Liberal Education

MOOCs and Democratic Education

Massive Open Online Courses

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, have entered the world of online education with a splash, and their potential to transform higher education is being widely hailed. Indeed, many involved in the creation, implementation, and facilitation of this new format regularly speak in terms of “revolution” and massive “disruption.” The president of Northeastern University has gone so far as to suggest that “with the advent of the MOOCs, we’re witnessing the end of higher education as we know it” (quoted in Carlson and Blumenstyk 2012). But what implications will this potential transformation of higher education have for our society’s fundamental commitment to democratic values and participatory engagement? In this article, we examine both the democratic potential and the potential pitfalls of the integration of MOOCs into higher education.

The structure of MOOCs

MOOCs represent the latest evolutionary step in the development of distance learning. Beginning with written correspondence courses, various methods have been used to meet the educational needs of individuals who cannot attend a brick-and-mortar school. Because of the inherent disadvantage of providing coursework and transmitting knowledge away from the classroom, distance learning has remained at the forefront of efforts to incorporate existing and emerging technology in order to bridge the gap between instructors and learners. Efforts to take the “distance” out of “distance learning” have included the use of correspondence, television, radio, film, audio tapes, video recordings, compact discs, interactive software, immersive conferencing, and the web.

Initially developed in 2008, MOOCs rely on a confluence of contemporary media, technology, and learning theories. By bringing together the technology of Web 2.0 and today’s social media innovations, MOOCs have enabled faculty at a select few institutions to open their virtual classrooms to very large numbers of students. For example, Stanford computer scientist and leading MOOC proponent Sebastian Thrun had an enrollment of over 160,000 students for a course on artificial intelligence that he taught in the fall of 2011. Other Stanford MOOCs have had similar eye-popping enrollments.

MOOC designers incorporate “social learning” as a viable means of facilitation and use a number of Internet-related innovations as learning tools, including social networking, wikis, blogs, cognitive tutors, virtual learning communities, and learning management systems. A MOOC is similar to a traditional course in that it has participants, facilitators, course materials, and start and end dates, but it differs in that there are no course assignments and participants are not required to follow a single path from the first week to the last week. The “open” in “massive open online course” has several meanings: the course is open to anyone, the course is offered free of charge, participation takes place in the open space of the Internet, and one’s work is shared openly with the other participants. Although participants are not charged a fee, some universities have offered the courses for credit and students have been charged accordingly. Participants not seeking college credit can determine for themselves the extent of their participation and are free to choose only the activities they find most useful. In Thrun’s artificial intelligence course, which he co-taught with Google’s Peter Norvig, those not working for college credit but having completed the class were given an official “Statement of Accomplishment.”

MOOCs also separate themselves from conventional online courses through their use of tweets, tags, video lectures, blog posts, and discussion boards to create networked courses. Although MOOCs rely to a large extent on existing cyber infrastructure and associated tools of conveyance, the considerable costs of designing these courses effectively limits their development to a handful of prestigious, well-endowed universities. Along with Stanford, Harvard, Duke, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon Universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California–Berkeley, and the University of California–Los Angeles have led the way in the development of MOOCs, partly due to their ability to absorb the startup costs involved in course design. The leading role played by these well-branded institutions has helped legitimize MOOCs and sparked the interest—and apprehension—of many less-renowned colleges and universities.

Democratic potential

MOOCs hold great democratic promise. The courses are designed to be open to all interested participants, allowing access for students from around the world. Thrun’s breakout artificial intelligence course registered students from 190 different countries, for example. This open access is reminiscent of Horace Mann’s call for a “common school” to develop not just the brightest citizens, but all of the nation’s youth. Mann’s democratic vision is now widely recognized around the world and is reflected in Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes education as a human right. The fact that this new model of instruction is limited to a small number of well-endowed universities is a boon for students who would otherwise lack the credentials to attend these schools. Participants gain access to course material, resources, networks, and top-notch instructors. In democratic societies where social and economic class is de-emphasized, the notion of equal access to these courses integrates relatively smoothly.

The ability of MOOC providers to offer free enrollment also appeals to fundamental democratic principles. Because there are no fees, low-income students have the opportunity to participate in courses that might otherwise be unaffordable. This absence of tuition-related obstacles potentially increases the diversity of the student body, which, in turn, enhances to the MOOC environment by generating different points of view as students from various backgrounds bring their life experiences to the social media setting.

MOOCs also have the benefit of a global reach. (While we acknowledge the “digital divide” between the developed and the developing world, we limit our analysis to countries where a digital infrastructure exists and is accessible to the majority of citizens.) A transnational educational model carries with it many of the benefits of study abroad programs. In particular, the MOOC’s collaborative design incorporates ample opportunities to encourage cultural exchange and reinforce diverse approaches to problem solving. Participants share their work with others, build social networks around topics of shared interest, and are given opportunities to review the research of their peers.

Because the courses may not be tied to college credit, the model affords greater levels of freedom. Moreover, the flexibility of the MOOC framework allows participants to determine for themselves their levels of course engagement. Participants can enroll in a MOOC to benefit their own research or to explore similar work being done by others. For those uninterested in obtaining two- or four-year degrees, MOOCs offer the freedom to build networking skills and take courses based on their own interests.

This learning design can help participants develop social-networking and independent learning skills. Participants are encouraged to work in their independent areas and to create networks that can be used well beyond the length of the course period. Participants are empowered by taking ownership of their own learning and by deciding for themselves what they want to gain from the course. At the same time, they are adding to the distributed knowledge base of the Internet. In this way, the MOOC is a commitment to the individual needs of the student and the collective needs of the community.

