MOOC: A University Learning Experience without the Degree

Yiran Sun


In recent years, there has been a media frenzy about massive open online courses, or better known as MOOCs. Up to the point when this is written, there has been 4,460 items about MOOC with Google news search, and 11,100,000 items in the general search. Although earlier open education resources like the MIT OpenCourseWave project have received much attention in its time, it is no comparison with this wave of MOOCs. This is partly because the online publishing system has progressed much since 2002, but also because the new MOOCs are more similar to a traditional classroom experience than the mere sharing of course materials. Many discussions were made around the MOOCs and online education in general, but at this point, no conclusion has been made or settled. While a lot can be said about MOOCs such as its role in culture transmission and how communication models work or do not work on the platforms, one thing that attracted my attention is that despite their close resemblance to university courses and that the majority of them are provided by the top institutions, few schools would accept a MOOC certificate as university credit, and none intends to transfer the MOOC platforms into degree programs. Here I want to explore the reasons behind this reluctance with credentials, first by looking at the differences between a MOOC experience and an on-campus one, and then by discussing the symbolic values that a college degree mediates and its meaning to both the university and the society.


MOOCs as we know them today emerged around 2008 within the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. OER itself is part of the larger open source movement, and is sparked by the 2002 MIT OpenCourseWare project, which put the entire MIT course catalog online; the term “OER” was also adopted that year (Johnstone, 16). During the late 2000s, the MOOCs were what now considered “cMOOCs”: massive online open courses built upon the Connectivist theory, with emphasis on the role of social and cultural context in education. However, the model that is employed by platforms like Coursera, Udacity and edX, the ones that generate most of the hype in recent times, is the “xMOOC” model. This is more in line with the traditional college lecture experience, with information taught by the professors and thus duplicated, instead of created or generated by the student body. For the purpose of this analysis, I will focus more on the xMOOCs, because they are under the spotlight at the moment, and because they also incorporate many approaches employed by cMOOCs as well.

The xMOOC model came to press attention when in fall 2011, 100,000 people signed up for the course on Applied Machine Learning offered by Stanford University (Porter, 2). The number astonished the public and led to much excitement. The model really took off when a number of third-party platforms, which partnered with the top U.S. universities, were founded. Despite the enthusiasm, however, few universities have chosen to incorporate the online courses into their own credit system: Many MOOCs issue certificates upon completion of the course, but very few institutions accept them as credits, even at the recommendation of the American Council on Education in early 2013. This lack of motivation has partly contributed to the extremely low completion rate of MOOCs (typically less than 10%), and thus helped casting doubts on the education model like an Ouroboros loop.

Due to the newness of the MOOCs, although there has been much coverage among the mass media and on the Internet, little academic assessment has been done about them, and even less around the issue of credentials. Much of the work done on the topic were about the teaching/learning aspect of the model, usually confined to the discipline of education, with emphasis on psychology and communications; some others looked at the commercial side of the platform and discussed about the business models incorporated in the MOOCs; while still some explored the model/platform under the hype cycle framework. The only comprehensive analysis mentioning the certification/credential issue that I’ve found so far is in Sir John Daniel’s 2012 article Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. In it, he touched upon the relationship between a degree and the university’s admission process, and displayed doubt as for universities ever will be able to “lift the taboo on credit”. On the more practical side, Norm Friedsen and Christine Wihak have offered course-based portfolios from PLAR (Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition) as a possible solution to the credential problem in their 2013 paper From OER to PLAR: Credentialing for Open Education.

Outside the specific platform of MOOCs, however, much research has been done on related topics. On open educational resources, Malcom Read in his article Cultural and Organizational Drivers of Open Educational Content has offered some possible reasons for prestigious universities to join the open resource movement. We also have Taylor Walsh’s 2011 book Unlocking the Gates, which sported a case-by-case study of some open course ware projects and included a valuable insight on rationales behind universities’ reluctance of giving out credentials. As for the cultural concept of higher education, Karl Jaspers has discussed about “an intellectual aristocracy” and the delegation function education has in his 1959 book The Idea of the University, while sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Victor Turner has offered framework and concepts like “social capital” and “rituals” that would help making sense of the underlying issue.


Before I go into the details of MOOCs, let us first take a look at some of the concerns towards issuing credentials on the platform. First and foremost, the essential question is the quality of the education. Is the dramatic teacher/student ratio affecting the class dynamic? Is efficient feedback possible in the one to thousands environment? Is peer review fair and informed comparable to the grading of a professor? All of these are legitimate problems. However, issues of the same nature are also present in today’s college learning environment, and I will try to demonstrate that the xMOOC experience is not exactly much different from its in-classroom counterpart. Another major argument is that the value of a college education lies in the on-campus life experience. This too can find its parallels in the online simulation and everyday lives.

