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The New College Try: A Q&A With Degree of Freedom’s Jonathan Haber

Hello everybody. This is Robert McGuire from MOOC News and Reviews. Today I’m talking with Jonathan Haber who is the man behind the Degree of Freedom project.

Degree of Freedom is his experiment to see if he can learn everything an undergraduate philosophy major would learn in college, only Jonathan is relying on free online resources, and he’s trying to do it in one year instead of four. As we speak, he is a rising junior, so to speak, with four semesters under his belt and four more semesters to go. All of this is documented on the Degree of Freedom website.

Jonathan also churns out a lot of interesting commentary and reporting about online education. Regular readers at MOOC News and Reviews will recognize him as our most prolific reviewer of courses.

His newest project is a weekly podcast featuring interviews with major players in MOOCs and other forms of free learning. So far, he’s interviewed Anant Agarwal, President of edX, Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, and other MOOC instructors and students. The podcast is available on iTunes.

[Note: You can use the player to watch our interview or, if you prefer, there’s a complete transcript below. The audio is a little spotty at the beginning but improves after a couple minutes.]

Welcome, Jonathan. Thanks for being with us.


Thanks, Robert. I look forward to talking to you.


Tell us the stats so far. Am I right? You’re halfway done?


Exactly, halfway, right. I’m breaking the year up into four quarters. So, my freshman year was from January until the end of March. So I’ve just finished my sophomore year, which wrapped up at the end of June. I’m fudging a little bit, because of the timing of some classes that some of them will spill out a little bit of [inaudible]. I have also started some of my junior class earlier in June. So consider it a wash – that I’m in my junior year.

The goal is to fit the equivalent of a four year undergraduate degree number of courses, so by my calculation from my experience when I did this as an undergraduate, originally means 32 courses, 8 courses every 3 months. And they have to follow the formula of a BA degree at a liberal arts university, which means certain distribution requirements for the first two years, a certain number of courses in the major for four years. So, yes, I’m just kicking off formally most of my junior year courses this week.


You mentioned that you’re fudging a little bit, because the courses spill over. That makes you very much like a contemporary student. It’s not like the old days when you and I were in college – if it was your second year, you were a sophomore, if it was your third, you were a junior. These days, when you ask a student what class they are in or what year they are in, they never seem to know for sure themselves. I was talking to someone yesterday and he says, “Well, I’m scheduled to graduate at this date and I’m sort of like a junior and a half.”


With gap years and with people taking time off also, the notion that everybody goes to college at 18 and finishes up at 22 is just not the same anymore. The whole formula for college is changing. What I’m doing is just an extreme manifestation of that.


Tell us about the name of the project, Degree of Freedom. I hadn’t thought of this, but if I understand correctly it’s a reference to a mathematical term. Is that what you were thinking of when you named it?


It wasn’t, although I am taking a statistics class, which reminded me of the mathematical term, the statistics term. But actually, the name came from the usual name search. I know you had to do that for MOOC News and Reviews, finding a catchy name that also had a URL that wasn’t taken yet.

In this case, I’ve had a business career in the past where I ran a company, so a lot of friends who have helped me with the project were formerly working with me on marketing or web design. So I gathered the whole team together to help me with this project. And my old marketing VP helped me with the title.


Tell us more about your previous career, because you’re taking a year off, as I understand it, to do this project. It sounds like three full-time jobs that you’re doing.


Yeah. I’m a fairly restless person, so this is the perfect project. It’s also a project that I would say, my career up to this point has led to. Previous to this, I graduated in the 80’s with a degree in chemistry but didn’t work in chemistry. I moved into journalism where I was writing for a number of newspapers that were coming up with the computing and technology and science pages. At the time, those were new in the 80’s.

So I really consider myself a journalist in terms of writing, researching and interviewing. That’s what I like to do. To a certain extent, writing’s always been a part of my career. But from that career I segued accidentally into publishing. Again, it was the late 80’s when desktop publishing and starting small businesses was very hot. So I had started a business – actually it was a family business – doing publishing in the computer field, publishing computer quick reference guides for many of the new software products that were being released. That, over time, transformed into a software company and then an Internet company. And that company ended up specializing in assessment and testing assessment.

I think people who have read the site will get the sense that I’ve got some experience in some of the science of testing, some of the principles of it, psychometrics. So I’d say, the bulk of my career was spent in that field.

