Tag Archives: Udemy

Two Big Problems with MOOCs

You know of MOOCs, right? Massively Open Online Courses. It seems like such a great idea, a solution to education, productize courses and make them available. If only it were just about the learning. We have Udemy, Udacity, Khan Academy, and dozens of others. After all, learning is learning. It doesn’t take tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. Does it? But there are two big problems with MOOCs.

I believed in the allure of massive online learnings since the early 1980s when I was first exposed to it. The idea has always made sense. We could spread learning out into the world much faster using technology.  Reading. Listening. I taught myself computer programming (early 1980s BASIC, then Pascal, then Visual Basic). So of course I see the value. And I’m even offering my own MOOC right now, as author, with my course on Lean Business Planning hosted by the Economist Group at Learning.ly.

Problem One: MOOCs and Certification. Degrees Validate.

The first problem is about certification. A degree is certification. It means somebody followed the rules, completed tasks, buckled down for a period of years. It means an institution looked over their shoulder while they did. A college degree means so much more than just learning. Completely aside from the learning, it’s a standard used by employers and clients. It means an acceptable minimum of doing hard things, meeting deadlines, getting stuff done. And as a society we’ve confused the learning with the degree.

NYU prof and entrepreneur writer Clay Shirky writes (In David, yes. This. — Medium):

 “The jury is still out on the long-term effect of MOOCs, but one thing we now know for certain — the unbundled value of the content of an Ivy League classroom is $0. Similarly, the job premium for getting an excellent education but falling one credit short of a degree is smaller — considerably smaller — than getting a mediocre education with a degree. Certification, not learning, is the thing the market says is worth paying for. There are still fields where there are alternate-to-college certificates (physical therapy) and even quasi-collegiate training programs (cooking schools.) There are still fields where you can apprentice and work your way up (restaurants). But the big arc of work in the U.S. since the early 1970s has been to group all work into two categories — pays well, requires degree, and pays badly, does not require degree.”

Problem Two: MOOCs and Education and Learning Together

The second problem is the common confusion of education with earning power. I posted earlier this month about the common lie that pits education against entrepreneurship, as if they are opposites. Underneath that lie is the problem of people thinking education, the college degree, is just about increasing earning power. The assumption is that the value of education can be calculated by subtracting tuition costs from the increase in future earnings. But it’s not that simple. Unfortunately education is more than learning, and more than earning power.

Is the MOOC ever going to really disrupt education? I don’t know. I found this infographic interesting:

History of MOOCs

Can We Disrupt Education Without Losing Its Benefits?

I’m conflicted: On the one hand, I’m very much in favor of technology disrupting traditional education. On the other hand, what about the value of traditional educational institutions as rite of passage, validation, and cultural catalyst? Can we possible have it both ways?

can technology disrupt education

So many people agree education has to change. Imagine a tablet-based program for early education through high school. Investigate MOOCs. Google disrupt higher education. It seems so obvious. I believe this is part of the future, for sure. I’ve been doing online courses myself, including business plan tutorials for the SBA, several courses for the bplans school of business (with Udemy), and for a new venture not yet launched, Silicon Valley Startup Academy

But over the weekend somebody asked me what I look for in degrees and such when I am evaluating a person for a job in my business. And the question made me think about it. 


  • A college degree serves as a rite of passage. It means the degree holder stuck to a program, did the work, dealt with the system, and finished something. I don’t have the same assurance from the self educated. 
  • That degree is validation. The institution has a stake in it. While it is true, as my dear mother-in-law used to say, that “there are millions of idiots with papers;” I look to the degree as a minimum proof of something. 
  • The degree can serve as cultural catalyst. In a lot of the better residential campus-based institutions, the degree means this person went from high school to a college campus where he or she was able to integrate into college campus life and life with other young people, as students, for a few years. 
All three of these elements are more important to me, as an employer, than the course content. Sure, I do look for some specialized knowledge with a degree for some specialized jobs like finance/accounting or computer code; but for most jobs the course content is far less important than learning how to learn, study, produce output, and get things done. 

So here’s the question: can we disrupt education, using technology, without losing the rite of passage, validation, and cultural benefits?