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Editorial: MOOCs for enrichment, not credentials

Ever since massive open online courses were created, debate has ensued over their effectiveness and value. Proponents and those with financial stakes in the burgeoning MOOC industry argue, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman does, that MOOCs can “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.” EdX President Anant Agarwal envisions MOOCs creating an educational landscape that is “borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind,” Slate recently reported. Critics, in contrast, have largely been skeptical of these claims, and worry that MOOCs could exacerbate a divide between expensive private education and public options. Recent studies have shed light on the type of students taking MOOCs and how they are using these resources. While this evidence pushes back against claims that MOOCs could substitute for higher education, we believe MOOCs could be best utilized as a supplemental resource, rather than a replacement.

One of the most widely read studies, done by the Penn Graduate School of Education, reported that only 4 percent of students who registered for MOOCs completed the course in question. A later Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard analysis of edX classes reported a similar 5 percent completion rate. However, most people who dropped courses did so within two weeks of signing up, and those who made it past that point had much higher completion rates. Also, if MOOCs remain relatively inexpensive, students may not feel compelled to continue, and may only remain in courses in which they feel fully engaged. Perhaps our greatest fallacy regarding MOOCs is the idea that they would have similar completion rates to standard courses, when all evidence indicates they should have a different purpose and trajectory.

Demographic information of MOOC participants also suggests a reality that contradicts Agarwal’s vision of online courses. The Penn study found that 83 percent had two-year or four-year degrees, and 44 percent had advanced degrees. The researchers note that in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, “almost 80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well-educated 6 percent of the population,” according to a 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer article. Additionally, about 57 percent of MOOC users are male, and about 70 percent are employed. This evidence indicates that MOOC courses may not be as democratizing as previously hypothesized. However, they hold promise as enrichment opportunities for people all around the world in different walks of life.

Though many MOOC creators claim their invention could revolutionize college educations, most of the creators themselves were educated at elite universities. Without a strong credentialing process, it is highly unlikely that MOOC diplomas will actually have worth in the job market. Thus, MOOC enrollment or expansions are not a substitute for necessary expansions in public universities, and it certainly would not be proper for federal loans to be used for MOOCs. However, MOOCs offer promise for education in the most idealistic sense — as a source of enrichment and enjoyment. Senior citizens or people in isolated environments could be given the resources of large cultural centers, and MOOCs could be used for anyone who seeks knowledge about a previously unknown topic. MOOCs will not replace traditional education, but they may provide great value in nontraditional ways.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to


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