I left that. I actually sold that company in 2006, stayed with the combined company but really wanted to move more into the world of education. That company was doing the bulk of its work in employment and human resources. So when I left I started doing some consulting, working with people in the certification realm, people in the publishing realm. Mostly in the area that had been my area of expertise, which is computer literacy.

But I decided when I left those areas – and that was sort of a mix of consulting and employment – that I really liked doing my own projects. I’m a writer and entrepreneur at heart. My first stab at this was actually last summer when I developed a curriculum on teaching critical thinking, using the 2012 elections as a case study for critical thinking, that was called It’s still up if anyone wants to check it out. That’s where I learned to podcast. That’s where I learned to use WordPress and the various other tools that was used to create a curriculum, create a series of lectures, get the material out into the world.

When I finished that up, it was one of these projects that was . . . . In all my previous work I was coming up with ideas, but, except when I was running my own company, it was very difficult to get those ideas to come to fruition in full. I found that my curriculum project, even though it didn’t make any money, it was exactly like I wanted. Just the guests I wanted on it. I covered the subject just like I wanted.

I was looking for a new project for this year, and I didn’t know it would be this ambition level or the nature of this project, because I’d just really stumbled on MOOCs after that project was finished. After the Critical Voter project was completed, I stumbled on my first MOOC and that’s how I came about developing what became the Degree of Freedom project.


How did you decide on philosophy?


I’ve been interested in it for a long time. I’ve been studying more ancient philosophy, and I was thinking I really should learn the modern philosophers and was thinking what do I do with this? Do I go to graduate school? I don’t want to learn just one modern philosopher. I want to study the subject like I would as an undergraduate. That’s where the notion of creating an equivalent of an undergraduate degree came from.

But the one year BA concept actually emerged at the end of my critical thinking project. I was urging students, if they were really interested in this they should go take a class in logic when they were done, a class on informal logic. And as soon as I was done, up popped this course from a company called Coursera teaching a course called Think Again: How to Reason and Argue that was taught by a team of professors, one from UNC, one from Duke.

I thought I would practice what I preached. So I took the course, and I thought, “Oh this is interesting.” I’ve done iTunes U courses and other types of courses, but the MOOC seemed to be different, more of an interesting complete package.

So I started investigating them and felt that people were having the wrong conversations about them. It seemed to be there were conversations about getting a credit. “Are they going to take over the university? What’s the future of the university?” [pullquote position=”right”]The people who were contributing to the discussion, they had experienced teaching the courses, they had experienced auditing, maybe taking one or two, but it wasn’t enough of a student perspective. There’d be a student who had maybe taken one class, two classes, but I thought we needed the perspective of someone who’d really gone through the whole program.[/pullquote]

And it all came together. I thought, “Well, we need that information, but we don’t need it in four years. We need it now. We need it as soon as possible.” So I thought, those dreaded words, “Why not me?” I thought also if I’m going to stay engaged with this for the course of the year, it’s got to me a subject that I would go back to school and study; I would want to learn about further. And that was philosophy. If I were to go back to school formally, it would be to get a philosophy degree.

In a way, this was better than spending five to seven years in graduate school. I want to learn broadly. I don’t necessarily, at this point, learn in-depth about one very focused narrow subject. I want to learn broadly like I would as an undergraduate. So, this was the perfect opportunity to do that.

It fit perfectly with the kind of project I want to do, especially since it also would test MOOCs, because by the time I was starting and even right until now, it’s not entirely clear there will be enough MOOC classes to get to the equivalent of a four year degree. I’m working on it and looking at all alternatives, but as a way to test out the MOOC phenomenon, which really started out as a computer science – science and technology – form, now is branching into humanities. So, it really worked all around.


There’s a reputation out there, a conventional wisdom forming, that the humanities are neglected in the space and there aren’t enough humanities courses. Does your experience bear that out?


I would say when I started, certainly a year ago, yes. A year ago, I’d say MOOCs was very focused on technology, but it’s broadened out very rapidly. I may not be able to complete every single philosophy course I need for my major through a MOOC but I’ll be able to come pretty close.

In addition to the Think Again logic course, there’s Michael Roth’s course on The Modern and the Postmodern, which is very popular. That’s going to be repeated in July.

