“Irrational Exuberance”: The Case of the MOOCs

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said in 1996 that the high-flying stock market was an instance of “irrational exuberance.”


Nearly two decades later, were he so inclined  to inspect the swift expansion of elite universities into sponsoring Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), he might have said pretty much the same thing.

Certainly, there is “exuberance.”  The hype, the constant flow of words like “revolutionary,” “transformational,” speak to university officials becoming trumpeters for  expanding the reach of top-notch professors and brand-name institutions into every corner of the world where there is an Internet connection. The inspired hopes of university-based entrepreneurs to monetize these courses and bring in fresh dollars drives some professors to leave tenured positions and start new companies. The dream of pedagogically-driven faculty to use MOOCs to spread their expert knowledge to thousands of hungry students and, at the same time, enhance student-centered collaboration through networks where they come together to share ideas and help one another spurs professors to finally convert typical lecture courses into truly learner-centered experiences.  So there is exuberance.

And “irrational?” The Harvards, MITs, Dukes, Berkeleys, and Stanfords of higher education  offer these free courses now to anyone in the world. They give certificates of completion to the few who end up completing MOOCs. But not for credit toward a degree. That is a lose-lose proposition for elite institutions. Even irrationality has its limits.

Where the incoherence and mindlessness enter the picture is the current thinking among university officials and digital-minded faculty that delivering a degree or college-level courses to anyone with an Internet connection will revolutionize U.S. higher education institutions. While teaching is clearly an important activity of universities, doing research and publishing studies is the primary function. The structures (e.g., departmental organization, professional schools) and incentives (e.g., tenure, promotion) of top- and middle-tier institutions drive tenure, promotion, and time allocation for faculty. MOOCs will do nothing to alter those structures and incentives. If anything, MOOCs could accelerate and deepen the split between tenure-line faculty and adjuncts with the latter taking on these larger courses for a pittance. To think that such offerings by professors will transform higher education  gives new meaning to the word “flaky.”

The phrase, then, “irrational exuberance,” came back to me when I listened a few days ago to four enthusiastic Stanford University professors talk about their experiences teaching online courses including MOOCs. These professors in mechanical engineering, computer science, management science, and human biology told a filled auditorium of faculty and graduate students of their excitement, hard work, and surprises in re-engineering their courses to teach  MOOCs that included Stanford students in face-to-face classrooms.

The professors’ enthusiasm was infectious. They were animated in their remarks and energized by the experience. I was delighted to see professors so engaged in figuring out how best to teach a particular topic, how to get their students across the globe to work as teams on projects, and how they creatively went beyond pre-recorded lectures.

As I listened to them tell how satisfying these experiences were, how students across the globe gave feedback of how appreciative they were to learn from the professor and classmates–it occurred to me that I was hearing a great deal about student and professorial satisfaction but I was not hearing about what students learned.

Had there been more time for the Q & A after the presentations, perhaps the issue of student learning would have come up. Or the often-asked question in K-12 when an innovation is launched: does it work? Is it effective? Have students learned?

If degree of student and professor satisfaction is a measure in evaluating higher education courses, the anecdotal evidence on MOOCs thus far points to much student delight, the enjoyment of absorbing new knowledge, and professorial exhilaration. Both professors and students appear engaged in offering and taking these courses. Widespread student participation in course activities and collaboration in completing tasks seem to have increased, according to professors’ reports. But satisfaction, engagement, and networking, while important in of themselves,  cannot be assumed to have led to student learning. Such outcomes fall short of answering the basic question: Have students who have completed MOOCs–recall that these courses have more than three-quarters of students dropping out— learned and applied the knowledge and skills? That is the question asked repeatedly in K-12 schools. Why not for MOOCs?

To duck this basic question becomes another instance of “irrational exuberance.”




Filed under how teachers teach

52 responses to ““Irrational Exuberance”: The Case of the MOOCs

  1. Pingback: “Irrational Exuberance”: The Case of the MOOCs @larrycuban | E-Learning-Inclusivo (Mashup) | Scoop.it

  2. Mary

    Motivated and technically literate students make use of all the opportunities provided by online courses, such as flexible scheduling, the ability to review (even multiple times) recorded lectures, asynchronous discussions, the ability the think about and formulate questions carefully before asking them. It’s possible unmotivated students drop out or switch to a face to face class when offered. For every success story I can cite, you can cite a failure. For some people, particularly adults, online learning works well and supports their desire to get that better job.

