More or Less (Part Four)

Woody Brown


A Seminar on the Massive Open Online Course

(in Seven Easy Lessons)

(Link to Lesson One)
(Link to Lesson Two)
(Link to Lesson Three)

Lesson Four: A Brief History of Failure

Largely absent from the discourse surrounding the MOOC is the recognition that the current wave exists in a lineage. Online education has a history, one that, as far as MOOCs are concerned, is a history of disappointed expectations, wasted money, and litigation.

The 1990s saw the emergence of open educational resources [OER], a movement founded on “the idea that the principles of the open source / free software movements can be productively applied to content.” In 2001, Larry Lessig, an activist and academic, and several others founded Creative Commons, a non-profit organization that is responsible for the Creative Commons licenses that cover the publication and distribution of content, especially on the internet. That same year, MIT began its OpenCourseWare initiative “to publish nearly every university course for free public access for noncommercial use.” Three years previous, James J. Duderstadt, President Emeritus and University Professor of Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, had published a highly influential essay titled, “Can Colleges and Universities Survive in the Information Age?” in which he described a vision of a “brave new world of market-driven higher education.”  In this world, he continued,

“emerging domestic market for educational services could be served by a radically restructured enterprise consisting of 50,000 faculty ‘content providers’, 200,000 faculty ‘learning facilitators,’ and 1,000 faculty celebrities who would be the stars of commodity learning-ware products. The learner would be linked to these faculty resources by an array of for-profit services companies handling the production and packaging of learning-ware, the distribution and delivery of these services to learners and the assessment and certification of learning outcomes.”[1]

Duderstadt, anticipating Anant Agarwal’s tone and sentiment, continued,

“Education is moving more toward the certification of competence with a focus on demonstrated skills and knowledge—on ‘what you know’ rather than ‘what you have taken’ in school. As education becomes more a continuous process of certification of new skills, institutional success for any higher education enterprise will depend more on successful marketing, solid quality assurance and control systems, and effective use of the new media, not solely on the production and communication of knowledge.”

MOOCs, then, are not a new idea and neither is Agarwal’s brand of propheteering. This fact is critical for a less fanatical, more measured analysis of the discourse. The MOOC is not a shiny, digital gift from on high, but rather a concept in a context.

The first MOOCs, which emerged around the same time as Duderstadt’s essay, are a curious, now extinct group. The first was, a for-profit company that launched in 1997 on a deceptively threadbare magic carpet of $180 million in start-up cash, part of which was contributed by convicted felon Michael Milken, a man who was indicted in 1990 on an impressive array of securities and tax violations, for which he would eventually pay $1.3 billion in fines. launched the Cardean Academic Consortium, a cooperative partnership between Columbia University, The University of Chicago, Stanford University, The London School of Economics, and Carnegie Mellon University. The head of, Andrew Rosenfield, emphasized his organization’s place in a lineage:

“We recruited some of the leading cognitive and learning scientists from places all over the United States, who have spent their lives studying the question, how do students learn? It's that literature, along with the experience of the early distance movement that we bring to bear. We apply a constractivist [sic] 'learning by doing' active learning methodology, which we instantiate over the Internet to permit peer to peer student interaction, tracking and mentoring. But these are all learning strategies that have been studied, perfected and developed over hundreds of years.”

In his testimony before Congress, Rosenfield claimed “[i]nternet learning has the power fundamentally to transform educational opportunity and democratize access to education.”[2] allowed students to take “courses that are as short as two hours and suites of courses that are 10 hours of length on a whole variety of subjects, from business subjects to e-commerce.” Rosenfield, speaking of his company’s success, said, “[i]n the past year, we've become, we are a fully accredited academic institution. We are authorized to grant the MBA degree, among others. We have built out the base of the MBA curriculum.”