I’m taking philosophy courses in mathematical philosophy and Kierkegaard. There are law courses. There are a lot of literature courses. Some of the best courses I’ve taken so far are literature courses, including edX’s Greek Hero course.

I would say humanities is catching up fast. MOOCs are definitely not simply computer science anymore, not by a long stretch.


Let’s talk some more about what’s changed. I always say that anybody’s who’s taken two is a veteran, and you have far exceeded that standard. In the six months since you started the project and then, in the roughly 9 or 12 months since you first started familiarizing yourself with MOOCs, what’s changed? What are you noticing?

Anybody who read a newspaper article about them four months ago and formed an opinion, how might their opinion be off at this point?


I think they’re perceived as catch-as-catch-can, free-for-alls, just because of the sheer numbers of students in them. Often, I’ll hear the discussion boards are full of arguments and aren’t constructive, that many people are signing up but quite a few are dropping out. And I think it’s a combination of, because I’ve been inside them, and as well as they’ve just had more time to percolate, you realize some of these things, while there may be a grain of truth of them, are really not the whole story.

Just to take an example, discussion boards. I’ve been trying to get involved with discussion boards on several of the MOOC classes. That’s one aspect that I just haven’t had as much time as I would like to be engaged with them. But they do not suffer from flame wars, or at least not extensively.

[pullquote position=”right”]They do suffer from the fact that there are so many people contributing to them that interesting conversations get lost and subsumed in a sea of tens of thousands of comments. But when you do succeed in connecting with somebody, the discussion is extremely thoughtful.[/pullquote] Especially since, I think, it’s at least 50 percent of people who are taking MOOCs already have a degree. So you’re interacting with people who, on the whole, are quite sophisticated.

So, for example, I dropped something into the discussion board in my Greek Hero class that was somewhat esoteric. It was the relationship between two characters of The Iliad as it was portrayed in a Shakespeare play I’m reading for another MOOC course I’m taking. And within a couple of days, someone was there who was able to tell me exactly what Shakespeare had been reading when he wrote that play — what sources he had. That’s something you might not get with a fellow 18 year old if you’re taking that same course as an undergraduate.

The other area I’d say is that you had a period of MOOC euphoria. “This is going to transform education as we know it tomorrow.” And then you went to the other extreme of, “95 percent of the people are dropping out. This is not meaningful.”

I think what you’re seeing now is a settling down of overenthusiastic expectations. But you’re also getting more information, which is showing that some of the harsher criticisms are also not accurate. So when you look at some of the data, you look at “Gosh, this course had 150,000 people sign up, but only 3,000 people finished it or 5,000 people finished it. Look at these large dropout rates.” But when you start to take a look at the numbers you realize “This is a free valuable thing. Why wouldn’t 150,000 people sign up for a free valuable thing?”

But once you start to take a look at who started watching videos, now it drops out to maybe a mere 80,000. And then you start looking at people who did a first assignment. Okay now we’re talking in the lower tens of thousands. And among those people, a larger majority of people, 30 to 40 percent, finish.

What that says to me is there are different communities forming within a MOOC class. There are some tire kickers who are never going to finish it. They just want to check it out. You’ve got auditors who are going to watch some of the videos and treat it like an iTunes U course.


I always think of that argument as like “for the umpteenth summer in a row I will fail to finish reading Proust.” And that’s like saying Proust has no value, if I fail to complete reading all seven volumes this summer.


I would say MOOCs gives you an advantage over other forms of self-directed learning. Reading Proust or reading yourself is a perfectly valid way of getting self-educated. So are educational podcast. So are lecture courses from places like iTunesU and Great Courses. These are all perfectly legitimate ways to get to the same place.

[pullquote position=”right”]I think one of the things that’s good about a MOOC course, for the most part, is that they are on a schedule, so you are on an enforced timeline to do work at certain times. Now that agrees with some people. Some people can’t keep up.[/pullquote]

I would say that some of the drop-out numbers are people who thought, “Oh, this is just like reading a book. I can pick it up and drop it whenever I feel like it.” Then they get into it and realize, no, there’s demanding assignments. There’s reading each week. There’s things to finish. There’s lectures due. And if you don’t do this week’s, you’ve got twice as much next week. If you don’t do that, then you have three times as much, and then it piles up. I’d say MOOCs are probably a better way to impose discipline on you when you’re taking a course than some other learning models that require a bit more self-discipline.


