Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The On-Line Learning MOOC Is Not the Future of Higher Education

By Ikhlaq Sidhu

But it might be the New Interactive Text Book

By Ikhlaq Sidhu and Esther Wojcicki

There has been a lot of investment as well as discussion about the future of education in the past few years. The basic idea was supposed to be that education could be democratized and that college students everywhere would simply login at home and learn from the best instructors around the world.

Having experienced a pandemic, we can say that the first part indeed did turn out to be true. Just about every aspect of the digital world has been accelerated. Education has been no different, students everywhere have been learning on-line. However, the result is that student outcomes have not improved. And by the way, no one actually likes it!

MOOCS are Not Magic

And for sure, the MOOC has not turned out to be a silver bullet. To be honest, we could have guessed this as well. We already knew that MOOC course completion rates are quite low, typically in the single digit percentages. For the few numbers of students that have made successful use of MOOCS, the majority are already educated, working professionals learning a new skill. In other words, these are people who already know how to learn. The MOOC by itself does not solve the educational needs for regular undergraduate students. You might as well just point them in the direction of the library and expect them to self-educate.

Investors have been hopeful, but in the end, there has been a lot promised, but no results. They have been pitched about the large scale of on-line learning and how the cost per student will drop to pennies on the dollar compared to a top ranked school education. Take a look at Coursera, hundreds of millions invested, and they are still seeing over $100M loss per year.

Interactivity with Live Instructors is Still the Key

After experiencing on-line learning, just about everyone is waiting to get back to classrooms. Neither students, nor their parents, think that plugging into a computer all day to watch recorded lectures is a reasonable substitute for higher education.

For completeness, we need to be clear that this is also because, the teaching function at a university is only a one slice of the value of any university. The other aspects include campus life, social development, sports, jobs, clubs, and so much more.

If we focus on the classroom only, then interaction and interactivity is still required. In fact, famed Stanford Professor and former Dean Jim Gibbons conducted a study that showed that a MOOC could actually be effective, not for teaching, but as an interactive book. Results were optimized when the live instructor plays the video, and takes a break every 8 minutes to host an interactive discussion.

Future of Higher Education

Let’s clarify what we know and correct the misunderstandings:

Q: Does the MOOC replace the classroom:

A: No, the MOOC is simply like an interactive book. It enables assignments of watching versus reading, with the assumption that an interactive teacher is managing the discussion between assignments. You can even access it on multiple devices. A MOOC is like a book in that you can learn to some degree from a book but you really still need live interaction.

Q: Will online learning still help us scale education

A: Yes, it will help us scale from 25 students to 80 students with the same teaching resources. It will also help in the same way that books helped to standardize classroom education. An instructor who is aided by a good on-line teaching tool is more effective and can interact effectively with at least 3X more students.

Q: Since material can be standardized globally, does this mean we have democratized the opportunity for all students.

A: No, we have common books today. It does not mean everyone who read the same book has an equal opportunity. Opportunity also comes from belonging to a group. Opportunities will increase for students around the world when the technology and social structure allows them to actually join and be included in a respected global group.

Q: What other aspects should we consider about the future of education?

A: We have not talked about project-based learning nor have we discussed what else can be done to increase the connections between employers and students.

In reality, there is change in education on the horizon. However, it may not be the way all the investors have so far predicted. Using on-line learning tools, we can indeed look forward to new levels of scale and the crossing of new geographic boundaries. But in the end, a MOOC or an on-line learning tool is simply a different type of book. It is a nice incremental innovation, but by itself it will not change the entire game. For that, we will still need people, live inter-activity, experiential learning, mindsets, behaviors, and connected networks.


Ikhlaq Sidhu, Chief Scientist, and Faculty Director of UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. He is the author of the book “Innovation Engineering” and the creator of the very popular Data-X Course at Berkeley. He holds 75 patents in internet communication technologies. Dr. Sidhu developed the Entrepreneurship & Technology area at the #1 public university in the world, the Berkeley Method of Entrepreneurship (for new ventures), and the Berkeley Method of Innovation Leadership (for technical leaders).

Sidhu received the IEEE Major Education Innovation Award in 2018 and the Extraordinary Teaching in Extraordinary Times Award at Berkeley in 2021. He received Berkeley IEOR Emerging Area Professor Award in 2009 at UC Berkeley. In 1999, he received 3Com Corporation’s Inventor of the Year Award. He serves on many advisory boards. He received his bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his masters’ degree and doctorate in Electrical Engineering from Northwestern University.

Esther Wojcicki

Wojcicki is the founder of Tract.app and WOJ IT. She is a leading American educator, journalist and mother. Leader in Blending Learning and the integration of technology into education, she is the founder of the Media Arts program at Palo Alto High School, where she built a journalism program from a small group of 20 students in 1984 to one of the largest in the nation including 600 students, five additional journalism teachers, and nine award-winning journalism publications. Wojcicki serves as Vice Chair of Creative Commons and has previously worked as a professional journalist for multiple publications and blogs regularly for The Huffington Post.

Esther has been intimately involved with Google and GoogleEdu since its inception, where she was one of the leaders in setting up the Google Teacher Academy and remains a guiding force.

With two Honorary Doctorate Degrees – Palo Alto University (2013) and Rhode Island School of Design (2016). She was California Teacher of the Year in 2002 by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing; a recipient of the Gold Key by Columbia Scholastic Press Association in recognition of her outstanding devotion to the cause of the school press; a board member of Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, DC, and on the Board of Newseum in DC; and a has been consultant for the U.S Department of Education, Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, Google, Silicon Valley Education Foundation and Time Magazine Education.