MOOCs: The Director’s Cut

Daniel Bonevac

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) burst on the educational scene in the past decade, threatening to disrupt traditional institutions of higher education by offering high-quality courses online—many of them for free. Excitement over the possibility of a new model for higher education swept from educational researchers to the popular press.1 Three years later, many researchers and most popular press accounts have given up on MOOCs as the latest failed educational fad, if they bother to mention MOOCs at all.2 The truth is almost certainly somewhere in between. Any prediction concerning online education should be made humbly; imagine trying to predict the future of the automobile in 1900 when Henry Ford had produced his first motorcar just four years earlier. Still, I will venture a few predictions, based on my own experiences as a producer and consumer of MOOCs. I remain optimistic about the potential of online education. But it poses little threat to most existing institutions.

In 2013, my University of Texas at Austin (UT) colleague Roy Flukinger, the senior research curator of photography at the Harry Ransom Center, and I created and ran a MOOC on twentieth-century intellectual history called “Ideas of the Twentieth Century,” offered through EdX, a consortium started by MIT and Harvard.3 We repeated the course in fall 2014; it will become a self-paced, continuing course in spring 2016. “Ideas of the Twentieth Century” was one of the first humanities MOOCs. It attracted almost forty thousand students for the first run and about ten thousand for the second.

I have also taken several MOOCs, including “Jazz Appreciation” (UT), “Vocal Recording Technologies” (Berklee College of Music), and currently “Justice” (Harvard), and have dropped out of several others. That has taught me things I wish I had known before designing my course.

The hype surrounding MOOCs has faded for some good reasons, many unrecognized by those writing about such courses from the outside. MOOCs face serious obstacles. They will not threaten most institutions of higher education for some time. Here are a few of the challenges and reasons I remain optimistic in spite of the obstacles.


The audience for online education is growing rapidly. About forty thousand new students sign up for EdX courses each week. More than a million people are now registered in EdX courses offered by MIT and Harvard alone.4 China restricts YouTube, making most MOOCs inaccessible to its residents. If that were to change, enrollments would soar.

MOOCs appeal primarily to those already strongly committed to education—and, for the most part, to those already educated. The audience for “Ideas of the Twentieth Century” was not what we had expected to encounter. The median age was twenty-nine. More than half the students already had bachelor’s degrees. Almost 10 percent had doctoral degrees. That meant that the discussion boards were sometimes remarkably informative and thoughtful, resembling a high-level seminar. Some of the papers submitted were superb, much better than anything I see from a UT undergraduate. But it also means that MOOCs function largely as continuing education for those who already have college degrees.

This is one dimension in which MOOCs need to differ from typical college instruction. Anyone interested in teaching a MOOC should aim high; the students are likely to be much more advanced than the typical college student. At the same time, the video format reduces the effectiveness of the teaching. So, aiming at college freshmen—as I did, creating an online version of what is on campus a course designed for first-year students—produces something below the level of much of the audience.

There is another important difference. MOOCs have a truly global appeal. Three-fourths of our students were from outside the United States. In the first run, more than a thousand were from India alone. This means that much of the audience is likely to consist of nonnative speakers of English, which requires instructors to speak more slowly and enunciate more clearly than they might otherwise. It also forces a rethinking of course content. MOOCs should be selected and designed with a global audience in mind, which means that courses that work well on campus may not work well as MOOCs without significant restructuring and shifts in focus.


Colleges and universities can design online courses to meet these challenges. But meeting them successfully requires much more than filming an on-campus class and posting videos online. The amount of work involved in creating a MOOC is immense, and excellence in the classroom is not the same as excellence in a MOOC. Teaching a large class is doing theater; teaching a MOOC is making a movie. Switching from one to the other is not easy. A probing question, a pause, a glance down, a look around—all seem thoughtful in person but incompetent on film. I found that I could not lecture from slides or notes, as I do in a classroom. I had to script everything. I didn’t understand that until we started filming. So, throughout a month of filming, I stayed up writing scripts until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, woke up at 6:00 a.m. to go over the day’s scripts, got on the bus at 8:00 a.m., filmed from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and then worked on scripts for the next day. By the end of the month I was exhausted. The videos contain some stupid mistakes as a result of my performing on very little sleep.

Some people’s styles transfer much more readily. My collaborator Roy could speak without scripts or notes while looking at photographs he wanted to discuss, and the camera loved him. His andante Texas drawl worked much better for our international audience than my prestissimo Pittsburghese.