    I would challenge readers to try an online course before accepting other opinions. An easy way to do this is to try Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/ ). It’s free, there are many interesting courses, no application forms to fill out, or transcripts to send.

    Finally, while teaching Computer Programming to students in elementary school using the new Khan Academy tutorials and frameworks, I’ve observed that students are not taught how to try to learn things on there own. Rather than look up what the do not know, or view again the video on the topic they did not understand, they simply raise their hand and wait patiently, or ask their question out loud hoping someone will provide the answer. To address this problem, I’ve added Learning How to Learn to the Objectives for this Unit. How do you teach students to learn independently?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks,Mary, for your comments about the importance of motivated students and your experiences with Khan Academy tutorials in teaching elementary school students.

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  5. Bob Calder

    There was a discussion yesterday on G+ among a group of successful online instructors. Their observations on technical versus humanities teaching was kicked off by the HASTAC article on it. These highly successful people said that they were sad to see others reinvent the whees, sometimes badly.

    I suggested that we try contacting the Open Science Federation or a similar organization to provide a repository with high social connectedness for pedagogy in parallel to the content repositories.

  6. Barry

    To be sure, there is a segment of the population that would benefit from MOOC courses. But I agree with Prof. Cuban that it’s not an answer for most students, particularly those who are trying to get through high school and their first year of college. I’m wondering about research on the following hypotheses:
    · Successful online learning requires self-discipline and the motivation that comes with having a compelling vision of success. Too many students have neither. Yet they can acquire these when immersed in a learning community that provides continual support, feedback and assistance. Eventually they can find such communities online, but live communities are better for most in establishing the necessary trust.

    · Online courses tend to remain in their disciplinary silos and will not engage most students since they correctly intuit that most problem-solving occurs through cross-disciplinary team effort. Moreover, live instructors appear to be more effective than remote ones in creating multi-disciplinary projects that require teamwork and peer-to-peer support.

    · Online courses tend to ignore the social and emotional intelligence aspects of learning. Face-to-face is much more likely than online to evoke learning of workplace basics such as teamwork, empathy, cooperation, customer service and conflict resolution. Moreover, teaching these “soft skills” with academics accelerates learning and helps move it into long term memory. Additionally, online courses are not terribly effective in performing what Clay Christensen (well-known expert on disruptive innovation) says are the jobs that teenagers want schools to do–to help them (1) look, feel and be competent, and (2) make friends. For many students the “job” gets done through after school athletics and clubs. Where does it happen during school?

    · Online courses tend to ignore mind-hand relationships that have evolved in humans over millions of years. In other words to truly understand a new concept and have the learning reside in long term memory, people oftentimes have to do some manipulating or experiencing with others. In one program with which I’m familiar, for example, young adult students with 8th-10th reading skills seemed (informal observation) to retain more vocabulary when looking up words in hardcopy dictionaries than when doing so online. Class dictionaries used to fall apart from so much use (students were required to look up words they didn’t know in their assigned readings).

    MOOC courses would appear to be wonderful experiences for those who are ready academically and emotionally to benefit. But most are not, and schools should be helping students take the steps needed to become self-directed learners.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Barry. Some research studies on online instruction, especially for K-12 students, will touch on some of the claims you assert, Barry. Most of the research literature on online instruction cannot answer the simple question: For which students and under what circumstances does online teaching and learning work?

    • Bob Calder

      Barry – Well designed online courses that are highly interactive and social exist. Laura Gibbs, Meg Tufano, and Donna Murdoch are all good examples of highly successful professors that don’t let their schools’ policies get in the way of great learning. The problem of students is right on the money as you said. But our legislators think that numbers of online students equal numbers of “successful” online students. We know that in MOOCs the success favours 2nd timers and in K-12 we ride herd on them in a classroom while they punch-buttons-for-success. The online contractors are extremely cagy about their 60% churn rate. So legislators think there is computer magic involved. There is, just not the sort they suppose. 😉

  7. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    As usual a critical post by Larry Cuban about MOOC’s with an interesting new concept to me ‘irrational exuberance’.