Among the theories developed in the literature on open online learning is connectivism. Based on the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes, the originators of the MOOC concept, connectivism holds that learning is based on connection and that such connections occur in mental processing at both conceptual and social levels. Learning, like a well-constructed spider web, happens when connections are multiplied and form networks. These networks are influenced and fortified by socialization, diversity, and the creation and availability of space that foster such connections and networks (Tschofen and Mackness 2012). The communitarian overtones of connectivist theory recall the social contract theories of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau from which many democratic societies derive their energy.

Democratic pitfalls

Many in higher education question how long the “open” in “massive open online course” will remain a defining feature of the format. For-profit companies have begun to coalesce around the MOOC concept, and providers are looking for ways to appeal to investors. As sustainable business plans are developed, much of the democratic potential of the MOOC may be lost. The promise of increased student diversity would likely go unrealized, for example, if MOOCs were to morph into a tuition-driven online format like that of the University of Phoenix. While the “massive” enrollments for open Internet courses should help offset potential tuition costs, some educators wonder whether the “M” in MOOC may evolve to take on a new meaning: education for the “masses.”

The MOOC design and its ability to generate massive enrollments have created excitement throughout educational circles. The MOOC offers a model for the educational integration of the latest technological advances. It is a template being driven by some of the nation’s finest institutions, and this has heightened the excitement. As the novelty of these large enrollments begins to fade, however, the direction of this educational model may shift as well. For example, Greg Graham (2012) worries that, as governments grapple with dwindling funds, the MOOC may emerge as a cost-effective but highly divisive solution: “Ironically, although the move toward online education is being advanced by some of the nation’s most elite universities, in the end it will be the lower half of the student population that will be forced out of the traditional classroom, widening the gap between the have and the have-nots.” Such a widening of the gap undermines the democratic principle of equal access. Graham’s concern about the potential of online education to further stratification is shared by Northeastern University President John Aoun, who suggests that MOOCs could result in the emergence of a two-tiered educational system with “one tier consisting of a campus-based education for those who can afford it, and the other consisting of low and no-cost MOOCs” (quoted in Carlson and Blumenstyk 2012).

Currently, most MOOCs focus on technology and the natural and hard sciences. These courses can be objectively evaluated, and assessments are oriented toward single correct answers. Taylor Walsh (2011) reports that many MOOC providers are skeptical that all disciplines lend themselves to the massive online mode, which is best suited to fact retrieval. The social sciences and the humanities, disciplines that are vital to the maintenance of democratic societies, are more difficult to assess. When evaluating the potential and pitfalls of adopting a “revolutionary” change in higher education, it is important to ask whether the change is likely to foster the full range of student learning outcomes, or whether it is more likely to reduce learning to what can be measured by assessments that focus on right and wrong answers.

A call for democratic action

If MOOCs are truly on the point of “revolutionizing” higher education, then several important questions must urgently be raised and discussed—questions grounded in core social beliefs about the purpose of education. Examining critical notions about the role education plays in forming individual subjects and societal structures can help determine the questions that are asked and, moreover, can inform the direction the future development of this educational model takes.

The purpose of education, according to critical theorists, is to provide students with the critical skills needed to reflect on the world in order that they may change it. For educational philosopher Paulo Freire (2000), a human’s “ontological vocation” is that of a subject whose mission is to act on the objective world. A praxis of reflection and action occurs when humans contemplate the world and, by acting on it, strive to improve their conditions. The individual’s capacities should be developed to the maximum extent possible. But this human development should be democratically oriented; it should be firmly grounded in the belief that social betterment is attained as the individual flourishes (Giroux 2007). It is within the context of this broader purpose of education that the MOOC “revolution” should be evaluated: what is its potential for providing the skills and opportunities humans need to reflect on and improve their world?

MOOCs have the potential to democratize higher education. The availability of tuition-free courses could expand access and foster greater diversity, which, in turn, could improve the distributed knowledge base by providing multiple points of view and new approaches to problem solving. Open participation affords the opportunity for people from different countries, cultures, and occupations to engage with one another in virtual classrooms. The MOOC’s design allows students to take ownership of their education by deciding how much they want to participate and what they want to take away from their courses. Independent and collaborative learning are encouraged by the incorporation of social media. The MOOC’s structure answers the critical demand for spaces where individuals can reflect, act, and link their praxis to the broader democracy. However, it is in the administration of this new educational model that questions of social betterment and antidemocratic practice should give pause.

As online education continues to develop, there are concerns about how it will be implemented and used. The MOOC’s ability to absorb “massive” enrollments may provide university administrators with a market-oriented answer to the rising cost of college. A commitment to serve all could be maintained by providing massive online courses at relatively low costs to economically disadvantaged students, while offering the traditional on-campus college experience to those who can afford it. This bifurcated approach to education fails the democratic test of equal access to all. Arguably, such social stratification already exists in higher education today, with elite schools reserved for those of power and means and public schools for everyone else. But this only makes it all the more important that the democratizing potential of MOOCs not be lost.

If MOOCs really are going to transform higher education, then we must urgently weigh how the coming transformation will integrate with our existing educational system and examine the degree to which it comports with our democratic values. Because revolutions often require a disruptive reorientation of existing assumptions and established institutions, we must be sure not to lose sight of the fundamental purpose education serves in a democracy.


Carlson, S., and G. Blumenstyk. 2012. “For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 17.

Freire, P. 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.

Graham, G. 2012. “How the Embrace of MOOC’s could Hurt Middle America.” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 1.

Tschofen, C., and J. Mackness. 2012. “Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 13 (1): 124–43.

Walsh, T. 2011. Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Leland Carver is a doctoral student of higher education and student affairs, and Laura M. Harrison is assistant professor of higher education and student affairs, both at Ohio University.

Previous Issues