MOOCs: End of higher ed as we know it?

Millions of students are using online platforms for free and open access to university courses. The concept decouples teaching and learning from the campus on a mass scale.

By TheStreet Staff Nov 21, 2012 5:06PM

TheStreet logoWoman sitting on chair with laptop and a book © Gazimal/The Image Bank/Getty ImagesBy Dana Blackenhorn, TheStreet


Here is good news for your children and grandchildren: When the latter are ready for college, the former won't be pushed into the poor house by it.


That's because of MOOCS (massive open online courses), with which universities provide open access to their learning content through online platforms. These are real college courses, taught online, that take advantage of the Web's scalability and the video capabilities of modern tablets.


Unlike the Apollo Group's (APOL) University of Phoenix and other for-profit outfits, a MOOC is focused on courses, not degrees. A typical lecture-oriented class in an elite college might have 200 students. A MOOC could have tens of thousands.


Unlike an online college, MOOCs like Udacity, or other such online universities such as Coursera, P2PU and University of the People, offer popular courses taught at designated times from elite professors and institutions. They mirror the best courses, not just the degree program.


Coursera offers courses from 33 leading universities, including my alma mater, Rice University. is aimed at individual teachers and lets anyone design their own course. University of the People proclaims itself "the world's first tuition-free online university" and has put together an eclectic, international "President's Council."


A lot of the attention is on Udacity, co-founded by Stanford University robotics professor Sebastian Thrun and two former Stanford graduate students, David Stavens and Michael Sokolsky.


They're focusing on popular courses most students can't get into that can be turned into profitable work. Like Thrun's own class in artificial intelligence, which he taught online through Stanford last year to a class that began with 160,000 students, of which 23,000 graduated.


It was that success that made him quit Stanford and found Udacity, with venture capital backing from Charles River Ventures. Thrun is also a Google (GOOG) fellow, and one of Udacity's early courses was on programming the Google App Engine, taught using the Google App Engine.

Who will pay for a campus-based college education? 

Clay Shirky, one of my go-to experts on the social aspects of Internet life, explained what makes Udacity unique in a recent post on his eponymous blog.


An undergraduate education used to be an option for Americans, offering a path to the middle class. Now it's a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. 

And because some of the hostages struggle to come up with the ransom, experts anticipate that learning will become increasingly disconnected from the pursuit of a degree -- much like songs have become unbundled from albums or CDs.


Shirky compares Udacity to Napster, which initially let people download individual songs rather than having to buy the album. It's best not to compare it with Apple's (AAPL) iTunes because, frankly, we can't be certain if this will be the MOOC that succeeds.


Thrun has focused on marketable skills like computer programming, robotics and other hard sciences. The idea is to get only the best of the best, and while I might prefer a literature course taught by Salman Rushdie or a history class taught by Garry Wills, science and technology are the low-hanging fruit.


The economic problem with college, as Shirky notes, is that it's labor-intensive and does not scale. You can push down salaries to an extent, but it still takes a lot of people, many buildings and a lot of land to produce even a mediocre college education. What makes an elite education is the unique talent of its faculty, which can't be discounted because demand for it is so high.


What Udacity does is spread that limited talent across to the broadest possible audience, while doing away with those other costs. Everything else can be done through one-on-one tutoring. Standardize on the best courseware, with the best lecturers, and use the Internet to deliver that to the widest possible audience.


Napster, indeed.


More from

Nov 21, 2012 7:24PM
I was an online student, so I can say this with a straight face.  Online is great for some subjects, and a valuable tool for others.  But instruction in a few key areas does not transfer well to online learning.  A couple of the math subjects I took I got an A in, but I didn't learn much and remembered even less after the class.  I transferred to a traditional college, and the things I learn stick with me more.  An actual person to test you can find out other ways if you actually know the material, and test you to make sure- it's not the students fault.  Sometimes you don't know what you are supposed to know.  Online is a great companion to traditional schools, but it does not replace the classroom when it comes to learning.
Nov 21, 2012 7:27PM
I'm currently studying for a Bachelors in Computer Science. There's no way in hell I could take my core classes online. In fact, they aren't even offered online because you HAVE to get the hands-on training with the networking equipment. I guess it depends on the degree you're pursuing. 
Nov 21, 2012 6:50PM

This will be the wave of the future as educational costs exceed the publics' ability to pay.

Lower division courses and general ed courses could be taught using this method with onsite testing to gain college credits towards graduation and certifications.  This method will also weed out those who are not suited to be college material without spending much wasted time, effort or expense.

The student's aptitude towards a rigorous educational curricula can be tested this way, or online courses can be custom tailored to accommodate those with learning disabilities who seek higher education to procure a decent occupation.

Nov 21, 2012 8:44PM

In my opinion, this works great for true go-getters.  There's a lot of people who work and do not have the time to go to school.  It is not the lack of desire to pursue a degree, but merely that certain individuals whether young 19 year olds, or middle age 30-40 year olds the ones who want to suceed and not sit in a classroom for hours on end - can.  This is great.  The article also mentions science and math courses, there is a limited amount if any math science degrees that one can get online.  I agree that you want some hands on such as your surgeon, as mentioned below, but universities could offer more online classes and require labs for the classes that need it. 

Nov 21, 2012 9:59PM
This took too long. Put General Education classes on Pay-Per-View and Certified Testing in County Offices. Advanced instruction can only be relevant when paired with actual performance. Get rid of the whole idea of high school to college to graduate school to a corner office suite. Our current economy tells us the degrees are worthless and without warranties. Ban the MBA degree altogether. Who needs administrators when competent people can just get it done.
Nov 23, 2012 3:36PM

In my opinion, the MOOCS lack a key feature in education: discussion of course subject matter among student peers ( and to some extent with instructors) which has the benefit of widening perceptions and fixing ideas, not to mention obtaining understanding/solution of key difficult subject matter/problems. Of course, there is always the chance of a "free loader" in the study group, but that's OK because every one else benefits.

Nov 21, 2012 6:07PM
Sorry, but this will work for only a VERY small minority, and most likely they will be already working "non-traditionals". Fact of the matter is students are hard enough to get engaged in a course when they have a professor directly infront of them, much less if they are watching TV or playing a video game during their online course. There are several studies that show online courses are not as effective as in person, and worse that employers are less likely to accept workers who only got their degree online. I mean, do you really want your brain surgeon to have gotten his degree for free online? Also, I fail to see how this could remain free. Guess what, professors have to eat too, so we need to get paid. If the schools cannot get money b/c all the students are doing it for free, guess what, no more professors.
Nov 22, 2012 1:02PM

New Standard: every other semester online; as freshman on-line; only heavy major courses in a class. McDonalds will get an overload of college students. The fraternities will disappear. Actual value will skyrocket and skyrocket high.

Nov 26, 2012 1:50PM
You can see which MOOC from one provider = an MOOC from another at:

Easy to look up what is available from different universities and providers in one spot.
Nov 23, 2012 12:37PM

Repubs believe in the mushroom theory:keep us in the dark and feed us B.S.The less

education the better.On the last day before dropping out of school in the 1980`s

when I was a teacher kids sang that song "wedon`t need no education" as they

left the building when they knew everything.I suppose they own Malibu beach

houses now.

Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Start investing in technology companies with help from financial writers and experts who know the industry best. Learn what to look for in a technology company to make the right investment decisions.





Quotes delayed at least 15 min