Coursera, the popular massive open online course (MOOC) platform, intrigues. With over 5 million students served and $85 million raised—both numbers are first among the “MOOC platforms”—it’s the type of company that captures the imagination of people in Silicon Valley who dream of transforming sectors.
Its reach and emerging focus on K–12 professional development were prime reasons that we at the Clayton Christensen Institute, along with the Silicon Schools Fund and the New Teacher Center, recently offered a MOOC on blended learning through Coursera.
But Coursera has always given me reason to pause as well. It’s never felt to me like its initial incarnation could possibly disrupt higher education. Why? As I’ve told its team, offering courses from the top universities online and claiming that at last, anyone anywhere can access the best learning in the world isn’t correct.
The reason is that the top universities do not offer the best teaching and learning experiences. Instead, their faculty members are incentivized heavily to focus on research at the expense of teaching. If a professor seeking tenure at one of these institutions receives a teaching award, it is often said that that professor has just received the kiss of death for her tenure hopes. If students learn at these institutions, it’s often not because the teaching is so good, but because the students are so talented that they can absorb anything thrown at them (and it’s worth noting that just because a professor is entertaining, does not mean it’s a good learning experience).
Putting these courses online often makes them worse. Not only do professors not know how to teach well in person, but also their lack of understanding of the basic principles of sound learning design causes them to exacerbate these problems as they put these experiences online, which can become more problematic as students from all walks of life with many different learning needs are now theoretically able to take these courses.