Buried in the public responses to the news about MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) and OER initiatives from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Penn, Princeton and others is a deceptively important assumption. The assumption goes something like this: the open digital educational materials made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions.

On the surface, this seems perfectly logical. It’s an interpretation of value based on the deeply engrained, long-used logic and criteria used to rank different institutions. According to this logic, the “best” institutions, like Harvard and Stanford, provide students (those with the money and grades) with access to the most respected academics, and in turn, to the latest and best thinking on academic subjects. The excitement about MOOCs from Princeton and others is that it gives the public access to materials that are otherwise available to a privileged few.

However, in this case the traditional criteria for evaluating value in higher education may be misleading. Prestigious institutions may, in fact, be the least well prepared and least well-suited of all types of institutions to lead the MOOC expansion. The orientation, interests, and market focus of these institutions could limit their capacity to meet the needs that MOOCs typically seek to fulfill.

Prestigious University = High Quality Digital Instructional Materials?

Consider the specific “output” of these initiatives. Harvard and others are producing digital education content, wrapped with some form of assessment. This work will flow out of the institution’s teaching capacity and operations. But these elite institutions earn their high ranking by placing their emphasis on research, not on teaching. This is true on an institutional as well as faculty level. Faculty members hired by these institutions know that their labour market value is based primarily on their research productivity;  the ability to garner research funds, conduct research, and publish (Some research suggests that the gulf between rewards for teaching and research is actually increasing, despite the rhetoric). When it comes to teaching, there is remarkably little commitment, as Derek Bok – former President of Harvard – writes of American colleges:

“A remarkable feature of American colleges is the lack of attention that most faculties pay to the growing body of research about how much students are learning and how they could be taught to learn more. . . .  One would think faculties would receive these findings eagerly. Yet one investigator has found that fewer than 10 percent of college professors pay any attention to such work when they prepare for their classes. Most faculties seem equally uninterested in research when they review the curriculum.” Derek Bok. 

We have, then, a general misalignment of institutional strengths and incentives with the project’s output (i.e. digital learning materials). The ability and motivation to produce high quality educational media, particularly the type that requires considerable independent learning, is not the same as deep subject matter expertise that comes from a research focus. Yet, it is the research productivity that is at the foundation of the excitement behind these initiatives.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t a number of great educators within these institutions. There are, of course. But the ability of an organization to deliver the best possible value – whatever the type – is always dependent on the focus of the organization; what kinds of work it incentivizes, the criteria used in hiring, how it defines excellence, etc. Whether we are analyzing the politics of global trade or higher education, it’s always important to “follow the money”.

I suppose one could counter this argument by pointing out that these elite institutions have the resources to invest more heavily in teaching materials. Which is true, but it is also irrelevant. Yes, more money can produce better results and compensate for the lack of focus on teaching and learning. But what we are seeking is “value”, and value is always a balance between costs and quality, and superior value is less likely to come from institutions whose focus lies in research.

Learners and Content, A Misalignment

Again, the excitement generated about these materials and courses is based largely on the fact that they come to us from well-known, elite institutions. It then follows that the more similar these courses are to those traditionally offered from the elite institutions (for the “real” students), the better.  However, the “authenticity” of MOOC’s may actually conflict with the broader social and educational objectives that MOOCs serve.

The majority of people that don’t have access to higher education and who would most benefit from MOOCs are generally speaking not the same people for whom MIT-level material is appropriate. If a student is able learn MIT material via edX, then it is highly likely that they are more than capable of obtaining access to a college education, if they haven’t already. Moreover, to benefit from these initiatives, the learner must be relatively self-motivated and disciplined. The ideal learner for such initiatives, then, is someone that is at the top of the academic ladder and self-motivated; in other words, the cream of the crop.

If these initiatives, on the other hand, plan to pitch the material at a much lower academic level; a level well below what is normally taught at their institutions in order to serve the needs of students that are more likely to need access to free courseware, then the fact that they these initiatives come from elite institutions becomes of little significance, if not misleading.

Do Intentions Matter? 

MIT, Harvard and others are not launching these initiatives in order to grow their markets, expand revenue, or reduce costs. They are not doing this in order to survive a period of budget austerity, as might be the case at other, less well-established and financially solvent institutions. In fact, growth is generally not an objective for these schools; maintaining exclusivity remains their prime concern. In order for these institutions to maintain their relative standing in the higher education hierarchy, there must be exclusivity, lack of access and scarcity.

Rather, the motivation for Harvard and others is primarily social and reputational. While the initiatives may generate some benefits for their own students (going “digital” has a tendency to impose more discipline on course design, for example), they are “giving away” their wares because they can afford to, and because philanthropic acts such as these support their brands.

If the objectives of the education community is to find new strategies that will improve the quality and cost of higher education, betting on institutions whose success is based on exclusivity and who have the most to lose if the current model of higher education is disrupted may not be ideal.

I applaud the efforts of these prestigious institutions. Their participation has generated considerable publicity for new models of higher education. And their initiative creates more movement, more flux in the higher education space which likely will be the impetus for more new ideas, which is exactly what’s needed. Nevertheless, our excitement about their participation in MOOC and OER; excitement based on the traditional logic for evaluating excellence in higher education, has little bearing and relevance in this case. If our objective is to find and support new models of higher education that are likely to address the most needy students, increase quality and reduce costs, I’m not sure that this philanthropic model, coming from institutions with little need to truly innovate, and that have a deeply vested interest in the status quo, will produce the best outcomes.