Let’s talk about reviewing, itself. How do you evaluate the quality of a MOOC?


I’ve done a good number of reviews for your site and I’ve really enjoyed reading other reviews on MOOC News and Reviews also. I mentioned I’m a journalist. I’ve done film criticism before, so I like that mode.

Generally, I want to be generous in my reviews. It would be easy to make light of some of the cinematography on some MOOCs, because a lot of professors, they just don’t care. They’re figuring, “My lecture is my lecture. It’s great. I’ve been doing it for years. It doesn’t matter if I go out of focus or if my beard appears and disappears three times in the same video.”

What I guess I want to do is I want to highlight first and foremost, did the class deliver on the goods? Did this course promise to be an undergraduate level course on Greek literature, logic and reasoning, modern and postmodern? Or is it meant to support a different goal like a more intense course on one subject, like Einstein’s Theory of Special Relatively? Did it deliver the goods? And if it delivers the goods then I would give it a thumbs up.

Now, within that, I like to point out some of the strengths that particularly can inform other courses. For instance, you mentioned the Greek Hero course, but it’s one of the ones that’s done the most things right. I like to talk about it in context of my reviews, but also I do an interview with a team that put it together – that they’re one of the few groups that are doing something different with video other than pointing it at the professor or pointing it at the white board and having one voice talking to you. They’ve set it more like a dialectic, so you always feel like you’re eavesdropping on a discussion between the professor and his students or his colleagues. So, I like to highlight things and I’m hoping other MOOC providers can pick up on and see what works and what doesn’t.


How would you advise a student who hasn’t yet chosen one in advance? Let’s say hypothetically, there are two Intro to Philosophy courses: one in this platform and one in another platform. If you were in that position, using your experience, how would you decide which one is going to be better?


I’d certainly ascertain what the goals are for each class. For example, you might have two identical philosophy classes. But I’ve seen identical astronomy classes on life in the universe, which is a mix of astronomy, biology, a bunch of different sciences. One was six weeks and one was 12 weeks, I believe. Don’t hold me to that, but one was shorter and one was longer, and that would tell me that the shorter one is being taught . . . they could both be terrific classes, but assuming each professor teaches with roughly the same amount of efficiency, the shorter professor is going to concentrate on a smaller number of subjects. The goal of that course is probably meant to expose a large number of students to important subjects that they can then decide to further. Whereas, a 12-week or 14-week course on the same subject probably is going to get more in-depth and is probably going to be more equivalent to a full semester course you would take as an undergraduate.

And then, what are your goals? If your goals are just to familiarize yourself with a new and interesting subject, then maybe the shorter course is what you need if you want to familiarize yourself or go more in-depth or take a course as though you’re taking a full semester long undergraduate course. Take the longer course. That’s, I think, the most important piece.

A lot of these courses are taught by professors who have been teaching these courses for years at their institution. You could check out their course reviews at Rate My Professor or even iTunes, where some of these courses have been given and been re-purposed. You could evaluate them. Even simply sign up and try out a lecture.

Other than that, I think as sites like yours get populated with more reviews, courses then go on and repeat and have second and third attempts, then people will be returning to those sites to get information on whether or not they should pick a course or not.


I think all of us have the experience that we know of that there can be a very esteemed scholar who’s not necessarily a good teacher. And I think we’re also now in the situation where someone could be a very good teacher, but not necessarily run a good MOOC. If you had to figure out what’s a good MOOC, regardless of how good the teacher him or herself might be in a classroom, it’s not easy to figure that out.


[pullquote position=”right”]You’ve hit on it, because some professors are great in front of a class. They’re not so good on the mic.[/pullquote] I think it’s no accident that most of the humanities professors coming out of Harvard – teaching Harvardx courses – taught in the extension school where there have been video lectures for many years, so they have some mic experience.

And you see this even with iTunes U courses. Some of the professors are fine. They like to mix it up with their students, but they really don’t get that dynamic of making sure the student gets the mic so you can hear their questions. There’s a lot of dead air. There are a lot of things that make you feel you’re like listening from the outside – “Those guys are on the inside. I’m on the outside. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not going to stick with this.”