  8. Larry: I was as skeptical as you, but am starting to change my mind. They are not going to replace college courses, but may change what we actually do there. If you can outsource content, testing, and exercise development to MOOC’s you can concentrate on helping students to learn and on providing deeply relational experiences. Cinema did not replace theater, but it surely changed it for ever – and for the better, I say.

    Also, you’re wrong if you think MOOC’s will be shifted to adjuncts. With large numbers of students, you can pay the best minds to develop and run these things. I wonder sometimes why thousands upon thousands of instructors have to struggle to design some common basic courses like Psych 101 or college writing. Most don’t do a good enough job of it, mainly because as you pointed out, the tenure and promotion policies.

    • larrycuban

      You might be correct, Alexander, about MOOCs altering teaching. And you might not. As for adjuncts and non-tenured appointments, we shall see as MOOCs roll out over the next few years. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  13. I’m taking 2 MOOC’s right now. These courses seem to be based on cognitive flexibility, where the goal of the course seems to be on getting the learner to understand multiple concepts. One course that I am taking about online learning and digital societies uses discussion boards and Google Hangouts. The class is interesting, I’m enjoying the readings and the discussions, but then I’m addicted to learning and sort of geek out over this sort of thing.
    I like that top universities are trying something new, I mean that’s the point isn’t it to try and create a learning experience for a community of learners? I don’t know if MOOC’s are the iPhone, or just a new fad. But as an educator I’m interested, I’m curious, I’m tinkering with them and trying to create my own learning experience, which in my view is sort of the point of a MOOC, to create a social learning experience.
    We should give MOOC’s a chance to grow, for researchers to look at them, and for tinkerers like myself to tinker with them. Much like we do in MMORPG’s like World of WarCraft where each player can create their own gaming experience, I believe that MOOC’s could give this same power to learners. But it takes time. It takes discussions like this to further and expand the field.

    • larrycuban

      Evan, thanks for commenting on your experience in MOOCs. MOOCs will grow and I hope as you say that individuals like yourself will create learning experiences from each person’s effort and social networks. There is such diversity among students who take MOOCs for a variety of reasons.And there are serious questions about course credit and earning new streams of revenue for higher ed institutions that makes the enterprise uncertain. Experiences such as yours, Evan, nonetheless make those MOOCs valuable for you. I appreciate your comments.

  14. So, I have been an online learner for more than a decade… living in rural Vermont and working full-time, it was the only option for my PhD. Anyways, it became very clear to me that the information I accessed via my studies was a small part of my education. Most of my education came when I applied those ideas in my classroom and as chair of the technology committee for a regional education organization. I am seeing the same as a “student” in MOOC’s today… I am accessing information, but I really understand it only after applying it with the faculty I support.

    When I last taught physics, I used the Walter Lewin videos, because he was a far better lecturer than I; my job was to help my students be prepared for Walter (with outlines, previews of equations, etc.) and to design experiments and demonstrations to apply what Walter told us. My classroom separated “the information” from “the application.”

    MOOC’s are going to cause all educators to do the same.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Gary, for taking the time to comment on your experiences with online courses. The application of the knowledge is crucial and you might be right that MOOCs will “cause all educators to do the same.” Based on my experience in higher education and knowledge of reform, I have my doubts.

  15. As a former high school teacher I follow the trend toward MOOCs with interest, and myself took my first set of classes via Coursera this past Fall.

    In a different reference to the big picture of irrational exuberance, look at the unsustainable trendline of college costs, the number of ill-prepared recent graduates for the real working world who cannot find a first job, the amount spent by employers to train employees: the existing higher-ed system has been on this unsustainable irrational model now for over a decade.

    And the culprit for the (once irrational) housing market, like the (currently irrational) higher education market, has the same source: cheap government money. If you look at student loan trends, it is a horrifying picture of many students without a degree but are trapped into years of paying back debt that they cannot get out of. (Thanks to Congress. student loans cannot be defaulted through bankruptcy like real estate loan mortgages.)