Then there is the problem of authenticity. Plagiarism has been an ever-present trouble in MOOCs (Young), while cheating is worse. Because of the massive nature of the platform, it has been a tradition to employ more standardized assessment methods such as quizzes and examinations than papers and projects. And based on the distance nature of the platform, it is of great difficulty to verify the identity of the person taking the exam (However, Coursera has recently released a paid “Signature Track” feature which allows students to sign up at the beginning to be verified of identity), and whether or not he/she has been referring to notes and other online resources, possibly on another device. With the aid of checker software like Grammerly, it is comparatively easier to discover plagiarism; but on the other hand, the professor does have to define “plagiarism” for the students before the course starts, for the concept is understood differently across cultures.

Another debate has been around the financial fairness of credentials. Colleges and universities in the United States cost 20,000 to 35,000 each year. If certificates from MOOCs (which are obtained for free) were to be directly transferred into credits, then there would be no point for the on-campus students to pay such large amounts. University of Maryland’s University College, a well-known figure in the online educations, has a plan that would cost 90 USD for each credit. But once other fees get added, the student would have to spend at least 1,300 USD for 3 credits to be converted from MOOCs to the university. At this point, is the MOOC still what it’s promised to be? That becomes a problem up for discussion.

Apart from these major issues surrounding the credential problem of the MOOCs, there are also other aspects that are non-central but may lead to the downfall of the platforms if not solved in time. One of them is the legal issue, especially with regards to intellectual properties. While early MOOCs “operate under an open-access principle”, xMOOCs like Coursera and edX, on the other hand, have been “establishing fairly restrictive copyright controls over the courses they offer” (Porter, 12). It is up to speculation whether or not this will affect the dynamic between the university/professor and the platform and how this might influence the education itself. The financing is also problematic: xMOOCs up to this point are still running on investments from the companies and the universities. With their focus still on expanding the territory, the companies have only rough outlines for earning profits. If the finance does not work out, then that alone might be the end to MOOCs, credential or no credential.

Disassembling the MOOC

If we want to know how different MOOC is compared to the actual in-classroom experience, we must first know how a typical MOOC is constructed. Let us take “Calculus: Single Variable” by University of Pennsylvania (randomly picked on Coursera) as an example. The course lasted a length of 13 weeks (from January 7th to April 14th, 2013), with a weekly workload of 8-10 hours. Now, the time slot itself is an extremely close copy of the academic calendar typically employed in the United States. In fact, according to the “Frequently Asked Question” section, the course was “a faithful representation of the depth and difficulty of Penn’s MATH 104”. So let us look at the content and see how it is similar to a typical college course.


There are entirely 58 15-minute long video lectures throughout the course, each vibrantly animated with narrations over the visuals. In a sense, it is like a combination of slides and writings on the white board. (The student does not see the instructor’s face, which affordance-wise, pose the possibility of loosing certain contextual cues. But that should not be considered an issue shared by MOOCs, for there are many courses whose videos are majorly composed of a medium to wide shot of the professors.)

It is evident that video lectures offered on xMOOCs aim at replicating the lectures delivered in college classrooms, with the major difference being length, a standard derived from YouTube’s 15-minute restriction. Also, most courses offered on MOOCs typically have large student counts in an actual college: there is little chance, if any, for student-teacher interaction in these classes, even when both parties are physically in the same space. Therefore, in the visual and audio aspect, MOOCs are not very different from the in-classroom version.


As is the case for many other MOOCs, reading material for this class is posted on the Internet as open resource to everyone. In this particular example, the material is divided according to lectures, and has a structure that is closely in line with the current paradigm of textbooks in Mathematics, with descriptions/explanations, examples and answers. Partly because reading is usually done “outside the classroom”, this is perhaps the most perfect simulation of MOOCs to the in-classroom experience.


In this class, homework is also assigned according to lectures. While this is not always the case in MOOCs, the overwhelming majority of them do incorporate assignments in different formats. Homework in this case consists of solely multiple choices and fill-in-the-blank-with-numbers. This is the same as the usual Math classes in most colleges. Of course, the assignments take on various emphases when they are in other fields, but all seem to strive for a close reproduction of the existing models employed in universities. The only problem is perhaps grading. While classes in Maths and Sciences can use an automated system for assessment, classes in Arts have to resolve to peer evaluation or teaching assistants for logistical reasons. Although statistics show that peer review yields very close results to a professor’s grading (Lewin), such grading system still cast doubt in the mind of many.


Almost all MOOCs have some form of tests counting towards the final grade. Again, this is partly because papers and projects have been rendered logistically impractical based on their massive nature. At this point, most courses offered on MOOCs belong to disciplines that work well with this preference of tests. However, as the platforms expand, more and more courses in Liberal Arts and even Fine Arts will join onboard. By that time, would this test-oriented grading model still work? On the other hand, though, we have to also note that the in-classroom experience is facing a similar problem. On college campuses, many courses in Liberal Arts are taught in lecture style as well: they too face the issue of the teacher/student ratio, although not as extreme as the MOOCs.