On top of that, as you said, there are no hard and fast rules of what it means to be running a MOOC. So a MOOC can have fabulous instruction or high production values. For instance, Justice – the edX course Justice taught by Michael Sandel – those lectures were done many years ago, so they weren’t done specifically for edX, but they were re purposed. Those are high production values, many microphones. [pullquote position=”right”]Those are some of the highest production values I’ve seen so far as a lecture. But that course doesn’t have any better material outside of those lectures than many other courses.[/pullquote] It’s got okay assessment. It’s got pretty good reading lists but not everything you need because they’re worried about assigning things that some people would have to buy, whereas others you could get for free.

In other words, all of these course developers are struggling with the same issues. I think that’s one of the things I would urge anybody looking to sign up with MOOCs for, is patience, because there will be some rough edges. There’s not a single course I’ve taken that didn’t have something that was missing or something that was a mistake on camera but they left it in or substandard testing or errors on multiple choice that they then had to come and apologize for.

[pullquote position=”right”]It’s so much a work in progress, you should just step back and appreciate, “Okay, I get to take this Harvard course for free.” Not just Harvard professors, but many other smart people and technicians are pouring thousands and thousands of dollars into giving me these components to do for free, and they haven’t solved how to make it work perfectly for 30,000 people.[/pullquote]

I think the last thing you want to do is start rolling your eyes. It’s a work in progress. Those things that are problematical will get better. In a way, we’re all part of the same experiment. So the reviews that are appearing on your site are being read by some of the people who develop these programs and they’re looking for students for help and advice as much as we’re looking for them to get out the more advanced philosophy course as quickly as they can.


Here’s the big question that everyone is debating. I shouldn’t say everyone, because I’m not going to touch this myself. I’m staying the heck away from it. But I’m going to put you on the spot here. The question that always seems to be debated is, can a MOOC provide a high-quality one-to-one equivalent of a traditional campus-based college class? And it seems like no one is in a better position to answer that than you.


I can say that for a self-motivated learning enrolled in a MOOC class who’s committed to learning the material, you can get as much out of a MOOC class as you would out of a traditional brick-and-mortar class. And how do I know this? Because I took traditional brick-and-mortar classes. I got a degree in them. Some of them in similar subjects. I took a logic class back when I was in college many years ago. I took Coursera’s logic class and my memory’s good enough to recall, “Yes, this is the equivalent of the material that I learned.”

[pullquote position=”right”]Were the tests I was given in my MOOC class as difficult as the ones I took as an undergraduate? That, I don’t recall, but probably not.[/pullquote] Because some of the assignments just tend to be easier on MOOCs than they do in a classroom, especially when you get into humanities subjects and they’re trying to find ways to get you to write essays and papers. But if you put the time into them, you can get the most out of them.

I mentioned Michael Roth’s Modernism course. That one assigned nine papers, nine 800 page papers. [editor’s note: Jonathan misspoke. He meant 800-word papers.] Maybe not the equivalent of what you would do in his class if you took it at Wesleyan.  But that’s a reasonable amount of writing. You only needed six to graduate. You only needed six to pass, but I did eight out of nine. I missed one because I confused a.m. and p.m. But you can go further.

So if you do all of the reading . . . . Don’t just watch the lectures and then answer multiple choice questions, because they’re going to be pretty easy, but do the readings, do the assignments. Put more time into it than you have to, to pass. I guess that’s it. [pullquote position=”right”]If somebody is committed to learning as opposed to committed primarily to a grade, then yes, you can get out of a MOOC the same thing that you can get out of an equivalent brick-and-mortar course. Now, is that true for every single MOOC? [/pullquote]As I said before, some MOOCs I’ve seen, some other types of free learning classes, aren’t necessarily designed to replicate a full semester course. There’s a professor who really loves a certain subset of the topic that he has to teach each semester, and for them MOOCs are liberating, because he can teach just the component of the course he really likes. And then, that’s why you get some of these shorter courses.

There are some of those discrepancies, but can you learn from MOOC? In a way, it’s the same question you have when a student is on campus. Some of the students in that classroom are going to get a lot out of that class. And, unfortunately, several students are not. And I think that’s the deciding factor. Whatever makes students successful in the classroom is going to make them successful in an online environment. A combination of a desire to learn, readiness to work independently, not looking to do the minimum but to actually do the work needed to learn the material. They will succeed in this environment.


