Rethinking Education: Is MOOC the Future of Higher Education?

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Shuangmiao Han's picture

Rethinking Education: Is MOOC the Future of Higher Education?


The news that Tsinghua University and Peking University – the two best universities of China joined edX has sparked another round of heated discussion about the role of Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) in transforming higher education. With the notion that human capital is at the very center of our knowledge economy, higher education has become the foundation of modern society and attracted attention from almost every parts of the world.

The New York Times denotes 2012 as the year of MOOC, and believes it has shaped the world of higher education[1]. The article in TIME titled “College is Dead. Long live college!” embraces the “new chapter” of higher education marked by this massive, interactive, open online learning approach[2]. With 2013 witnessing wide participation among the world's top-tier universities and various entrepreneurial attempts, it seems that MOOC not only fundamental changed the outlook of higher education, but actually on the way of becoming it.

However, does this new form of knowledge transfer equally to what we mean by education? Is MOOC a humanitarian act that aims to democratize education resources or a new form of academic capitalism? Does the success of MOOC mark a new era in which technology-based higher education will replace traditional universities? These inter-related questions are what this article attempts to tackle, and hopefully it will offer some insights in viewing this irresistible trend in higher education.

Rethinking education

The great educationist Henry Newman describes Liberal Education as the “cultivation of the intellect” in his book The Idea of a University[3]. The 19th century witnesses the beginning of modern universities where education refers to the cultivation of “bildung” through perfection of knowledge. However, with growing trend of academic capitalism, it seems we no longer care the “usefulness of the useless,”[4] but only demand transfer of useful knowledge that can help us get a better job in a way as quick as possible.

Advocates believe MOOC reminds us that the nature of education is learning, instead of a group of students gathering in elite universities with expensive facilities and high debts that require years to pay. This can be partly true. Providing free access to education resources to virtually anyone in the world indeed changes the way of knowledge delivery, however, it also faces the danger of simplifying education to merely a transfer of knowledge of what Paulo Freire described as “banking education."[5] The assumption that MOOC will replace traditional universities is based on the rationale that knowledge delivery is the key of education, instead of face-to-face tutoring, peer influence and the irreplaceable delight of sitting in a library overwhelmed by books hundreds of years ago. Enrolling or has been enrolled in universities, we all know that these are the things really matter.

The role of technologies: MOOC as a “tsunami” of higher education

The use of technology in higher education has never been a new phenomenon; however, what is new is the intensity and extent of the impact of technology in modern universities.

If universities were driven by religions in the Middle Age, political factors in the 19th century and economics after World War II, the rapid development of information and Communication technology (ICT) is definitely the shaping power of 21st century’s higher education and has been donated as “the 2nd revolution in higher education” (Altbach; Fava-De-Moraes & Simon; Mok)[6].

Some MOOC optimists have already claimed that MOOC has fundamentally changed the pattern of teaching and learning, and will eventually lead to the end of traditional universities. Ironically enough, the most successful platforms of MOOC are built on the high reputation and their educational resources of traditional elite universities. As Shullenberger points out, the real breakthrough for MOOC over the past year is actually to “let almost all prestigious universities in U.S. on board.”[7]

Nathan Harden believes MOOC will achieve the real goal of education by “educating as many students as possible, as well as possible, as affordably as possible.” [8] It will be helpful to look how MOOC has influenced higher education by examining the three most important aspects: access, cost and quality.

Access: Opening educational resources to everyone in the world is probably the most fundamental change brought by MOOC. This move is based on the rationale that “education is a basic human right,” claimed by the co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller. It is true that MOOC provide many people who cannot afford or be able to enter elite universities the valuable resources that are otherwise only been accessible to a selected few. Besides, the online-based approach makes “massive” education possible. However, English as the lingua franca and not-so-universal access of Internet will actually reinforce the inequality of what Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital”.

Cost: Technology has greatly reduced the cost of higher education, with almost zero marginal cost. It is a popular act under the circumstance of increasing high tuition fees around the globe. Currently, MOOCs are free or only charge a small amount of fees. But it is almost for sure the burden of their economical sustainability will lie on the shoulder of their users. More importantly, when we are talking about cost, what really matters is the cost efficiency. Does the time and energy we put into MOOCs pay off as transferable credits, recognizable certificates or useful skills?

Quality: It is no doubt a progress to share the most valuable educational resources of the world's best universities; the problem is the way it is carried out. Being in a real classroom can not only allow face-to-face interaction, but also enable students to experience what Lave J. called “situated learning”[9]. More importantly, with the nature of the Internet, it will be hard to guarantee quality assurance, which is the heart of higher education.

Providing access to quality education with minimum cost is no doubt the greatest achievement brought by technology, and is viewed as the address to the roots of inequality. Technology not only speeds up the process of universities’ internationalization, but also democratization. However, whether the motive of MOOC is indeed a quest for a “human right” or whether it is only a new form of academic capitalism is another serious issue we need to consider.


