The Voodoo That MOOCs Do

Massive open online courses don't have a business model, but they can still help universities advance their missions, Ryan Craig argues. But it will take different kinds of courses led by different sorts of professors.

February 27, 2015

Young people often have a very different perspective. Consider that one of the most viewed, highest revenue producing channels on YouTube is DisneyCollectorBR. 

DisneyCollectorBR posts videos of her hands (with colorful nail polish and bracelets) unboxing Disney toys and playing with them. All DisneyCollectorBR videos begin with the hands and a Brazilian-accented voice (the BR stands for Brazil) saying, “Hey, guys, Disney Collector here. Today I’m going to show you...” 

In DisneyCollectorBR’s most popular video, she unboxes “egg surprises” from SpongeBob, Angry Birds and Jake and the Neverland Pirates. The video’s 100 million views could be explained by her amazing ability to crinkle the packaging. DisneyCollectorBR has been called by some “Christmas morning every minute,” and by others -- less charitably -- toy porn.


While MOOCs may be massive, they are dwarfed by DisneyCollectorBR. And they appear less massive with each passing year. Nor are they sustainable, according to Babson’s annual survey of 2,800 university leaders:

The reason for this is the absence of a viable business model, as we noted in these pages three years ago. The MOOC pioneer Udacity figured this out and pivoted in 2013. Coursera pivoted last year and now, in addition to MOOCs with “verified certificates” (not for credit, but a certificate indicating... something), Coursera offers Specializations (a defined series of courses), and is licensing MOOCs for universities to incorporate into existing degree programs -- an uphill battle in the “not invented here” world of American higher education.

But just because there isn’t a viable business model doesn’t mean MOOCs can’t help universities advance their missions. MIT OpenCourseware was launched in 2002, after other universities had launched proto-MOOCs such as Fathom (Columbia, LSE, Chicago, Michigan) and AllLearn (Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Oxford). MIT OpenCourseware published all MIT course materials online and made them available globally. Currently, more than 2,000 courses are posted on the site, which has had more than 125 million visitors, helping to ensure that MIT remains the most searched university online.

Rather than bemoaning their investments in MOOCs, universities can learn from OpenCourseware and ask this question: Whom are we trying to reach? The answer for most of the institutions that have boarded the MOOC train is talented adolescents around the globe, whose mind share universities are trying to win.


DisneyCollectorBR has an impressive mind share of adolescents (although perhaps not the most talented ones). And so do the superstars of Udemy, a marketplace of more than 22,000 online courses, in which more than 5 million students have enrolled.

Consider the top-selling Udemy course, Double Your Confidence & Self-Esteem, taught by Jimmy Naraine:

In addition to his 1970s-chic wardrobe and grooming and his uncanny ability to quantify confidence and self-esteem (how else could he know it’s a double?), Jimmy reports he is a “high-end coach” who “helps his clients [take] that big step to a completely different lifestyle.” His education? The school of hard knocks, because Jimmy “believes that real education takes place outside university halls.”

Or consider another thought-provoking top-seller/academic pyramid scheme from Udemy:

Universities don’t need to tenure Jimmy Naraine or resort to pyramid schemes in order to capture mind share of tomorrow’s students. But they should draw an important lesson. In an effort to confer academic legitimacy on online learning, and to set an example for other, less digitally oriented faculty, many universities selected distinguished, tenured (read: older) faculty for early MOOCs. 

News flash: while there are exceptions, if the purpose of MOOCs is to impress and engage adolescents, such faculty aren’t the best choice.

More junior faculty, with more relatable material, could probably do a lot of good for their institutions. So not Jimmy, but someone like 25-year-old Nick Walter, profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education this month. A recent BYU graduate, Nick dances to techno music in a promo video for his course on Swift (Apple’s new programming language), and is seeing as many as 200 enrollments daily for his $199 course. Young, dynamic faculty, grad students and even undergraduates could help make MOOCs a central component of the college selection and admissions process.

The University of Pennsylvania has the right idea. One of its most popular MOOCs is Applying to U.S. Universities, by Penn counseling specialist Erick Hyde, who looks like the guy you’d want your daughter to date after she breaks up with Jimmy Naraine.

Similarly, on edX, the MIT-Harvard MOOC platform, Rice University (actually RiceX) offers a course on preparing for the AP Physics 2 exam. The instructor does not have an endowed chair, nor is he tenured. Instead, the MOOC is led by Reid Whitaker, the executive director of Rice’s Center for Digital Learning, coteaching with Matt Wilson, an AP physics teacher at a high school near Rice's campus in Houston. So while Whitaker and Wilson are not the Nobel Prize winners who so excited The New York Times when it declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” it’s a fair bet this MOOC will successfully draw more than a few terrific students to Rice. And that’s a win.


Universities have been wrong about MOOCs in two respects: first, that there was a business model; and second, that it’s important to reach 40-, 50- and 60-something professionals with advanced degrees living outside the U.S. In fact, unless these students are getting ready to pull out their checkbooks and donate, it’s unclear how they can possibly help universities advance their missions.

It is highly ironic that many universities’ first experience delivering courses entirely online has been, in television parlance, old-school sitcoms with laugh tracks rather than an over-the-top offering like Funny or Die. Rather than tapping young, relatable faculty and students who wouldn’t be out of place on YouTube, universities have relied on the academic equivalents of Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. 

While no institution needs to hurry up to produce MOOCs with DisneyCollectorBR or even Justin Bieber, universities should view MOOCs as an important channel for reaching prospective students around the world, and target content accordingly.


Ryan Craig is managing director at University Ventures and author of the forthcoming College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan, March).


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