Beware of the High Cost of ‘Free’ Online Courses

Steve Lohr:

That the acronym MOOCs rhymes with “nukes” seems apt. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs — led by two profit-making start-ups, Coursera and Udacity, founded by entrepreneurial Stanford professors — are a new disruptive force in education. Leading universities have scrambled to join or offer alternatives like edX, a collaboration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and others.
The MOOCs movement has been greeted with equal parts enthusiasm and angst. The MOOC champions predict a technology-fueled revolution in the distribution and democratization of high-quality education. The MOOC skeptics have a variety of qualms, but especially about what is lost in the retreat of face-to-face teaching — a point eloquently made by Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia University, in an article in the current New Republic, “MOOCs of Hazard.”
Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., raises a different issue in an essay published this week: the economics of MOOCs and the implications.
His article appears in Communications of the ACM, the monthly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery, and he had circulated a version of it earlier to his M.I.T. colleagues. After reading it, L. Rafael Rief, M.I.T.’s president, asked Mr. Cusumano to serve on a task force on the “residential university” of the future, including online initiatives.