Filming is only the beginning. Editing videos may be straightforward or challenging, depending on one’s ambitions. We tried to simulate the look of a Ken Burns special. For five months, I collected thousands of images to be inserted into the videos. Every image had to be documented for copyright and permission purposes. I had a part-time undergraduate assistant to help. He was terrific—but I should have had several others. The video production team I worked with was fantastic; the video editor had astounding speed and accuracy with Final Cut Pro. Still, I had to be present for the editing of the videos to supervise image insertion, a process that lasted for about three months.


Producing our MOOC took about six months of hard work from a team of talented people. It would have been better to have had a year. The total cost was almost $150,000. Since we were among the first four MOOCs developed by UT, and one of the first humanities MOOCs anywhere, we had no set of best practices to help streamline the process. Today, having learned from our successes and mistakes, as well as those of others, we could probably produce an excellent MOOC for half of what we spent. But that is still a significant amount of money.

No one understands the business model underlying MOOCs. Right now MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, my university, and many others are offering MOOCs for free, as experiments, as loss leaders, or as advertising. That makes sense from a marketing point of view—how much would universities pay otherwise to get a global audience of millions to see their names beside MIT and Harvard under the heading, “Take Great Online Courses from the World’s Best Universities”?— but it is not a model that supports a full slate of course offerings. Someone is going to have to figure out how to make some money from doing this, even if it is just enough to cover the costs of producing the courses.

I am confident that it can be done. In three areas, online courses could play a significant role. One is professional certification and continuing education. Accountants, engineers, lawyers, real estate professionals, and teachers all need to take continuing education courses to retain certification. Online courses could serve this need effectively and conveniently for an audience with the resources and incentive to pay enough to make courses viable.

Another area with great potential: introductory college-level courses designed for high school students to compete with Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate courses. More than 20 percent of U.S. high school juniors and seniors take AP exams each year, most after taking AP courses. About 13 percent pass at least one exam. Fewer achieve scores high enough to gain college credit.5 Colleges are growing more skeptical of the courses and exam scores, sensing correctly that pressure to increase AP enrollments and AP exam pass rates has widened the gap between AP and college-level work.

Closely related are introductory college-level courses. Many students take beginning English, Spanish, government, and psychology courses at a community college rather than at their home institution. Universities in many cases welcome this, since they could not otherwise offer enough seats in the courses to satisfy demand. MOOCs provide an attractive alternative. They could be taught by regular university faculty, at a university level, while being less expensive and more convenient for students.

Even for courses outside these categories, economic viability is not far away. Assume that universities seek a five-year payback. Most people who currently register for online courses probably would not register if they had to pay even a small fee, but those dedicated enough to complete the course probably would. Suppose a currently free course that would attract fifty thousand students over a five-year period attracted only five thousand paying customers over that same time. Assume that the cost of producing the course is $50,000, and that costs associated with repeating or offering it on a continuing, self-paced basis are negligible (as they are at my university, for example).6 The university would have to recover about $10 per student to make the enterprise viable. Some students are now willing to pay $50 for a verified certificate; as acceptance of MOOCs grows, that number is bound to increase.


Relatively few students who sign up for MOOCs finish them. Dropout rates hover north of 90 percent. I myself have finished only a third of the MOOCs I started as a student. Interpreting dropout rates poses difficulties, for many of those registering for MOOCs are education professionals who have no intention of completing the course. Many others seek educational enrichment but have no interest in earning the credential. My own father watched all seventy-two (roughly twelve-minute) videos for my course, but had no reason to seek the certificate. Only about 4 percent of our students have earned a certificate in “Ideas of the Twentieth Century.” But fewer than 6 percent completed even 10 percent of the course, and fewer than 10 percent ever watched a single of the fifteen hours of video. Roughly 70 percent of those completing at least 10 percent finished the course.

Why do those who register and intend to finish drop out? Sometimes the course doesn’t live up to its potential. Sometimes students get busy. Sometimes the schedule of assignments does not work with students’ personal schedules. Sometimes students fall behind and find it daunting to catch up. Since the courses are free, and most will be offered again, there is no cost to registering without completing the course.

How effective are MOOCs for those who finish them? A typical college course has about thirty-five hours devoted to instruction. A typical MOOC includes videos totaling less than half that time. Reducing a fifty-minute class to one or two five-to-fifteen-minute videos is difficult. Even if done successfully, it leaves out a lot. In an online course, the instructor does not have time to pose questions, let students wrestle with possible answers, and explain and illustrate how and why to draw certain conclusions.7 It is difficult to explore alternative explanations, review possible objections, and follow the dialectic of discovery in any depth. The classroom experience feels many-dimensional; video presentations feel one-dimensional. On material covered, however, MOOCs have a number of advantages. Students who lose their train of thought or become confused can watch parts again. Performance on the quizzes after videos and readings in my courses was excellent. I have learned a huge amount about jazz and about recording technologies in the MOOCs I have taken, and I remember it more than a year later.


