Crown Jewels, 21st Century Diploma Mills, MOOCs on the Moon

Crown Jewels, 21st Century Diploma Mills,

And a MOOC on the Moon in this Decade

Willy Sutton is supposed to have been asked, “Why do you rob banks?” His answer was simple and direct. “Because that’s where the money is.” Back then it didn’t take more than some bad-ass cowboys, fast horses and the raw guts to yell “Stick ‘Em Up” to get away with the dough.

These days the really smart operators don’t need guns to steal trainloads of cash in amounts Willy Sutton could never ever have imagined.

Witness the dotcom bubble; the fraudulent housing loans; bonds that Moody’s rated AAA, foisted by greedy Wall Street hustlers onto the gullible.

How did this happen?

Because those paid to protect the chickens let the foxes get loose inside the hen house.

In another kind of theater, we are about to see this movie all over again. Here’s the background.

At this moment there is a grand, global experiment called Massive Open OnLine Courses, commonly known as MOOCs. For those with the prime interest to improve learning outcomes to large numbers involved in a common issue. Vance Stevens neatly addresses that kind of experiment here..It’s a great read which we strongly encourage.

However, MOOCs take a downward turn when the prime motivation is not the student, or the university, but profits. Like Willy Sutton, they care little about the bank or the depositors; it’s the loot they are after.

The best example of that kind of MOOC is  Coursera Incorporated  Easily it leads the MOOC parade with license agreements from 33 universities and enrollments right at the two million mark.

Coursera’s pitch is that through a combination of technological wizardry, exquisite marketing and publicity, their platform will bring good results — all around. The short of it is you want to plow through an 81 page document littered with complaints taken from a Coursera class, just ask and I will send it to you., The long of it is, mostly, as follows.

Here are some facts, those stubborn things….

Coursera classes range in size from 5,000 to 50,000; they are “open” to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a browser and a connection to the Net. (When they say “open” they mean it!) The Coursera staff-to-student ratio is (no joke) 8,000 students to one staff member. The retention rates are roughly eight to one. i.e. Eight students drop-out for every one that completes the class.  Students grade each other, an issue of prime contention. The “revenue sharing” provisions between the University and Coursera are as mythical as a witch’s broom. Since the classes are free to both student and tax-payer, where is the source of the “revenue”?

There are so many dead flies in this potion that it’s hard to know where to start. Except this. The sure losers are the “regular” (campus) students and the alumni universities participating in the Coursera scheme.  Those students and those graduates have paid “full price”. Not just “full price” in terms of large tuition payments; but the “full price” of meeting tough University requirements from enrollment to graduation.

The value of that experience, the diploma granted, and the University itself is now being debased by the Coursera MOOCs. How can it be otherwise when not even the University will make the claim that the MOOC experience is within a long country mile of that offered on the campus?

What’s happened is Coursera has been allowed to purloin the Crown Jewels of the University – its iconic image and brand; its history; its professors and the its invaluable reputation in the business of learning deliveries. Coursera then plasters all the signage, emblems, logos, colors of the universities they represent, on their vehicle and – presto! – here is a Formula One race car on the fast track of a college education!  For those in the know, their “certificates” aren’t worth more than bubble gum wrap. For some, this is a modest step up from a good correspondence course, offered through a  Sears catalogue, circa 1920. For others it has all the smell of fancy Diploma Mill.

The good news is we’ve seen this movie before. And we know how it ends.

Smart dudes in the world of venture capital and investment banking “package” the priceless image of a college education, for free. And through the “magic” of algorithmic complexity (which nobody quite understands) the “package” gets sold for a bundle.

The “crime’ is that this is not just a license for some clever foxes to get away with the loot, it is sure to create a blowback which will slow the tremendous advances of OnLine Learning made in the last twenty years.

Almost as bad,  it could derail MOOC deliveries by competent, experienced online providers who put student outcomes at the top of their totem pole. Already, MOOCs are a tough proposition, exactly the kind of experiment that we should all salute. Those providers in particular don’t want the foxes tarnish  the jewels in their sanctuaries. What’s required is care and caution. There’s no need to rush blindly into seas full of icebergs.

The sad part of thc complaints from Coursera is that most of the complaints are easy, affordable fixes. Like sophisticated Help Desks, not just for the students but for the University as well. Like crystal clear language on what a MOOC student is getting, and what he is not. Like quitting, at least for a good while, all this jabber about “certificates” and “buttons”. Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Columbia are not in the business of crafty a pretty piece of paper. Neither should the for-profit MOOC providers.

The ordinary fixes MUST be welded to a serious  cultural shift from pathways to big profits to pathways to massive learning improvements. If not,  every accredited university on the planet will lose some of its shine. And millions of those with high ambition who can’t make the trek to the campus, but drink from MOOC cups not carefully tendered, will come away screwed – just like those bond holders fooled by misleading labels with values well below their expectations.


In a networked world, where “going viral” is always a possibility, the extent of the damages to the shine of the University could be very large.  When the bad stuff lands on the desks of those who executed “Partnership Agreements” with the lead fox, Coursera Incorporated – what then?

The hard questions they will be asked come something like this:

  • Where exactly are the benefits? Most certainly it’s not in the “revenue sharing” provisions. If not there, then where?
  •  Student grading is an interesting concept. What it needs is a mix of professionals, smart interns and students from within the MOOC class with strong academic credentials. How is it possible to have good learning outcome without good evaluation systems?
  • Didn’t the drop-outs rates  – seven students out of eight –  is tantamount to already hitting the iceberg. Instead of getting off the Coursera Titanic, how can you allow them to hustle more students, more classes, more universities?
  • How are you going to overcome the problems that campus students and the alumni about how the MOOCs are undermining the worth of their diplomas?

For me personally, it’s tragic. I revere the whole concept of “The Academy”; that at the top are the “best and the brightest”.  For 20 years I’ve been promoting Web delivered courses from innovative providers who care deeply for their students and who have solid proof of outstanding results. OnLine Learning is here to stay and its only going to get better. Much, much better.

As with virtually all close observers my sense is that MOOCs have phenomenal potential. I still think MOOCs will become THE Game-Changer of the 21st Century.

But this isn’t going to happen overnight. You don’t get a man on the moon – and back – in “one giant step”.

You do it by a steady progression best modeled by the same kinds of forces that took the telegraph to the Smart Phone, from Kitty Hawk to the moon.  Done “right” MOOCs could – should –  add enormous value to the campus — and become one of its largest beneficiaries.  That’s not just happy talk. Visit M.I.T. and explore for yourself the results of their ”open” experiment.

Me? If I had my druthers I find a way to enlist guys like Sir John Daniel, Sir Ken Robinson, Vance Stevens and Steve Hargadon to advance the idea of a “MOOC on the Moon within this Decade”.

What they would deliver would not be diluted wine with fancy labels on the bottle. What that undertaking would deliver, I say, would be stupendous improvements in learning outcomes along with stupendous increases in the millions of those who would  complete the course. At affordable costs, possibly even free (but that’s another story….and ONLY worth pursuit if there is no degradation of class outcomes.)

If they don’t come away from the MOOC table greatly enriched, why bother?

About oregonhibbs

I'm passionate about improving access to education, worldwide, sailing, Duck football (I live in the shadow of the University of Oregon in Eugene) and connecting with people with ideas and work that "can change the world". With this in mind, I am the "Skipper" for Global Learn Day, which you can find out more about at OREGONHIBBS.COM ; Write to

Posted on November 13, 2012, in Khan,Coursera,Etc, MOOC's Global Ed Conference. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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