    I am aware of the need to apply the acquired skills through an online course – as well as what kind of certification, what kind of training online learning represents. All that needs to be developed, what we are seeing now with Coursera, edX and others are the first models of online instruction as a replacement to a traditional 4-year degree that will be further refined, and turned into a business.

    Look at online guitar playing for a simple illustration of what will happen to University education in the future. This is not exuberance, it is an unavoidable future: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203400604578075080640810820.html . The worst teachers do something else, the best do very well, and the students gain from it. I met a teenager a few months ago who takes online guitar lessons, and he told me that it was so much better and less expensive than his prior teacher that he won’t consider doing live lessons. Ever.

    You do have an excellent point about the non-learning social aspects of education; this is where a reverse-classroom would make sense, where the students learn independently online, then meet for discussion, shared ‘homework’ practice, face-to-face interaction etc, instead of the current system of learning as a group (in silence and without interaction) and then practice during ‘homework’ alone and up to them to find each other for group practice.

    Another point – what an opportunity for any developing country to take advantage of one of the last areas where the United States towers far above other developed countries – in the quality of its undergraduate and graduate universities. And that these top-tier institutions are offering such a wealth of content, as you accurately describe these forces are not compatible with their existing structures. So they must change and adapt – and many of the second and third-tier schools will simply shut down.

    The crux of your argument is based upon learnings and achievements, which is fair. Perhaps you may not be familiar with the first randomized trial of online learning effectiveness, pointed out by the Brookings Institute here: http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2012/05/22-online-education-chingos The result? Online learners did just as well. Not better, not worse, just as well – and take a look at the original report linked to in the blog post.

    Would be interested in your perspective given these new data sources about online learning, and the inevitable-ness of this trend.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Dale, for taking the time to comment. You make a number of compelling and fair points, in my opinion. Yes, I am familiar with the Mathhew Chingos experimental/control study of stat courses at a half-dozen universities. The result of the hybrid format of “machine-guided” instruction with one hour weekly of face-to-face time with instructor was that those students did as well as students taking the course without any “machine-guided instruction.” It is one study. A few others that did randomized trials are reported in Barbara Means, et. al. 2009 meta-analysis study done for the Department of Education. Again, the finding is that online courses are as effective as traditional course as measured by achievement test. These studies hardly constitute a trend or substantial evidence that MOOCs or similar courses “work.” While you see MOOCs as destiny for higher education, I see (and hear) peripheral changes as colleges (fewer research-driven universities) as they adopt and adapt MOOCs to their existing programs. There will be incremental changes but I do not foresee fundamental–“trasformation” and “revolutionary”–alterations in higher education.

      • No argument here that studies like these are in their infancy, especially as the final ‘product’ of an online course is still yet to be defined. Coursera and edX are experiments – others will be founded and try out other variations in methods, evaluations, etc. – and what the optimum method (and what an acceptable credential) would look like is in the future.

        But what about the private guitar lesson? Would you agree that there are a lot of not-so-great guitar teachers, providing a not-so-great education, in an inefficient mechanism? And the fact that they are quickly being displaced by ‘star’ teachers, conveying their pedagogy via an online lesson. Isn’t it clear to you that the future of education is here?

        Here are some of the brightest minds on the planet at an exclusive enclave in the Swiss Alps (World Economic Forum in Davos) on the topic of the ‘Future of Online Education’. http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2013/01/eight_brilliant_minds_on_the_f.html They obviously share the same enthusiasm you heard from the Stanford speakers. Of note, in talking about the $50K yearly tuition, the president of MIT says “I don’t think we can charge that much for tuition in the future”.

        Looking over your original post, though, it’s clear that you don’t see the existing structures being able to absorb this kind of change, so you call this change mindless and incoherent. The problem is one of disruptive change – refer to Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma – and how change is forced upon companies from the outside, as their structure and environment is not conducive at all for innovations that disrupt the business model. It is only natural to see it as incoherent – from within the existing structure, that Bill Gates in his comment says that there will be a ‘pretty brutal winnowing process’.

