Do MOOCS Serve Schools or Corporations?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to be following the historical trend of our infatuation with how technology can solve many of our problems in teaching and learning.  Since 2008, MOOCs have emerged not only as individual and free online courses (such as those offered at universities such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard, but have been packaged together as degree programs at Udacity, and at for-profit universities such as Ashford University, Capella University, Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix.

There are a number of research issues including effectiveness, cost, and the nature of corporate/education partnerships.

These online courses and degree program didn’t drop out of the sky.  There is a long history here.

A Bit of History

Although the example in this article explores online courses and degrees at the college level, the content is relevant to K-12 burgeoning use of online courses, especially for middle and high schools.


In 1980, I purchased my first computer and modem, and later that day connected to a very primitive Internet (CompuServe, and BRS After Dark).  E-mail followed by using Bitnet, a university computer network founded in 1981.  By the late 1980s, I began using SOOHCs (Small Open Online Hybrid Courses) at Georgia State University utilizing e-mail and electronic bulletin boards for students to post and respond to comments and ideas of other students in the same course.  Many colleges and universities ventured into the application of these new technologies for teaching and learning.   Although the first virtual courses (online courses for middle and high schools) were developed at this time by the Concord Consortium, it was the creation of hybrid courses that blossomed during this early period in the 1990s.  These courses developed at the middle and high school levels, as well as at universities.

Teachers use several methods in creating a hybrid course.  Some include building WebPages and placing the course syllabus and its various elements on the web, or making use of a course management systems.  Course management systems have built-in tools that create an interactive online component such Blackboard, Nicenet or WebCT.

By building a Website or using a course management system, teachers used the resources of the web as an assistant in their approach to teaching.  This enabled them to carry out web-based teaching strategies in a seamless way.  The course website becomes a learning hub that organizes the work for teachers and students.  The course website included links to the course syllabus, an online bulletin board, and links to an assignment page, activities, and collaborative projects.

For teachers, however, the hybrid approach (SOOHCs) is a very practical alternative in which the teacher combines online and face-to-­face activities. Thousands of teachers are using this approach by creating their own interactive website which has aspects of the course syllabus, activities, projects and evaluation. Interactive websites can be easily created using free software to create your website. Blog software, such as WordPress, or Blogger, or wiki software such as Wikispaces are easy to use, and have features that enable you to create not only interactive, but powerful websites for your courses.  You can also use Google Docs or Soho Docs to manage your own files, and also make these available to your students and colleagues.

But probably more significant here is the fact that your students can be great agents and co-­collaborators in the development of websites, digital video of class projects, creators of Wikispaces, participants in Google Docs, generate Google Readers and Delicious links, perhaps for the benefit of younger students that they might indeed teach.  Follow this link for details about these Web 2.0 tools.

Network Science

One of the areas of Internet research and development that emerged during period this was “network science,” or, pooled data analysis.  Network science brought meaning to the concept of  “community of learners,” and because of the Internet, these communities were global in scope.  It was this construct that created such high interest among teachers and students.  The idea of communicating with students thousands of miles away motivated students and created intense interest with the school.

Network science projects involves students in real problems, including the study of soil erosion, chemical and biological pollution of streams, acid rain, and ground-level ozone.  Often, these problems have societal implications, and students take action based on their research.  Network science follows a cycle of learning and classroom activities that make it a compelling approach to science teaching. Table 1 outlines the cycle of learning that was worked out to design network projects (Hassard, J. 2009, Science as Inquiry, Goodyear).

Table 1. Network Science/Pooled Data Analysis

Data Collection at Local Site Teachers introduce the network project; schedule of local observations is established
Data Sharing Observational data is submitted via web forms.
Data Analysis Teachers work with students to analyze local data, aswell as data available on the network science website. In most cases, the data on the project’s website can be downloaded and into Excel or similar programs to create graphs and charts to help students with their analyses.
Taking Action The last step is for students to take action on their analyses.  At one level, students can publish/share their findings and conclusions by posting them on a website that they design. At another level, students can take action locally by sharing their findings and conclusions with the community with a conference, a presentation, or a fair.

Web-Based Projects

From the mid-1980s, nearly a dozen web-based projects were developed and field-tested within traditional courses, grades 5 – 12 in many countries.  For examples, through the Global Thinking Project (GTP), teachers from the U.S. and Russia designed a series of projects that were carried out using the pedagogy of network science.  Some examples can be found here.  At TERC and the Concord Consortium, which established the field of network science, many projects were developed, but more importantly, as with the Global Thinking Project, the projects were investigated through a variety of research programs.


MOOCs are the rage, especially when you consider that these courses can reach thousands, if not millions of students.  For example, to give you an idea of the range of MOOCs that are available, here is a link to a list of Top Ten Sites for Free with Elite Universities, courses offered at Blackboard and Udacity.

For years, universities have outsourced many of their technology courses and programs.  But in recent years, universities, realizing the potential and reach of the Internet, began offering many of their courses online–free.

But universities and K-12 schools have delved head first into developing courses and programs online as a replacement for face-to-face courses.  At the college level, for-profit schools have not only developed courses, but now make available degree programs online.

According to the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), an advocacy group that raises questions about affordable higher education, and what voices should be included in changes being made to the design and structure of courses and programs at the university level.   As is the case in K-12 education, a corporate type of reform is taking place in higher education resulting in reduced funding, high costs for students, and a call for accountability and efficiency, which some claim reduces the quality of student learning experiences.  And, as many of you will agree, many of “technology reforms” are going forward with little or no research about the quality and effectiveness of online learning.