Group work

To compensate the drawbacks caused by the massiveness, most MOOCs would incorporate a discussion forum in the class. This has been the center of the cMOOCs, which emphasized connectivity among the community. Like most discussion forums, it can be viewed as an imitation of the natural discussion that occur in the physical space of classrooms, where people gather in groups and trade ideas on certain issues. However, since the forum can and perhaps would be viewed by the professor, there is a surveillance effect on the student participation. In this sense, a closer analogy might be in-class discussions that happen during the span of the class.

Many MOOCs also has a “meet-up” feature, where students can find or start a meet-up with fellow students. A similar approach can also be found in many lecture classes in universities, where the entire class will be divided into sections either for group works or TA sessions. Students in on-campus courses also tend to form study groups in a similar manner. Of course, since MOOCs now have their influence all over the globe, it is not likely that everyone would be able to find a fellow student near him/her. But the existence of this feature suggests the platforms’ effort in creating a perfect simulation of learning experience, and as they grow, more and more students would be able to form groups right in their towns.

Summing up

Through this part-by-part analysis, we can see that the xMOOCs have been built to simulate the traditional classroom experience as closely as possible. With the combination of video recordings of the class, scans of textbooks, and sometimes aid of alumni teaching assistants, the classroom experience of the top universities gets remediated through the MOOCs. By doing so, in a sense, the xMOOCs are able to minimize the visibility of the mediated interface, thus creating a sense of “being there” as a member of the prestigious institution. This can be brought to the extreme when in certain classes the teacher would join online chats with the students and assign alumni from the campus version of the class to be teaching assistants. In another sense, however, the interface is highly saturated with technology, which both adds an up-to-date image to the centuries-old institutions and gives the students a feeling of legitimacy, drawing from the symbolic value that technologies have acquired through recent decades.

Over the years, the scales of universities in the United States have been expanding at astonishing rates. Although it has slowed down during the “post-massification” era (from the late 1980s, as opposed to the “massification” era during the 1960s and the “maturation” era of late 1970s, Gumport et al, 2, 14, 23). While the criticism on the quality of MOOCs undeniably have truth in it, we should not forget that education in major universities are not necessarily much better. In the very least, when it comes to the Sciences, the education offered on the MOOC platforms are almost perfect copies of those offered in a physical classroom. So if the content of education itself are identical, what makes a “university experience” so much superior, and why is issuing a degree so hard?

Higher education in itself

Now that we’ve compared the content of a MOOC to the typical university classroom experience, let us take a look at some institutional side of higher education itself.

Selectivity, scarcity and elitism

When MITx announced on its Frequently Asked Questions that “Credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material” and “MIT awards MIT degrees only to those admitted to MIT through a highly selective admissions process”, it has alerted David Touve. In his 2012 article, he illustrated this “degree-does-not-equal certificate” logic well in mathematical equations:

Course + Admissions selection + Mastery = Degree

Course – Admissions selection + Mastery = Certificate

Therefore, + Admissions selection = Degree

-Admissions selection = Certificate

While Touve also noted that we should take other aspects of MOOCs (like the possible “lack of equivalence in subject mastery” in Liberal Arts) into consideration, it is undeniable that admission is a sine qua non in the process of degree issuing. In his book, Jaspers has likened the university as an “intellectual aristocracy”, sharply pointing out that it is always “rare and confined to a few, a minority” (128). Of course, Jaspers came from a European tradition, and neither has him seen the full blown “massification” in U.S. higher education when the book was published. Now, with the scale of universities, there is even more practical reason to raise the bar of admissions in hope to control the output numbers. Although we have seen much democratization of higher education, at its root it is still a system based on an elitist model instead of an egalitarian one. Besides, the overwhelmingly majority of universities participating in the xMOOCs are not just any university, but those with the highest prestige and rankings. While teaching is important in the education system, the top universities achieve their status by heritage, by research, and “by the number of applicants that they exclude” (Daniel). In this tradition, the degree as a symbolic package of values immediately entails the premise that the person has came through a highly selective admission process, and has been a smart and hardworking person since his/her high school years.

