A close look at the e-revolution going on in higher education.


When I was 13 I decided to abandon all of my friends and start preparing for college. Over the preceding two years I'd slowly been absorbed into a group of suburban misfits who wore black and stole cigarettes from their parents, which we'd all share by the chainlink fence at the far end of the school yard.

The consequence of building these social bonds was a steady decline in school performance and regular arguments with my parents about whether I should be made to repeat a class for having gotten a D in it. When the day came to register for high school, I had a premonition of a future stuck in the small town I was growing up in, working for minimum wage, living in one of the thin-walled apartment complexes that ran alongside the main freeway. The only escape from this future I could imagine was school, so I signed up for all honors classes and started spending my lunches at the school library. 


"What MOOCs are selling is not an education but the fantasy of a more attainable escape hatch from one's present life."


The myth of college in America has always been an escape plan, a way of digging through enough books, exams, and late-night stress to end up with a gold-stamped degree and a ticket into the upper middle-class. In recent years, there has been a push to make this magical catalyst even more widely and cheaply available by offering students for-profit courses over the Internet.

MOOC is the most popular acronym—massive open online course—a term first used by Canadian researchers experimenting with different ways of structuring a class in 2008 and quickly co-opted for branding once people realized there might be real money in it.

The concept of using the Internet for higher education is not especially new; many of its earliest uses came from university professors posting their work. When I was in college in the late ’90s, many professors made lecture slides, summary notes, and study guides available online. What's changed is that, facing a severe funding shortage, many colleges and universities have struck preliminary partnerships with Silicon Valley-backed startups like Coursera, Udacity, and edX.

Stanford, San Jose State, and 11 schools in the California State University system are offering MOOCs. Harvard, MIT, Cal Tech, UC Berkeley, Princeton, and many others have announced multimillion dollar investments in building their own versions of the service as well.

The effectiveness of MOOCs is still largely unknown, but one of the most consistently troubling facts is their staggeringly high dropout rate. The Chronicle of Higher Education estimates the general completion rate for most MOOCs is near 10%. Also, there are no widely accepted surveys of how well students who have completed a MOOC actually understand the material they've been taught. Most MOOCs are only able to offer a "certificate of completion," which is of uncertain value at this point in history, though a quick survey of job postings suggests that a Bachelor's Degree is still a preferred credential for most employers.

This is a helpful point to keep in mind, because it seems that what MOOCs are selling is not an education but the fantasy of a more attainable escape hatch from one's present life, which is not so different from the old university model.


It cannot quite be that education itself is a rare and precious commodity. Educational material abounds on the Internet, covering everything from quantum electrodynamics, computer programming, comparative literature, or even how to make contraband. But the Internet is also a steady reminder that most of us aren't especially knowledge-hungry, and can live long happy lives completely oblivious of, say, European history.

What is most salable is not the information, but the fantasy of what information buys for a person. Or rather, what it allows them to no longer fear for themselves. California Common Sense notes that, adjusted for inflation, public colleges and universities received 13% less government funding in 2011 than they did in 1980. In comparison, state correctional programs received 436% more in 2011 than they did in 1980. This is not a haphazard comparison—America has the highest incarceration rate in the world and between 1980 and 2006, saw a huge jump, from under 500,000 to almost 2.5 million people in prison.

Awareness of that looming industry of punishment is one of the concretizing elements in all class fantasies, the fearsome phantom used to create a stigma about poverty as something that drives people to criminality because, as the saying goes, a person "doesn't know any better."

On an institutional level, we learn in order to escape fear. And after 30 years of lost funding, an eager group of investment bankers has created a funding scheme to sell off the few last remaining parts of worth left in public universities: the piece of paper that says a person "knows better," that he’s qualified to escape his present and save himself in some mythic future that comes with a discrete admission fee.

Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.