Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

MOOCs are closed platforms… and probably doomed

Colleges and universities, left and right, are launching Massive open online courses (MOOC). Colleges failing to follow are “behind the times”.

Do not be fooled by how savvy MOOC advocates sound. They do not understand what they are doing.

Let us start with how they do not even understand what a MOOC is, or should be. MOOCs are supposed to be open platforms. It is right there in the name. Downes’ original MOOCs were indeed open. Yet the actual MOOCs that colleges publish are closed platforms, as per Wikipedia’s definition:

A closed platform is a software system where the carrier or service provider has control over applications, content, and media, and restricts convenient access to non-approved applications or content. This is in contrast to an open platform, where consumers have unrestricted access to applications, content, and much more.

The word “open” has been perverted beyond belief, but let us be clear: Facebook is not an open platform. It is public, certainly, in the sense that everyone can join… but it is a closed platform. The content is locked up. If search engines cannot index the content, then it is closed. It is that simple. If your course requires that prospective students “register” to access the content, then it is not an open course. It might be an online course, it might even be massive, but it is not open.

There is nothing wrong with closed platforms per se. The ancient Greek philosophers made a living by selling their lectures to paying customers. But most modern college campuses are remarkably open in contrast. In all likelihood, I can just show up for class on campus in most colleges in North America and attend lectures, for free. I do not need to provide an email address or a password. If there is room in the class, I can generally sneak in. Nobody will care. Why is that? Because we have learned that selling lectures is a tough business. It was different for the Greeks because so little was written down… but we live in an era where Amazon can deliver a textbook on any topic directly to your door within 48 hours. In this era, it is much better to sell diplomas and degrees. Unlike lectures, they have tangible financial value for the students. Some colleges also serve as meeting places, others provide an experience.

What colleges do not do, at least on campus, is to make money off course content. As it is, you can easily order all the textbooks you could possibly read on Amazon. You can join discussion groups about them. You sneak into lectures, or find tons of them online. There is simply little value in the course content.

Do not believe me? Run the following experiment. Make all courses tuition free. Students can enrol for free and if they pass the exam, they get the credit. However, they must pay $20 for each hour of lecture they choose to attend. You know what is going to happen? Nobody but the instructor will show up. How do I know? Because, as it is, with free lectures once you have enrolled in a class, most students never show up for class unless they are compelled to do so. Why would anyone think that it is going to be somehow different with pre-recorded lectures online? You know, the lectures colleges like so much? The truth is that there is only value at the margin for course content.

It is probably harder to make a living selling lectures than it is as a journalist, and it has become nearly impossible to live off journalism. The volume of great free stuff is just too high.

Colleges that try to lock down course content, let alone the content of their MOOCs, are signalling that they have no clue about the business that they are in.