Let me ask you about that disruption question that’s also in the air. You referenced how, at the beginning of the conversation, there was a perception, at least, that a lot of people were hyping them. I have a different feeling about that. I don’t think there was that much hype to begin with. To me it’s hard to hype the fact that you’ve got tens of thousands of people in the classroom. It’s hard to exaggerate how meaningful or how energetic that is.

But in any case, there is a lot of enthusiasm about the possibilities of this form. So what do you think? Because on your blog, quite a bit, and in your newsletters, you talk a lot about the economics of higher education and the economics of MOOCs, so I wonder if you’ve arrived at any opinion so far about how disruptive these will be to the higher education model.


I think it’s going to change it, for sure. It’s not going to shake it to its foundation. Every school but the Ivies are not going to go out of business, because they’re all going to be replaced by free online courses from Harvard or Yale. But there will be transformation.

I think the economic arguments I pointed out — I pointed out several – but one of them is that if you think about it, somebody will pay to take a course at Harvard or at MIT or any other established institution. And often, if you divide the tuition by the number of courses you take for a year that comes out to several thousand dollars per class. And now we’re comparing that to what people are paying to take the equivalent course, sometimes the same course, in a MOOC, and it’s zero dollars.

We know a lot of people will sign up and pay zero dollars to take a Harvard course. And we know people will pay $5,000 to be enrolled in Harvard and take the same course. What we don’t know is what people would pay to take the course if it weren’t given for free. There’s some data.

Several years back, there was another attempt at this, a commercial attempt. A company called AllLearn, which is a partnership between Oxford and Yale that attempted to charge for these courses. They figured people were paying $4,000-$5,000 to take these courses at Yale. Certainly, they’ll pay $400-$500 to take the course online. And they weren’t. They didn’t get the customers. Certainly, they didn’t get the kind of numbers they’re getting now.

So what that says is that what people are paying to go to a prestige university, or really any university, is something above and beyond the classes they take. There’s something else built into the value of that degree, whether it’s an established credential, a shorthand way of describing that you’ve taken a certain number of courses or that you’re paying for somebody else to put you through a screening process that employers can look at and say, “He got into such-and-such university. That says something to me. That says something to me about who he is, where he comes from.” Which is a little bit more worrisome, because that essentially means the value of college comes in as it’s ability to allow future people to discriminate based on whatever categories you need to get in to an Ivy League college.

Those are some of the economic factors. I would say the existence of the equivalent courses now online for free, there’s a social component to that. I think you will not go back and have these schools saying, “You know what? We’re still going to make these available, but we’re going to charge you $400, $500 or $1000 for them.” [pullquote position=”right”]There’s a sense now that it’s the school’s obligation to teach the masses for free. I think that’s like the open software scene. You can’t go backwards from that. Some schools may decide not to participate, but you can’t go from sharing to charging. [/pullquote]You’ll experience the same thing the New York Times did when it set up it’s charge wall.

The courses are out there, and I think as tuition continues to creep higher and higher, you will get people looking for alternatives to paying $125,000 a year to go to a name brand university or even half that to go to another established university. In that case, not just MOOCs, but all of the new learning resources coming online, give you an option to not go to college at all if you’re a very entrepreneurial 18 year old maybe.

But I think what will become a bit more mainstream is students entering freshman year maybe with their freshman year courses taken, so they can graduate in three years. Or perhaps they take all of the required courses online while they’re in high school or over the summer between high school and college or during the gap year, so when they get into college they can get the equivalent of a Master’s Degree in four years versus just a BA.

I was just talking with Michael Roth – who’s going to be on my podcast on Friday, the president of Wesleyan – about some of these options that he’s been advocating for. You’re going to get these changes along these edges that will happen. I think you’ll get the flipped classroom model where professors will be using components of courses from edX or Coursera or Udacity but not necessarily swallowing the whole thing as a replacement for their courses.

You already have that. I was talking to a group of community college professors here in Massachusetts, and it was just after that story broke in California where the professors had revolted against the use of edX content in their philosophy courses. And I thought these people would be very worried about their classes. And they were very sanguine. They were like, “We’ve been using third party stuff for years. We’ve been using YouTube.  We’ve been using external content. I love teaching Aristotle. I really don’t like teaching Rawls, so I will get these lectures from YouTube and use those for my lecture component, or I’ll assign that as homework and we’ll have a more in-depth discussion or two discussions instead of one during class time.” I think you’re going to be getting those transformations within institutions.

