The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

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Merchants of MOOCs Published

My essay on higher education and online learning, The Merchants of MOOCs, has just been published in the Seton Hall Law Review’s symposium issue from the Legal Education Looking Forward conference in October 2013. I wrote it at the peak of MOOC hype, as an antidote to that hype. Even just a year later, it’s remarkable how much the bloom is off the MOOC rose. This isn’t to say that online learning isn’t important or potentially transformative, just that the form of the Destructor isn’t likely to be the MOOC. Here’s the abstract:

A loose network of educators, entrepreneurs, and investors are promoting Massive Open Online Courses as an innovation that will radicaly disrupt higher education. These Merchants of MOOCs see MOOCs’ novel features – star professors, flipped classrooms, economies of scale, unbundling, and openness – as the key to dramatically improving higher education while reducing its cost.

But MOOCs are far from unprecedented. There is very little in them that has not been tried before, from 19th-century correspondence courses to Fathom, Columbia’s $25 million dot-com boondoggle. Claims of disruption look rather different when this missing context is restored. This essay examines some common arguments about what gives MOOCs their value, and finds them wanting. There is a sharp division between the features that make MOOCs exciting for education and the features that make them financially appealing to the Merchants of MOOCs.

The changes from the draft I posted last year are not many, so if you only read one version, read this one, but you should only read one version.

You might also have noticed that the link to the paper itself goes to a URL on, rather than to SSRN. I’m still posting my papers on SSRN as well, because other people look there and because it’s useful to be picked up by the SSRN abstracting service. But I realized that it’s easier to make a direct canonical download available myself. I used to use BePress Selected Works for that purpose, but their platform has stagnated since I started using it in 2006, its URLs are funky, and I find it easier to maintain my publications page by hand-editing HTML (which tells you something about the quality of the Selected Works interface). I regret not self-hosting my papers sooner.