The Intersection: Jun 2013

Welcome to The Intersection, a series designed to help you anticipate and prepare for public policy challenges and opportunities.

Subscribe to The Intersection:

MOOCs: Media Darling?

In the past year, the discussion around massive open online courses (MOOCs) has increased dramatically, and like any new and somewhat controversial trend, the movement is receiving a great deal of media coverage.  Outlets publish stories daily on topics ranging from the advancement and growth of MOOCs, to their oversight and regulation (or lack thereof) and the movement’s impact on the traditional higher education system.

A majority of media coverage is focused on the growth of the MOOC movement, as new partnerships between universities and MOOC platform providers – namely, Udacity, edX, and Coursera – are announced each month.  These articles often highlight the ability of these massive online courses to offer low-cost (or no cost) education to a diverse group of people and almost always maintain a positive sentiment.  When there is breaking news of this nature, the announcement typically receives wide coverage in leading national daily newspapers and mainstream media including USA Today, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

The MOOC movement’s impact on a number of industries has also caught the attention of many trade media reporters, and has spurred coverage in a wide variety of publications. The rise of the dual education-technology reporter means stories regularly appear in both education and technology trades, as these niche reporters have become trusted experts on this topic.  Leading the charge on the education side are the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and Education Week.  Among the tech circles the outlets most commonly covering are TechCrunch and GigaOm.  Business outlets also have a keen interest in this topic and its implications for the marketplace, with stories frequently appearing in outlets including Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.

Another unique facet of the media coverage of the MOOC movement is the first-hand accounts from reporters as they take advantage of the open and (mostly) free format to dip their toe in and test the waters themselves.  While reviews may be mixed, readers are given an honest and interesting personal account of the MOOC student experience.  And the fact that reporters – like Esquire Magazine’s editor at large A.J. Jacobs – are taking the time to participate in this level of in-depth research demonstrates the high level of interest in the topic.

In April, Jacobs authored a Sunday opinion piece in the New York Times on his experience with 11 online courses, citing convenience and professor quality as highlights while teacher-to-student interaction was a definitive low. Jacobs’ overall grade? Two cheers and a B.

Perhaps the most interesting place the MOOC story is playing out in the media is on the opinion pages.  The debate over the role that MOOCs should play in education is lively, and those on both sides voice their opinions through columns, op-eds, editorials, and letters to the editor.

A good illustration of this energetic debate is a January column by Thomas Friedman headlined  “Revolution Hits the Universities.” Having met in Palo Alto with founders of Coursera and edX, Friedman’s optimism relative to MOOCs is far from subtle as he opens the op-ed:

“LORD knows there’s a lot of bad news in the world today to get you down, but there is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future, and that is the budding revolution in global online higher education. Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty…Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms…”

While Friedman acknowledges some of the current pitfalls of the system – retention challenges, narrow demographic participation, and the need to develop a credible credentials system – he is confident in the system’s ability to address them and move forward to accomplish great things.

This story sparked great debate and the following week, The New York Times published five letters in response – all from professors or leaders at institutions of higher education – with varying reactions.  William Durden, President of Dickinson College, writes in stark opposition to Friedman stating that what we are experiencing is far from a revolution as “MOOCs are on the margin… separate from that highly desirable and precious residential degree” and that “the high cost of a degree at M.I.T. — or most universities — is not lowered.”  Expressing a slightly different point of view, H. Kim Bottomly, President of Wellesley College, calls Friedman’s viewpoint “well founded” and posits that “MOOCs are not a substitute for traditional higher education, and they do not endanger it. They expand higher education by widening access, which will improve the world in many ways.”

No matter your opinion on the MOOC movement’s role in complementing or competing with the traditional higher education system, you can’t help but be intrigued by this dynamic movement and the many voices taking part in the conversation about its expansion and impact.  And now you know you don’t have to look too far in your daily news consumption to find it.  Happy reading!

Cameron Munson

Senior Vice President

202-538-3382 \