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MOOCs, Moola, and Love: The 5 Smooches of MOOCs

MOOCs and Moola  

There was an article in the New York Times about how massive open online courses are popular and not yet profitable (here).  To me this is reminiscent of the rush to place newspaper content online for free, which, later, many newspapers (including the NYT) regretted.  The Wall Street Journal was one of a very few who held back and found a way to get users to pay for digital content, and I can’t help wondering whether history isn’t repeating itself.  But big universities the world over are not businesses or profitable (although they increasingly compete with more businesslike organizations than themselves), and they can probably sustain some sort of existence without a return on this particular investment.  After all, universities currently lose money on everything they do. Why should they much care whether they make money on this activity?

The 5 Smooches of MOOCssmooch

The more interesting question raised by this story is this: Why are MOOCs so popular with students?  After all, for years education researchers have been telling us that lectures are dead, and that experiential learning, active learning, problem-based learning, team-based learning, challenge-based learning–what I have called X-based or X learning–was the only way to go.  Why are hundreds of thousands or millions of students signing up for “bad” old boring lectures taught to thousands or tens of thousands simultaneously when the future of education supposedly lies elsewhere?

I think there are at least five reasons. All 5 are fundamentally emotional in nature and have to do with something students love.  Let’s call them the five smooches of MOOC:

MOOC Smooch #1: Good Lectures. One reason MOOCs are popular is that students love good lectures.  The prediction of the demise of lectures seems premature. The problem isn’t that lectures are a bad way of conveying material; the problem is that bad lectures are bad.  MOOCs make good material available widely and at low cost.  Pressure on the status quo. This puts pressure on lousy lecturers to either up their game, flip the classroom, or find another line of work.

MOOC Smooch #2: High Status Lecturers.  Another reason MOOCs are popular is that students love high status lectures.  Students would rather hear lectures from a high status professor at a brand name university than listen to one back home at Lower Slobovia University.   These high status lecturers may or may not be better lecturers, but students, but Rolexes don’t keep better time that Seiko watches, and BMWs go from point A to point B in much the same way as a Toyota Camry.  Pressure on the status quo. This second smooch puts pressure on non-prestigious universities to form content partnerships with those that are.

MOOC Smooch #3: Choice.  Students like to have a choice.  In DriveDan Pink identified the three keys to intrinsic motivation as autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and a key to autonomy is being in choice. Universities used to have monopolies on who students would listen to and when, and choice were more limited.  With MOOCs, students have a greater degree of choice than before, and this is a big part of why they are attending them.  Pressure on the status quo. The third smooch puts pressure on the system to give students more choice generally.

MOOC Smooch #4: Novelty.  Students like to be a part of something new or cutting edge. MOOCs are perceived as cool and students want to be a part of this movement.  A portion of this flock to novelty is also because students know that the current system isn’t serving them as well as it might, and they are hoping that they will find something better somewhere else.  Pressure on the status quo.  Universities have  reserved much of their innovative capacity for the research enterprise, and the existence of attractive and novel alternatives may place pressure on increased educational innovation.

Mooc Smooch #5: Community.  Students love community, and an unheralded aspect of MOOCs is the degree to which many students are using social media and other online tools to form study and support groups for MOOCs.  The very impersonality of a MOOC with tens of thousands of students may counterintuitively encourage students to roll their own community building efforts.  Pressure on the status quo.  Bricks and mortar universities should have an advantage with community building efforts, but they may assume that they have such a natural advantage that no administrative or faculty effort is necessary.  The recent experience of MOOCs should question whether such an assumption is valid.

The Smooch of Smooch

A lot of what is driving students to MOOCs is emotion, mainly love, and paying more attention to emotion, especially love, is the royal road to effective educational transformation. The efforts at Olin, Illinois, and elsewhere that led to the founding of the Big Beacon found that engaging students with positive emotion was the key to effective transformation.  In particular, we found that words like content, curriculum, and pedagogy were less important than words like connection, trust, courage, openness, and joy (here).

In a certain way, MOOCs are to tech scalability as the Big Beacon is to emotional scalability.   The Big Beacon manifesto below

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articulates this fairly directly, (, and perhaps we can spend less time talking about MOOCs or any piece of technology and more time talking about the emotional variables that drive effective change.

For more information about the Big Beacon go to, to a series of articles on Huffington Post (here), or write Dave Goldberg at

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