Un-MOOCs (published for Linkedin)


The beautiful thing about making predictions is that even you don’t take yourself too seriously. You are allowed to either be lucky and claim foresightedness or be wrong and claim sagacity.

So here’s my #bigidea2015: it will see the end of hype around MOOCs.

Don’t get me wrong; I love MOOCs. In fact, in the last 15 months, there hasn’t been a time when I wasn’t enrolled in at least two courses at the same time. I have taken courses ranging from The Music of the Beatles from University of Rochester to The Camera Never Lies from University of London, and from Moralities of Everyday Life from Yale University to Understanding Russians: Contexts of Intercultural Communication from Higher School of Economics; outside of the usual business fundamental courses. Understanding Russians course was particularly fascinating for me as I took it before my trip to Russia and met with the professor in Moscow. But all these were eccentric courses for me. I had studied Finance as an undergrad, then did the Financial Risk Manager (FRM) certification course, and then an MBA. The kind of education that puts food on the table. So MOOCs were great. I could take courses not only to brush up my knowledge of finance, business, and risk management, but also to learn new disciplines.

Familiarity breeds contempt

After one year though, I am certain that the whole idea of MOOCs is fundamentally flawed due to 3 reasons:

  1. It turns professors into content marketeers – If I could get $1 for every MOOC that ‘recommends’ you to buy a book written either by the professor teaching the course or his favorite colleague, I will be as rich as the number of MOOCs out there (not sure if I’ll be a dollar millionaire though – more MOOCs please!) MOOCs act as a platform for professors to sell books. Call me entitled for expecting professors to give their time for free, but I can’t be blamed for holding professors to a much higher standard of honesty than marketeers.

  2. It impairs learning – MOOCs (especially the ones with verified certificates) provide a false sense of knowledge on a subject to the participant. Rather than piquing interest to learn more, they tend to provide a feeling of ‘achievement.’ Anyone with a college degree understands that one learns as much from the content professor teaches as she/he does from the fellow students. The quality of your peer-set is important for learning; something that institute ensures. Despite some good discussions in forums of most courses I took, this key factor is absent in MOOCs. Plus, it is susceptible to cheating due to lack of institute or a peer-group set culture.

  3. It preaches to the converted – Most MOOC participants are working professionals with college degrees. Now you can argue that such people are generally the early adopters and this trend may change in future, but the model is inherently designed for continuous education rather than for democratization of education for a much wider reach.

Primarily these three factors, among others, convince me that the bubble surrounding MOOCs will burst unless this disruptive technology disrupts itself. An innovation I’ve observed is by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. They ran an introductory course on social entrepreneurship on the Coursera platform. They then invited applications from participants who successfully completed the course for their Executive Program in Social Impact Strategy. Out of the applications they received, they selected a group of 35 emerging leaders, entrepreneurs, and experienced professionals seeking ways to advance their careers in social impact. As such, offering a holistic education via peer learning and creating a more meaningful impact.

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