A humanitarian act or a new form of academic capitalism?

MOOCs have been constantly viewed as a humanitarian effort for unleashing the high-quality education that is normally accessible for the elite students to almost anyone in the world. Udacity claims to offer “accessible, affordable, engaging classes that anyone can take, anytime” while Coursera partners with top universities to offer “courses online for anyone to take, for free” with envision that “everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few” in the future.

However, behind this noble notion of providing education as a basic human right, the most intriguing question remains, do we really need ALL these platforms of MOOC to “democratize” higher education? Will it be better if all the resources are united as a universal platform, instead of these with identical content by serving the same ambition – to revolutionize higher education?

It will be a vivacious assumption to say the fundamental reason that lies behind the growing platforms of MOOC is the revenue opportunities this innovation indicates. After all, everything falls into economics and business in the 21st century.

Currently, there are two types of MOOC. One is for-profit companies as Udacity and Coursera, another one is non-profit organizations as edX. Sebastain Thrun, a former professor of Stanford, saw the huge success of his free online course and decided to promote it into a for-profit business (Udacity). Along with Coursera, the primary goal is to maximize their profit. Even the university-based edX do not need to push itself in generating profit, there is no doubt it needs to find proper business model for sustainable development and turn itself into what Nathan Harden called “higher ed business.”[10]

There are primary two revenue opportunities for MOOC, one is to charge for exams and certificates, and another is to “license” their “high quality” courses to small universities in the lower tier. There is no foreseeable future that MOOC can live without combination from both universities and business sectors. In the other word, MOOC is born to be not only an educational reform, but also an entrepreneurial endeavor.


I have attempted to illustrate the role of technologies in higher education, and how MOOCs have changed it in terms of access, cost and quality. Will this influence last? The answer is positive. With China and other Asian countries joining this new trend last month, MOOC is rapidly expanding and intensifying its influence on higher education, and the world as a large.

However, will it become the dominate future of higher education? Not likely. It is the time to reconsider what we mean by education, and to which extend the combination of universities and business can transform higher education into a virtual one, or whether we want it as the future.


[1] The Year of the MOOC (2012). The New York Times. Accessed by

[2] Ripley, Amanda (2012). College Is Dead. Long Live College! TIME. Accessed by

[3] Newman, Henry (1852). The Idea of a University. Accessed by

[4] Flexner, Abraham (1939). The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. Harpers, 179: 544-552.

[5] Freire, Paulo (1972). The “Banking” Concept of Education. Myra Bergman Ramos, trans. Accessed by

[6] Altbach, P (2004). Globalisation and the university: Myths and reality in an unequa world. Tertiary Education and Management, 10 (1): 3-25; Fava-de-Moraes, F., & Simon (2000), I. Computer networks and the international ization of higher education. Higher Education Policy, 13; Mok, Ka Ho (2007). Questing for internationalization of universities in Asia: Critical reflections. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11: 433-454.

[7] Shullenberger, Geoff (2013). The MOOC Revolution: A Sketchy Deal for Higher Education. Dissent. A Quarterly of Politics and Culture. Accessed by

[8] Harden, Nathan (2013). The End of the University as We Know It. The American Interest. Accessed by

[9] Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.

[10] Harden, Nathan (2013). The End of the University as We Know It. The American Interest. Accessed by


A very well timed article. Great points about English being all pervasive in MOOC. I personally have benefited a lot from MOOCs, and continue to make use of the same. You correctly mention how MOOCs derive their popularity from the name of the university they are offered by, however, this is only natural since MOOCs are very new and will take time to establish. On the other hand, I firmly believe that very soon, the quality of MOOC will help establish prestige and outreach of lesser known universities. A single good MOOC can help proselytize the name of the university that offers it and attract many students to its campus.

Another point in favour of MOOC is that it is a boon for adults who're past university-going-age now.

I believe endeavouring for a single MOOC platform isn't a great idea since monopoly always leads to exploitation of consumers. Healthy competition will help increase quality of courses offered and encourage certain platforms to be free in order to attract more users.

@SINGHK: Thanks for your reply. I personally advocate the idea of MOOC and believe it will certainly make a change in terms of bringing excellent educational resources virtually to anyone. Actually it is in line with the catchy trend of “lifelong learning”, as you have mentioned, in engaging working adults. I totally agree with you that MOOC will help to the publicity of certain universities that are less well-known, but my defense mainly lies in the beliefs held by some advocates that it will eventually replace universities. I think what intrigues me most is the changing roles of technology played in higher education throughout the time, and it seems people tend to think the deliver and receive of knowledge itself is education, which is certainly not the case at least in my humble opinion.