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MOOCs, Online education, Massive Open Online Courses


Online and Distance Education


A loose network of educators, entrepreneurs, and investors are promoting Massive Open Online Courses as an innovation that will radicaly disrupt higher education. These Merchants of MOOCs see MOOCs' novel features -- star professors, flipped classrooms, economies of scale, unbundling, and openness -- as the key to dramatically improving higher education while reducing its cost.

But MOOCs are far from unprecedented. There is very little in them that has not been tried before, from 19th-century correspondence courses to Fathom, Columbia's $25 million dot-com boondoggle. Claims of disruption look rather different when this missing context is restored. This essay examines some common arguments about what gives MOOCs their value, and finds them wanting. There is a sharp division between the features that make MOOCs exciting for education and the features that make them financially appealing to the Merchants of MOOCs.


This article predates the author's affiliation with Cornell Law School.