        I see that Dr. Christensen has now tackled K-12 education in a new book ‘Disrupting Class’ (Amazon : http://www.amazon.com/Disrupting-Class-Expanded-Edition-Disruptive/dp/0071749101?tag=651998669-20) that I’m going to have to read.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Dale, for sending along links to pieces I had not seen. We see the spread of online instruction both in higher ed and K-12 differently.Nonetheless, I appreciate your point of view.

  16. I feel like we, as educators need to be wary of the MOOC, especially since it is often paired with the corporate buzzword of “disruption”:

  17. Pingback: “Irrational Exuberance”: The Case of the MOOCs | Massively MOOC | Scoop.it

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  19. Pingback: “Irrational Exuberance”: The Case of the MOOCs | Learning with MOOCs | Scoop.it

  20. Pingback: "Irrational Exuberance": The Case of the MOOCs | Personal e-Learning Environments | Scoop.it

  21. Larry,

    “Irrational Exuberance” is a great way to put it! I’m reblogging this post because it blends nicely with my article that was published last fall in The Chronicle of Higher Ed. I’ve posted the article on my blog if you’re interested in reblogging it or just checking it out: http://bit.ly/TezAor

    In the article, I ponder the possibility that Thrun and others’ exuberance could be influenced by the ego-boost that comes from seeing massive numbers sign up for their courses.

    Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts here. Let’s keep sounding the alarm!


  22. Reblogged this on The Digital Realist and commented:
    Check out this excellent blog post challenging the irrational exuberance about MOOCs.

  23. Pingback: "Irrational Exuberance": The Case of the MOOCs | MOOCING | Scoop.it

  24. Thanks for the interesting perspectives on MOOCs. Your insights are, as always, a touchstone to remind us of the fundamental issues. These include considerations of how people learn and what it means to learn. Distance education in higher education really began to take off when “traditional” online learning allowed for asynchronous interaction. Volumes of evidence speak to the importance of interaction (especially formative feedback) in the learning process. The asynchronous element meant that busy people could participate in higher education in ways that better fit their schedules. Recent research indicates that one in three of every college student in the United States is already enrolled in a “traditional” online course. Most of these are the typical credit-bearing online courses with 20-25 students enrolled, a format in which reasonable student-teacher and student-student interaction is possible.

    The problem with MOOCs as I see it (I am enrolled in one at the moment) is that scant attention is paid to the role of interaction and especially formative feedback in the learning process. There are so many students and so many groups in my Coursera Mooc that it is utterly chaotic. The possibility of getting formative feedback from the instructor is next to impossible. And trying to locate a peer that has trustworthy knowledge is impeded by the sheer volume of participants. Browsing through the thousands of comments in this opening week is akin to surveying a battlefield after a confusion bomb was dropped. The most common comments seem to be of the kind “How do I join a group?” and ‘I’m frustrated about…” and “This doesn’t work…” Obviously this is not the outcome of all MOOCs, but after teaching in “traditional” online environments for more than ten years this experience is an eye opener. The greatest irony is that the topic of this Coursera course is Fundamentals of Online Education.

    Anyway, I’m not sure that the MOOC format is ready for prime time, especially for those who believe that the hallmark of high quality online learning is in carefully designed interaction…

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Peter, for your comments on general online courses and your experience with a MOOC.As the comments on this post thus far reveal there is a strong diversity of opinions.

  25. Pingback: "Irrational Exuberance": The Case of the MOOCs | Digital Delights | Scoop.it

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  29. I have been wondering how universities could monetize MOOCs. A friend sent me a link to this website, https://learningcatalytics.com/, where I can now see how the money will flow in. It is a means to generate feedback for students and the instructors. Purports to address the need for social interaction and is research based, http://gking.harvard.edu/files/gking/files/teach_1.pdf – well, researched by the developers of the software at any rate. No conflict of interest or anything…

    • larrycuban

      Many thanks for the two links you sent. I want to write further about MOOCs and Pedagogy and the two pieces you sent are helpful. You may be right about where the money is in MOOCs (and K-12) with the impressive analytics on instant student feedback in teaching and grouping students.

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  34. Pingback: The Best Posts & Articles On MOOC’s — Help Me Find More | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

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