student body matters. There is something to be gained by pulling people together geographically to live together and to go through the same set of experiences. Civilization matters. Civilizations matter. Does anyone think the internet has made us more civilized? Or has made us interact better with fellow mankind? If you do, you are probably the one isolated in some ivory tower.

And anyone that believes in these "lofty" intentions for the MOOCs is a bit naive. I know some of the key players personally and they are drvien by money, fame, ego and power. These are companies, and the worst kind too, those masquerading as well-intentioned.

David Brandon

The author's statement that "It is clear, therefore, that the enormous buzz about MOOCs is not due to the technology's intrinsic educational value, but due to the seductive possibilities of lower costs" shows by it's wording a gross inability to understand the financial pressures that people are under when it comes to a university education. Lower costs are not "seductive." They are essential. If I had to send a child to Stanford today I would spend about $58,846 on this year's tuition and fees according to their web site, and that will only increase next year. Why will anyone continue to pay that amount when a similar education will soon be available for substantially less. I would agree that being at a university is probably preferable -- although that is unproven. I simply maintain that it is not affordable. Many people think the community of a university is great (although my college was cliquish and narrow minded with an oppressive orthodoxy). There are other kinds of communities.

Let me also point out, in response to the anonymous comment above, that there are plenty of professors at traditional universities "driven by money, fame, ego and power." Plenty.


"Financial pressures" is a hilariously out of touch way to describe it. Instead, how about, "allowing people to get an education without mortgaging themselves."

I'm trying to understand how you honestly hold this opinion. The most charitable interpretation I can come up with is that you believe that the only people interested in taking college courses are those currently taking them. That students would either be in a MOOC, or they would be in a top tier university, so that MOOCs do nothing to expand the number of people who are educated. I'm not trying to set up a strawman here, but this is the only set of assumptions I can come up with under which this essay makes sense.

You'll agree though, that this is transparently false. A teacher can reach more people in a single MOOC than they could otherwise reach in their entire career. These aren't people who opted to take this course instead of an equivalent one at a university. This is a strict increase in the number of people being educated.

Right now, a tiny fraction of the world's population gets access to a world class education, and this is even a tiny fraction of the people who would benefit from one. Neither our admissions processes nor our world economy is so meritocratic that we can count on the best among us getting access to the best education.

Even in my own relatively sheltered life of middle class people from solid families, I've known so many people that for one reason or another got off track early in their life. Either through bad decisions or bad luck, they didn't get an education that would open doors to a fulfilling life. For them, MOOCs are a second chance. For people in the developing world they're a first chance.

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