And then one of the more interesting things is the one everybody thinks is going to happen, which I think is going to happen at least quickly, is the notion of, are students going to reach 18 and say, “I don’t need to go to college? Why waste a half a million dollars in college? I’ll just do this all for free with MOOCs.” [pullquote position=”right”]I think you’ll have probably a subset of people who give the finger to college to do something else. You’re seeing that now. You’re seeing cohorts of kids – a lot of them going through home schooling, so they’ve already experienced independent and often accelerated education. So, college seems very slow to them and uninteresting and uncreative.[/pullquote] Some of them will pursue studies using these new free online resources. You’re seeing some of it now with groups like MOOC Campus, which is trying to create an actual physical campus where people study with these free online learning resources.

But then, you’re also getting things like UnCollege, the program Dale Stephens is running which is an alternative to college also, similar to what he did. He didn’t go to college and got a Thiel fellowship, which pays you $100,000 to not go to college. And what did he do with it? He didn’t enroll in a bunch of courses and take a bunch of courses. He didn’t like sitting in lectures, whether they were on his browser on the classroom. He’s going the entrepreneurial route and building his own business and traveling and speaking and working with mentors.

I would say you will get larger numbers of independent learners deciding that they want to do something other than attend four years in college. I would say of that cohort, MOOCs will play a role with some of them, but not necessarily all of them. They will branch out into a lot of other interesting directions in online learning.


The employment marketplace is where a lot of this push comes to shove. And you’ve been an employer yourself, a business owner yourself. So thinking hypothetically after you’re done with this project, if you were in a position of hiring again, what would you think of an applicant for an entry level sales associate or management trainee or a web developer, an IT person, one of those positions, if they came to you without a degree with a bunch of MOOC certificates? You, as an employer, how would you respond to that?


I’d certainly sympathize. I think, also I’d be in a position to take a look at those courses that they took and see how well they fit together. Was it somebody who really was trying to make the equivalent of a degree or their own independent education program in mind or was it somebody who signed up for a lot of courses?

[pullquote position=”right”]I’d say they would stand out to me in an interview more so than somebody who came with a regular degree. They would certainly get my attention.[/pullquote] But the questions I would ask would be, “When you were taking these courses, how did you select them? What kind of work did you do?” I’d scrutinize them to find out if are they the kind of independent learner that I would expect to see coming out of a MOOC self-directed learning program. Or are they somebody who did this because they new it would be easier than taking equivalent courses online. I would guess most people who are doing this are doing it because they want to learn, so I would give the benefit of the doubt to somebody who had even a few of these courses on their resume.

Now, with that said, I’ve both been an employer, but I’ve also worked with employers. My previous company primarily sold to employers. I’ve worked with some of the world’s largest employers, especially companies like Manpower. I would say employers, like educators, are conservative in nature. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing. I think educators or teachers are often the wisest among us in knowing what’s a fad and what’s not, and waiting and seeing what works before they are enthralled with some of these new technologies that get hyped on a weekly basis or new teaching methodologies. I think you need people who are practical on the ground making decisions. In a way, employers are the same. They’re the ones who have to live with the hiring decisions they make, and they’ve been quite conservative.

I think that you do see certain fields where alternative credentials mean more than they do a college degree. For example, IT. If you’ve got an IT job, having an A+ certificate or an MCSE certificate or any of the many certificates associated with being a technologist count for a lot more than a degree where you study largely to prepare for those exams.

But it takes awhile for the employment world to come to grips with a new thing. And MOOCs are very new. I would say probably very few of even the people at the top of the hierarchy at these companies have heard of them. And even if they did, it takes a long time for them to filter down into the hiring management positions where people recognize it as a credential.

I would say give it some time and I think it can percolate into the system. But I think it will take a cohort of people going through the process and getting jobs. I’m thinking some time by the end of the year, actually, taking my resume and applying for a job at Manpower and seeing what happens.


Well, thank you very much for taking time, and good luck with your project. Good luck with the podcast series. I recommend it to our listeners, or our readers, at our site, to go check out your podcast also. It’s very interesting. Thanks for being with us today.


Okay, thanks, Robert. It was great.


Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.