In a paper by the CFHE, entitled The Promises of Online Higher Education, the authors ferret out conclusions indicating that online courses will not cut costs for higher education, and in fact will probably be more expensive in the long run.  Although MOOCs are typically free, investors, according to the CFHE paper realize that a healthy profit could be realized if only a few of the thousands that take these course pay for them.  The authors of the report question the motivation for these “massive” courses.  They write:

According to venture capitalist John Doerr (one of the main backers of the MOOC provider, Coursera) if a sufficient number of people out of “millions of learners” pay for premium services MOOC providers could easily make a healthy profit.[10]  As this observation suggests, the corporate provider and investor  enthusiasm for the “massiveness” of MOOCs may not be so much about spreading knowledge as it is about getting a big enough set of potential consumers to generate profits.  Campaign for the Future of Education. (October 16, 2013). CFHE Working Papers. In The “Promises” of Online Higher Education: Reducing Costs. Retrieved October 18, 2013, from

There is another line of questioning that resonates with K-12 education reform, and that is to whom are these reforms (such as MOOCs and Charter Schools) directed.  According to the CFHE report, MOOCs are focused primarily on middle and lower-income students, and non-elite institutions.  And there is some evidence that a traditional higher education (face-to-face courses) is the “real deal,” and employers favor this.  Who has the advantage here?  The advantage is for those who attend traditional universities, and the “more privileged students who attend them.”

Online courses are also promoted as saving money.  This is a stance taken at not only university level education, but also at the k-12 level.  At the K-12 level, we need to be cautious about online course management companies that wedge themselves into states and school districts on the basis of political and financial premises, and not on a basis grounded in research.  Who is served by online learning courses?  When coupled with research, we can begin to answer such questions.

The money-saving argument according to some in higher education is “one of the worst reasons” to embrace online learning.  Designing, organizing, managing, and revising online courses and programs is an expensive venture.  If the courses are to be valuable learning experiences for students, then innovative online pedagogy must be developed and used in these courses.

As I mentioned earlier, the outsourcing of programs, courses, and other services has taken place for a long time.  But recently, partnerships have developed between universities and corporate entities such as Udacity and Coursera.  In the CFHE report, a partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology, AT&T and Udacity resulted in a contract to offer a Master’s degree program in Computer Science.  This program will be piloted during the Spring Semester, 2014, applicants have until October 27 to apply.  At this time 8 courses are in production.  The cost of the degree is $6,600.  For more details on this new program, follow this link.

According to the CFHE report, Udacity, AT&T and Georgia Tech will spend about $3.1 million for a projected 200 students during the first term at a cost of about $15,700 per student. (Note: This is a discrepancy based on the Udacity webiste that says the program will cost $6,600.  The Georgia Tech arrangement with Udacity, according to the CFHE report, is not outside the norm for MOOCs.  But it seems to me that this arrangement is not in the interests of faculty who develop the online courses in that they cannot make the courses available elsewhere, and they are the ones who are responsible for updating and revising the courses.

The partnership among GaTech, AT&T and Udacity hope to service 10,000 or more students, with 8 professors (new hires), and assistants that will work for Udacity to provide feedback to students.  How many assistants will it take to service 10,000 students?  Will the quality of this Masters Degree rival the face-to-face degree on the Georgia Tech campus?

At the K-12 level, especially for high schools where more online course development and curriculum development takes place, concern should be raised about the push for more online learning, especially when we hear politicians like Jeb Bush, who claim that parents should have the choice for their students, and that online education will be cheaper for school districts.  If you go to the Bush website, Foundation for Excellence, you will find that his organization uses the same language that appears in all of the Race to the Top (RT3) work plans that I’ve read, e.g. career readiness, digital learning, effective teachers and leaders, outcome based funding, school choice, and standards and accountability.

Online learning is relatively new to middle and high schools, and colleges and universities.  MOOCs are the latest form of online courses, and need to be studied to find out who takes these courses, how many students complete MOOCs, and how effective are MOOCs as teaching and learning platforms.  An article on Inside Higher Ed reviewed research the high MOOC dropout rate.  According to some reports, the dropout rate is as high as 90%, but that might be due to that anyone can register for free, look around, and for one reason or another not even pursue the course, let along complete it.

For example, I’ve registered for a MOOC at Udacity, Introduction to Computer Science.  There are 11 lessons in the course.  I am still on lesson 1.  Will I complete the course?  Maybe.  But the point is, I could be easily identified as a dropout.  Or perhaps, as reported in the Inside Higher Ed article, I could be either a lurker, drop-in, passive participant, or an active participant.

That said, online behavior is very different from in-class behavior, including attendance and course completion.  When we started working with online courses and projects, rates of participation varied.  For hybrid courses, the participation in online discussions was higher than in The Global Thinking Project.  Expecting schools from around the world to keep up with emails, electronic bulletin boards discussions, data uploading and analysis was more difficult.  Much of this had to do with access to technology that was seamless, and this didn’t happen until schools upgraded telecommunications, and provided enough computers for more student and teacher involvement.

Since the early 90s, when we began this work, the Internet has been transformed, but the Internet has also transformed the behavior of humans.  MOOCs are here, and many of them are high quality courses.  In addition to studying the quality of online courses, we need to find out what creates good experiences for students.

Do MOOCs and K-12 online learning courses serve students or corporations?  What do you think?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University