Eppler ’13: Do you support Brown’s online learning venture? No

Opinions Columnist
Friday, October 12, 2012

It’s understandable why Brown would want to participate in Coursera. The rhetoric surrounding Coursera and other massive open online courses – MOOCs – is certainly lofty. Advocates promise nothing less than the democratization of education, liberating the world’s best educators and thinkers from the ivory tower and making their material available to students in the developing world and non-traditional students. The reality of MOOCs, however, does not live up to the rhetoric.

According to a July 2012 article in the New York Times, MOOCs consist of “online materials broken into manageable chunks, with short video segments, interactive quizzes and other activities.” None of these are new technologies. Astute observers have noted that college professors have condensed their knowledge into a suitable pedagogical format divided into “manageable chunks” – they’re called textbooks. Libraries have made these materials freely and readily available to non-traditional students for generations, yet there’s still demand for university education.

While streaming video recordings are admittedly relatively new technologies, they don’t seem to be inherently transformative. Educational television has been around for decades, with limited impact. In fact, the invention of the radio and the invention of television resulted in similar claims regarding educational value, but brick-and-mortar universities thrived during the television era. Distance learning technologies have demonstrated a historical inability to replace in-person university education, and there’s no reason to believe that MOOCs will be any different.

Supporters of MOOCs suggest that employers will value the “certificates of completion” provided by these programs as equivalent to a university degree. In response to this claim, it is enlightening to list the elements of a university education that are not provided by MOOCs. Importantly, MOOCs do not provide trustworthy assessment of student work.

In August 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that humanities courses offered by Coursera have seen many instances of plagiarism, including blatant acts of academic misconduct such as copying from Wikipedia. Udacity, another MOOC provider, has announced plans to offer in-person testing for a fee at a number of worldwide testing centers, but such a scheme contradicts the MOOC model.

MOOCs also cannot provide opportunities for directed independent study and research and co-curricular and extracurricular activities, which are heavily valued by employers. Given that these critical elements of a university education are absent from Coursera, it is perhaps unsurprising that these supposed economic benefits are a promise for the future and not a reality.


Ian Eppler ’13 would rather endure Providence weather than use Coursera. He can be contacted at

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately people miss the difference between
    MIT + Harvard + Berkeley with
    Coursera , Udacity .

    Very simply MIT Harvard is non profit. Offer the same courses as oncampus courses.
    Coursera , Udacity are for profit, commercial company. Their aim is to make money not to provide education to people. They said free, but now Pearson is making exams for UDACITY at € 99 + VAT be careful not $ . So secretly they started to make money .
    But the mistake is elite universities . Why do they cooperate at Coursera and Udacıty .
    I do not undeerstand this
    ” the fear of missing left out ” SYNDROM

    dİD YOU ?

  • Barry Peddycord III, NC State

    One thing I would like to specifically challenge is the idea that “MOOCs also cannot provide opportunities for directed independent study and research”. In addition to the courses I am taking at NC State this semester, I am also taking a number of MOOCs on interesting topics such as learning design and openness in education. MOOCs allow students to explore paths outside of their major without a risk to their GPA, simply out of curiosity. They permit high school students to explore college-level material if they come from schools that don’t offer AP courses. MOOCs *are* guided independent study – resources that allow a student to explore topics by following an expertly crafted syllabus rather than fumbling around through disconnected resources in libraries or on the Internet.

    I’m sure you’ve heard of, but have you ever seen is a showcase where Udacity students are free to show and tell the projects that they have started working on with the skills they learned from their courses, allowing others to comment on them and provide feedback. I see the ultimate manifestation of a “MOOC” to be more like a social network built around a single educational topic, where students meet colleagues from around the world to explore material above and beyond the curriculum set forth for their paltry “certificate”. MOOCs that focus on connectivism like the original cMOOCs from 2008.

    I’ve never seen a textbook that I would consider manageable enough to learn an entire subject from it. Textbooks serve as a good cornerstone for a lecture or study group, but by themselves, they don’t do much (unless you happen to learn that way – not everyone does). Even if you wanted to find a study group, if you live in rural North Carolina, how do you rally together a large enough study group to study advanced machine learning to actually get something out of the group? MOOCs provide an asynchronous community of learning around advanced and unusual topics.