1999 saw the emergence of two other major consortia. Columbia University launched Fathom, a for-profit enterprise that partnered with the London School of Economics and Political Science, the British Library, the New York Public Library, Cambridge University Press, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.  “Fathom's content,” reads the preview site, “includes on-line seminars, lectures, exhibits, and reference material—all of which is attributed to Fathom member institutions and their celebrated faculty, curators, and researchers.” Backed by $25 million of internal risk capital from Columbia’s patent royalties, Fathom’s goal, according to Columbia Provost Jonathan Cole, was “to recreate in virtual space the kind of possibilities that one can usually get only from being at a great university or great museum.”[3] Tellingly, George Rupp, Columbia’s President at the time, “described the pressure Columbia felt to establish an online presence as a reaction to ‘a lot of hype about the internet.’” Anticipating the involvement the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would have in the development of MOOCs, Stephen Friedman, the former chair of Columbia’s board of trustees, said he “had a nightmare that Microsoft would buy up all the faculty of Columbia and other leading universities and basically destroy the system of higher education.”[4] Fathom charged $50-$500 per class.

That same year, Oxford University, Princeton University, Stanford University, and Yale University joined together to release, a “not-for-profit consortial effort aimed at its member universities’ alumni.” Each member institution contributed $3 million.  Courses cost around $300. In February of 2000, the government of the United Kingdom partnered with Sun Microsystems to create UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited [UKeU]. UKeU was a private company backed by £62 million of public funds.  It joined together twenty leading UK universities “to deliver the best of UK higher education in online fashion across the world.” Courses cost between £2,600 and £9,500 each.

Each of these consortia, without exception, failed, leaving behind little more than a series of broken URLs, test webpages, and unpaid bills. Fathom never once turned a profit and was closed by Columbia’s President Rupp’s successor, Lee Bollinger, in 2003. UKeU failed more spectacularly in 2004, costing the British taxpayer £50 million. This was apparently scandalous enough that three members of the e-Learning Research Center of Manchester, UK, felt obliged to state at the 3rd European Conference on e-Learning that in their scholarly work they were not “undertaking an investigation or interrogation of individuals within the UKeU.”[5] never broke even and failed in 2006.  Cardean, formerly known as, broke with the New York Institute of Technology [NYIT], which claimed Cardean had broken its contract and owed NYIT more than $2 million. NYIT refused to release students to Ellis University, a college Cardean rebranded and attempted to accredit, an attempt that NYIT consistently tried to undermine. NYIT alleged in a lawsuit that Cardean failed to pay its debts and “betrayed personal student information.” Cardean admitted a year after the security breach occurred that it had violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Amid further allegations of fraud, the Higher Learning Commission withdrew all formal accreditation from Ellis University. In December 2012, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a lawsuit alleging violations of the False Claims Act had reached a $4 million settlement, with Cardean paying $1.5 million and NYIT paying $2.5 million.

Woody Brown is a writer living in Buffalo, NY. He graduated from Amherst College in 2011 with a degree in English.

(Link to Lesson One)
(Link to Lesson Two)
(Link to Lesson Three)

[1] James Duderstadt, Daniel Atkins, and Van Douglas Houweling, Higher Education in the Digital Age: Technology Issues and Strategies for American Colleges and Universities (Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Praeger, 2002), 153.

[2] Quoted in William Durden, “Making the Case for Liberal Education: Liberal Arts for All, Not Just the Rich,” Chronicle of Higher Education (October 18, 2001).

[3] Quoted in Taylor Walsh, Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses (Princeton University Press, 2011) 25.

[4] Walsh notes that the Columbia administration probably had in mind Microsoft’s recent domination of the encyclopedia business. When the company released Encarta in 1993, which product was terminated in 2009, it basically held for the next 16 years a monopoly on the production of encyclopedias.

[5] Pauline Wilcox, Hilary Dexter, and Jim Petch, “e-Universities: Toward a Case Study of the UK eUniversities (UKeU),” Proceedings of the 3rd European Conference on e-Learning (Academic Conferences Limited, 2004).