Teaching Company CEO: MOOCs are “Utter Nonsense” and Will Not Transform Education

Will MOOCs transform college? Or, to borrow from the title of Clayton Christensen’s recent book, “disrupt” higher education?

Here’s what one of the most knowledgeable executives in the education business has to say, in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

This scenario is likely to be utter nonsense. Consider one historical fact: This has all been tried, and it has failed.

Who is this skeptical executive, and what does he know anyway? It is Thomas Rollins, the founder and longtime CEO of The Teaching Company. You’ve no doubt seen their ads in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and every other form of media that intelligent people consume. My wife loves their courses and has been purchasing them for years; I can attest they are extremely high quality. (Years ago, I was auditioned to do a course, and I didn’t make it.) Rollins led the company from 1990 to 2006, and he spent most of those years paying close attention to web-based course developments–because he viewed them as competition. Guess what? They all failed. Rollins discusses a long list of Internet education failures–with big-money backing and top scholars at the helm:

  • NYUonline, begun in 1998 with $21.5-­million, folded in three years.
  • Columbia University’s $25-million for-profit venture, Fathom.com, begun in 2000, folded in 2003.
  • UNext began with $180-million, three Nobel laureates in economics on its board, and an alliance with Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. UNext failed.
  • AllLearn was an alliance of Oxford, Stanford, and Yale, headed initially by the late Herbert M. Allison Jr., formerly of Merrill Lynch and later of TIAA-CREF. It closed in 2006.
  • Global Education Network was backed by the investment wizard Herbert Allen and a board of former college presidents. Its goal was to provide Ivy League-originated courses to everyone, particularly other colleges. It failed in 2005.

All of this happened years before anyone had coined the acronym “MOOC” and before Coursera and EdX were founded. Rollins knows what you’re thinking: “This time is different.” But his article is must reading because he goes on to explain the fundamentals that led to these failures, and he argues that the fundamentals of the business haven’t changed one bit. As he concludes:

If you do not allow faculty-student interaction, the MOOC is a cruel joke on students. If you do allow faculty-student interaction, the MOOC is a cruel joke on those people who helped finance a money pit.

And he predicted these failures over a decade ago, because (to his credit) he humbly admits his own company’s failure to transform universities:

The Teaching Company spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising in the past 20 years, and is well known in academic circles. Universities could have replaced any professor’s lectures with a fine substitute. To date, the institutions that have used Teaching Company lectures for credit-bearing courses can be counted on two hands…. It is difficult to understand what incentive a university has to adopt an expensive course of uncertain effectiveness that leads to faculty revolt.

Wow. This article left me breathless. MOOC advocates, is anyone going to step forward and rebut this neutron bomb?