Beware Of The Great MOOC Bait-And-Switch

People walk past the signature entrance to Gatorland theme park near Orlando, Florida, Monday, August 30, 2004. Photographer: Matt Stroshane/Bloomberg News.BLOOMBERG NEWS

MOOCs, the massive open, online courses that were supposed to revolutionize education, have not.

Turns out, people tend to value things proportionally to their investment. And whether it’s money or effort, MOOCs were designed to require none of the first and most require very little of the latter. So, predictably, MOOCs routinely draw large initial interest because they are free but miniscule completion rates and questionable outcomes because, well, they are free.

Moreover, even if you complete a MOOC, it’s not clear what you’ve really done, what it really matters and whether anyone cares.  Maybe that’s not a problem. It’s foolish to pick on free learning options. Learning has its own value. And people will get what they want from MOOCs.

But in an environment where education is a commodity and profiteers set stock prices based on how much they can convince how many students to pay, entrepreneurs and some schools have rushed in to solve the MOOC non-problem by selling a cheap “credential” or a “certificate” that means exactly nothing.  And what may be worse, many schools and businesses are using MOOCs as advertising for more expensive programs, hoping to lure you in with the free stuff to sell you their expensive platinum plans.

And before you think that’s an overly harsh assessment of today’s MOOCs, consider what the leaders of MOOCs have themselves said recently.

Take the certificate first. Most, maybe even all, MOOC providers sell a certificate or something attesting to the fact that a learner completed the MOOC. But what does that mean? No one knows and probably not too much.

At a recent panel discussion (video here), for example, Anne Trumbore, the Senior Director, Wharton Online at The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania was pretty direct that people who take their online classes, “ … want signals that they’ve learned business knowledge they can apply to work – and the certificates seem to fill that void for them which is interesting because we’re not really backing them as a currency we have no gold standard for.”


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