The on-campus experience as a ritual

Besides the selective admission, MOOCs by their nature also lack the actual on-campus experience. This experience includes dorm life, student club, cafeteria food, and the physical space of campus, with meadows, trees and aged architectures. What has made them so special? Let’s try to analyze them one by one. The core of dorm life is living with arbitrarily assigned fellow students (especially in the freshman year). Ideally, this would help the student meet other people outside his or her social bubble, and learn to interact with students from a different background. However, in reality, college life often serves as a confirmation experience. In their famous 1975 article, Karabel and Astin have demonstrated that college quality is significantly related to social class, mediated by academic ability (394-395). This is even more relevant today, with the constant rise in tuitions, fees, and the standard of admissions, students who end up in the same dormitory are highly likely to share a very similar social and academic background. Then perhaps dorm life and student clubs both serve to find those similar to themselves and to build up networks? But one can achieve this through many ways, universities is far from the only method for it. Then there is the cafeteria and the physical campus environment, which if taken outside the university context and stripped of the symbolic values (very well articulated by Will Barratt, 122), would only mean a eating space with food and a combination of garden and aged architectures.

So if these elements of the campus life by themselves do not have much more than the mundane everyday living experiences of living, eating, and socializing, what is the real enchantment of the “on-campus experience”? This charm can be interpreted within the framework of rituals. This set of elements of an on-campus life (“a stereotyped sequence of activities”), when placed in the context of the university (“performed in a sequestered place”), makes the rituals that together form the university experience (Turner). It is with these rituals that social bonds and group identity are created and affirmed. When current students become alumni as they enter the greater society, this sense of group is then channeled into the public, and becomes a shared belief of the special “aura” of the university.

Higher education as a social function

To fully understand this “aura”, we have to investigate higher education’s role in the society. Although there have been voices of doubt throughout the recent decade regarding qualities of the universities, higher education still has a safe seat of prestige in most societies and cultures. As a social function, it is fulfilled by the most prominent social institution, the university. But higher education itself also fulfills other social functions, as a delegator, a reinforcer of class, and much more.


In the Middle Ages, philosophers acted as delegators in contemplating God on behalf of the mass (129 Jaspers). Now that the world has become more secular, this delegation function has been moved to the relationship between the mass, the scholar and Knowledge. This is perhaps most eminent in the U.S. educational system, where the distinction between a research and a teaching institution is quite notable, with the former holding far more prestige over the latter. In a research institution, the scholar’s success in the pursuit of Knowledge and Truth shapes the core of his authority, both in the form of respect and practical aspects like tenure and research grant. Comparatively, then, it becomes unwise for faculty members to spend too much time and energy on the teaching part of the profession, which is more closely related to the undergraduate experience. In this sense, the social function of delegation shaped the practice within the university.

Reinforcer of class distinctions

The reinforcer of class function, on the other hand, influences the society surrounding the university. As mentioned in the previous section, the access to a prestigious university is significantly related to social class, when the quality of the institution itself is measured by selectivity and affluence (Karabel & Astin). Higher education reinforces class distinctions through the symbolic capital bore by the university degree. To obtain a degree from a prestigious university, one has to succeed in their high school education, pass the highly selective admission procedure with recommendations and high test scores, and pay/study through the four years of college life. These combined are what Pierre Bourbieu call the social capital: “the sum of the resources…that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (119). The degree with its symbolic values and the network formed during the university years then become the new social capital of the individual, which provides him or her a significant advantage over those without. Since children from privileged settings tend to acquire more initial social capital before they enter high school or even grade school than the unprivileged, this system easily becomes a self-reinforcing machine of class distinctions. While education is typically related to success in earning or career, we should never overlook the investment and social capital that is pre-required.

To ensure this system to function properly, then, it becomes important to ensure that a university degree does entail the investments made above. As this role of a degree becomes clear, it would only make sense when Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton’s provost, said that while his university’s MOOCs were going well, he had no plans to offer credentials, and when Daphne Koller, a professor at Stanford University and one of the founders of Coursera, said, “We’re not planning to become a higher education institution that offers degrees”(Lewin).


Content-wise, especially in relatively standardized disciplines like the Sciences, the MOOC experience is not very different from the in-classroom one. Meanwhile, extracurricular life on a college campus is not intrinsically different from life outside universities, either. However, while a formal on-campus university education could lead to a degree, an equally rigorous on-line education provided by the same university could not. Fundamentally, this is because the university is an important node in the social capital system. An significant part of the institution’s prestige came from the highly selective admission process, and this process ensures the pre-acquired capital of its students, who would obtain more social capital during their education, and thus have a better chance of succeeding when they graduate, which would then add to the university’s status. Due to the open nature of MOOCs, the admission process (together with leisure and affluence) is eliminated from the education bundle. However, a university degree has never been solely about teaching/learning itself. It mediates a symbolic capital that requires various investments and pre-existing social/cultural capitals. As long as this symbolic value is still widely recognized in our societies, there is little chance that MOOCs would ever be associated with a university degree.

That being said, the MOOC as platforms may indeed lead to some changes in higher education. With the platforms, top universities around the globe would have their teaching levels observed and rated by the entire world. This generates a healthy competition among these institutions, which have been disproportionately favoring researching over teaching for decades. In this sense, MOOCs would be benefitting both students who go to the universities for a degree, and students who go to the online courses for a certificate.



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