Grading vast numbers of student assignments poses challenges. Computers handle multiple-choice quizzes and exams easily, though it is not easy to verify that the person registered is the one answering the questions. Roy and I assigned short papers. Many were good, and about 10 percent were fantastic. Many students who participate in discussions and quizzes do not write papers, however, so assigning papers cuts completion rates.

Grading hundreds or thousands of papers presents serious difficulties. We decided to test a new AI grading tool, a connectionist network that learned from about three hundred papers I graded on a rubric I designed and then tried to mimic me.8 In addition to a grade, it generated about a page of detailed comments for each submitted paper.

To evaluate the system, graduate student teaching assistants and I graded two hundred additional papers and compared our grades to those assigned by the AI grader. Overall, it did quite well, performing within the range of human variation. In fact, on the vast majority of papers, the AI grader correlated with my grades as well as my graduate students did. Its greater deviation stemmed from a few papers it graded too generously. A more fine-grained rubric and a larger set of instructor-graded papers would undoubtedly improve the tool’s performance.


Universities currently develop MOOCs outside the usual departmental structure. That makes it possible to offer courses that are shorter, longer, more experimental, or more interdisciplinary than standard course offerings. “Ideas of the Twentieth Century,” for example, explores connections among history, literature, philosophy, and the arts. On campus, such a course can be offered only through an honors program or as a first-year “signature” course. A university could offer longer and more comprehensive sequences of courses as MOOCs than it can on campus.

MOOCs also allow the possibility of courses that run counter to the typical orientation of college courses. Our course is proudly old-fashioned, a traditional humanities course of a kind that has become scarce since the 1960s and 1970s. It also includes readings covering a wide ideological range, including Dostoevsky, Arnold, Eliot, Yeats, Kipling, Bellow, Borges, Reagan, and Nozick on (broadly speaking) the right; Marx, Nietzsche, Shaw, Lenin, FDR, and Rawls on the left; and many others—Hume, Doyle, Russell, Owen, Wittgenstein, Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Forster, Freud, Pirandello, Fitzgerald, Camus, Quine, Sellars, and Kripke—whose political orientation is irrelevant to their appearance in the course. Not many on-campus courses assign the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” or Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech. MOOCs may allow those interested in teaching and taking courses outside the reigning departmental or ideological paradigms to find one other.

Student reactions to the MOOC have been much more varied than those of our in-class students. Overwhelmingly, online students have been appreciative and grateful. But there are dissenting voices. Some students—especially those from Western Europe, but also many from Russia—find our conservative take on twentieth-century intellectual history objectionable. “Aghast” is the word that some of them use to describe their reactions to our praise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, for example. One student was a Stalinist who insisted that my lecture on Stalin was filled with anti-Soviet propaganda. How dare I allege that Stalin had people killed? In a country as large as the USSR, he pointed out, of course a lot of people die!

That leads me to a final reason for optimism. Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, has said that MOOCs are the greatest change in education since the printing press.9 Suddenly things that were accessible to a few are accessible to almost anyone. MOOCs constitute an online educational ecosystem. They create the possibility of a freer market in higher education, one partially outside the bounds defined by administrators and faculty committees, with courses judged by students who select what they find valuable without the constraints of course requirements and hefty tuitions. MOOCs’ revolutionary effects may be similar to those of the LP, CD, and digital revolutions in the music industry, which have in each case lowered costs, increased availability, and vastly expanded the market.

Most important, perhaps, MOOCs can create a civilizational record of how people teach. Buddhists speak of the “message beyond the scriptures,” what a teacher conveys that goes beyond anything written in a book. That is why people try to study with the best teachers available: Teachers show people how to read, how to write, how to think, and how to solve problems. For the first time, we can do that without personal interaction. Imagine being able to take physics with Einstein, Heisenberg, or Feynman; mathematics with Hilbert, Erdos, or Gödel; philosophy with Russell, Wittgenstein, or Heidegger! I was born too late for that, but MOOCs can give people in the future the chance to study with the greatest minds of the twenty-first and later centuries. That may change the transmission of civilization in ways we can scarcely conceive.

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