Thank you to Dr. Lloyd Armstrong whose post edX: A Step Forward or Step Backward stimulated my interest in this issue. 

context + competition in digital higher education

an ode to content and first thoughts on adapt courseware

not quite right: higher ed’s business model and instructional technology


  1. Spot on. As a teaching specialist in a research led institution, Derek Bok’s assessment is right on. No one (or very few) even realise that there is research into teaching, and if they do realise it, they don’t care.

    What I wonder is what the effect the seismic shift in HE that is coming our way will have on the teaching supported research model that has been built up over the decades. I doubt that the smaller, non-elite research led institutions (like mine) will survive in their present form (or at all, since there is so little energy expended looking for a different model), but I wonder if there will be an adverse effect on the old, prestigious brands as well.

    Brands will only carry an outdated model so far (think Kodak).


  2. I agree with most of these points, particularly about student motivation and the target audience. However, edX can be a game-changer if they are able to create effective ways to assess learning that others can replicate. One key weakness of MOOCs is their limited ability to assess learning or provide accurate formative feedback to develop complex skills such as critical thinking and writing. Crowd-sourcing assessment is too easy to cheat, and multiple-choice assessment doesn’t provide enough formative feedback to teach skills that involve multiple right answers (as opposed to skills that can be assessed by the right algorithm.) If this pool of researchers can crack that nut, it changes online Higher Education.


  3. My guess as to why Harvard jumped onto MIT’s coattails in this effort is because they are eyeballing Khan Academy among others and the don’t want to be a late mover to this market space. The broader question is a good one – If I can get exceptional edX content from top notch schools at zero cost – beyond connectivity which I already pay for – as I need the education to apply what I’ve learned to solving real problems in real time, then won’t a diploma become irrelevant? This may very well be a “why should I buy the cow if I can get the milk for free” situation. Even so, the answer is much harder to fathom. Thanks for the post.


  4. Jesse, Beth and Aaron – Thank you.
    A couple of thoughts come to mind as a result of your great contributions:
    I agree that assessment is a linchpin. And I suppose it’s possible that, as a result of the collective resources brought to bear on these projects, that advances in assessment may result. My notes suggested merely that these particular types of universities were not especially well-suited or overly motivated to create such ground-breaking innovations. They have more to lose and less practice.
    Second, I agree that these most recent initiatives have a “me too” quality (jump on the bandwagon before it’s too late). And, I might add, MITx appeared to come quickly on the heels of Stanford’s move into MOOCs. But setting aside the competitive nature of these initiatives, I can’t see diplomas becoming irrelevant until we are much better at measuring knowledge and skill. The diploma (the “piece of paper”) currently serves as a substitute of sorts for a true understanding of whether people have the requisite skills and knowledge. I imagine the diploma will remain the dominant educational/accreditation model until we start seriously measuring knowledge/skill/talent and the broader public (especially employers) accept these measurements.


  5. “They have more to lose and less practice.” Exactly. What may need to happen first is that employers shed their dependency upon colleges and universities for per-screening their job candidates. This would be more costly for employers as they would have more work to do in securing high quality employees because, effectively, Higher Ed institutions have become surrogates for job training, upon which employers place varying levels of trust in when they go to recruit (say at Harvard, versus avoiding State U on the false assumption that a Harvard grad is better). This leads the public to assuming that usual myth the sole criteria for high quality delivery of post-secondary education is the obtaining of a job by a graduate. Of course, we all know that a diploma earned means only that you took a prescribed set of courses, and you were able to “learn” the content for that set of courses and specialize in the content in those 120 or more units, or 30 or more units at the graduate level. The diploma does not mean you should be given any kind of job, really.

    This is why I suggest periodically that instead of charging tuition, universities should be charging a tax that covers the cost of training an employee for the companies that hire them – equivalent to the cost of educating their employee. In this way, tuition goes to zero (making schools even more competitive), and the real winners – the companies that hire college graduates – cover the cost of the skill upgrade. Of course, this is heresy in the industry and across enterprises as it may prove that proximately fixed curricula (as in you have to come to us to get the classes that earn you a diploma) are as obsolete as degrees.

    But think about it. Would employers continue to go to Harvard for trained up employees versus the local state school if the price tag for the hire was 200K versus 25K, particularly if the skill sets of the graduates were equivalent? Really, is a Harvard Grad with the same diploma and having taken the same courses really worth that kind of investment? This would spin the whole industry on it’s head and make the delivery of high quality employees the key criteria, and if state schools could do it at a fraction of the cost, and companies were really about higher talent at the biggest ROI, we may see Harvard going out of business – at least if they are charging 8X the rate for per-screening employees for the likes of the Lehman Bros.


  6. Big thinking! (But I expect nothing less from you, Aaron.)
    The proposed model does enforce a certain discipline on the system – no question. Thanks for this.


  7. If you are interested I summed up my current view in the form of a little allegory:


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