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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Will MOOCs Destroy Academia?

Communications Editor-in-Chief Moshe Y. Vardi

"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.


Pavel Lepin

Anyone who believes in those "lofty" intentions for the traditional universities is a bit naive. I know some of the key players personally and they are driven by money, fame, ego and power. These are companies; and the worst kind too--those masquerading as well-intentioned.


These faculty starting MOOCs are well on their way to becoming the next Bill Gates, and we should congratulate them on that.

But let's be clear, they are no where on the path to becoming the next Don Knuth.

Gio Wiederhold

Introducing new modalities into education should not be presented as exclusive alternatives. When Anonymous (2) states that North American Universities have excess capacity. That seems not to be true at all. My Stanford Freshman seminar, limited because of the need for Socratic interaction to 16 students, has each year at least 100 applicants. And even with two additional dedicated instructors the course is a lot of work. So there is a good reason to reduce the effort and increase the breadth of alternative teaching modalities. I have little sympathy for faculty who indeed believe that giving the same lectures to bored or sleeping students year-after-year is education.

PS: My reading of academic history differs from Anonymous(1) as well. The PhD effort converts a hypothesis (less than a thesis) to a thesis. That's what can change the world. I do trace, with help from others, my academic ancestry to Galileo Galilei, and I think he would agree.


First let me say that most blog owners/admins would not allow any critical messages to be posted. I think its a good sign that critical messages are allowed posted.

I can personally say that I think MOOC's are a great thing. Some have mentioned malevelant intentions by the founders of the MOOC's, which I doubt, but it is the instructors that make the courses. The instructors clearly have good intentions.

MOOC's create potential for positive social change. I am currently taking a writing course through Stanford's MOOC called Writing for the Sciences. I have found this course to be very well put together and informative.

I am also a traditional university student, but I have an 18 credit hour limit because of financial aid limits. I can supplement my education through MOOC's and from my perspective this is a great system. MOOC's will make our knowledge based economy stronger.


When will people understand the difference between information and pedagogy? Information is there, it was there before MOOCs, it will be there after (the only difference being that it's becoming ever and more accessible). MOOCs are merely emphasising the fact that there is no value in information, it should be accessible by all, for free! What we really need to ask is what is the value of pedagogy, what is the value of a university, what is the value of having face-to-face contact with an instructor, why the hell are we paying $40k a year to go to College? At the moment, it seems to me we're buying an awfully overpriced designer label. And this is what needs to change.
P.S. nice moustache :{


The first precursors of MOOCs - libraries - have existed for millenia. They did not supplant universities. Distance learning - e.g., the Open University - has existed for nearly half a century. It did not supplant real universities. Computer assisted instruction has existed for decades. It has not, thus far, supplanted universities. Universities have only lately been caught up in the same, bean-counting death spiral that threatens all our public institutions which are the very glue of civilization. The profit motive, and its corollary of no social responsibility beyond public relations window-dressing, are metastasizing. We have become a people who know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.


Why do so many academics seem so completely out of touch with the real world when it comes to the matter of their own profession? Are you really that blind as to how much knowledge is being hidden and kept secret from the vast majority of the world's population, all on the basis of age old traditions and standards that are fit only for an age long past? Or is that sort of the point, so long as you get your big fat pay cheques rolling in every year while leaving a debt-ridden and/or uneducated society in your wake of pure self-interest?

- A MOOC student


I've recently been art of discussions on Australia about the challenges of MOOCs
Consensus seems to be that they are an incentive to universities to raise their game. That's a good thing


There are other ways to teach than large lectures and online computer-graded quizzes. At my old employer, the senior grad students were taught in a completely different fashion. These were the people the department had decided to educate as well as possible, regardless of cost, since their reputation was on the line. Senior grad students did not attend lectures, they didn't take exams, they didn't do quizzes. Instead they were apprentices- spending all day working on their projects and talking to their advisers, postdocs, other students, visiting profs, going to conferences, etc. They went to a lot of seminars but no lectures. This is how the department taught the people it really wanted to succeed, in a process reaching back to the Neolithic era.

And yes, it cost a fortune. And the fortune was subsidized by the huge 300+ freshman lecture courses.

Timothy Zimmerlin

(sarcasm alert)
Come on now! We all intuitively know in our hearts that successful universities will successfully crush all threats to their hegemony. That is the way of the world: large parcels of land, grandiose monuments of architecture, massive utility infrastructures for electricity, water, sewage, steam, several embedded unions, a local economy existing for support, political power locally and state wide, mountains of alumni, sports, sports, sports, scholarships, embedded hospitals, fully funded research centers. Relax, don't worry, breath. A little fresh air is good.

Any thoughtful person knows that learning is the sole responsibility of the student and never doubts that a professor is a student. Any right thinking person is open to knowledge and so a lifelong student. When I was a freshman, all the freshmen were invited to a lecture and told to look to our left, look to our right because one of those freshman would not be coming back as sophomores. When I was an upper class and graduate student, I saw that like medical doctors only one third of the professors were competent. I only took classes from competent professors. I reinforced learning during lectures, while I vetted my knowledge based on reading and discussions. I learned best in brief "ah-hah" encounters with brilliant people including some Nobel laureates and teaching assistants "who really understood". Most of the class time was irrelevant, but one never knew when something useful would happen. A class video could capture the brief relevant interactions while allowing students to skip the rest.

Competent professors and TAs religiously focused on real time comprehension in class. Competent professors and TAs reliably detected failing students and took immediate remedial action to bring them into the fold or get them out of the class. Incompetent professors and TAs were unable to answers questions just a little outside the course syllabus. The longer a professor taught the same class, the worse their behavior.

There are only three general reasons to struggle through formal education: get a diploma in order to get one's dream job, forge professional relationships in order to be successful at one's dream job, and to learn. No, no, no, fraternities are only a means of avoiding a formal education while appearing to succeed.

The deeply involved stewards of formal education have carried on a philosophical debate since American land-grant colleges appeared in the later 1800s. To whit, is the classical Greek style of formal education (small groups, dialogues, constant barrage of questions posed to the students, community of equals, all questions are important, poverty, travel groups, extra projects, follow one's nose) better than the factory model of large public institutions (students are chattel to be bought and sold, professors control curriculum, students learn what they are taught when they are taught, bigger is better, follow the money, play politics, consult to the government, milk the cash cows from tuition, fees, textbooks, consulting, side businesses). The debate carries on; however, any right thinking individual knows two things: the classic Greek style caters to the student while the factory model caters to the professor. Unfortunately, the government has been sold on B. F. Skinner's theories. That is unfortunate for the younger students who idolize their dream university.

According to one parable's moral, let the weeds grow among the wheat until harvest time when one can reliably distinguish the harvest from the discards. God bless.

Displaying comments 11 - 20 of 35 in total

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