Publishers got quite excited when MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) started about four years ago. (The name was invented in 2008.) With tens of thousands of students these courses would sell thousands of books. The bonanza never quite worked out like that, though lots of books must in fact have been sold. Of course it’s hard to measure the sale: students can live anywhere, so it’s not like a normal course adoption sale where you know you have shipped 500 copies of the textbook to the college bookstore. Over the last few months I have signed up for three MOOCs, and I have gotten the book for each: though maybe having come through the book business I am untypical. It is true that two of the books I purchased (as Kindle versions from Amazon) were self published by the course leaders, and the third, I actually already owned already, so no publisher sales boost from me I regret to say.

According to the admirably full description in Wikipedia, the completion rate for a MOOC is about 10% with a large drop out in the first week. The initial enthusiasm from the university community has somewhat dissipated, and there is some publisher skepticism that the large organizations offering such course will be able to survive. Still, the course I am currently doing rolls on — and is excellent — Peter Singer from Princeton on Practical Ethics. Actually all the courses I have done have been excellent; I learnt a lot from the one called “What does a plant know”. There do seem to be a lot of young students still “attending” Practical Ethics, but one of the problems of MOOCs has been that too many of the people doing them are like me — just tuning in for general interest, not striving to get a degree. So I don’t do the 750 word paper on deontology contrasted with consequentialism, saying to myself “Of course I could write such a thing, but what’s the point?”. The paper if I wrote it would be peer-reviewed — do I really want to know what some of those young whipper-snappers think of what I wrote! On the discussion boards there’s a lot of rhetoric about God and shrill assertions that all we need as an ethical guide is the good old Bible. So I tend not to post my opinions; I really don’t want an argument with fundamentalist youth.

Reviewing a book written as the textbook for a MOOC, Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, in The New York Review of Books of 22 May 2014, Gregory Hays writes “It’s typical for new technologies initially to mimic an existing one; Gutenberg’s forty-two-line Bible is not easy to distinguish from a manuscript copy. It takes time to figure out what a new medium can do besides the same thing bigger, faster, or cheaper, and for its particular strengths and weaknesses to emerge. Fifty years after Gutenberg, printing had shown itself vastly superior for Bibles and legal texts, a cheap substitute for deluxe books of hours, and no replacement at all for wills, inventories, and personal letters.” He criticizes Nagy’s book as being too close in format to the lecture series, so that while you are reading it you almost feel that watching the lecture might be a better use of your time. He goes on to conclude “It may turn out that MOOCs will work best for teaching a basic skill: basic accounting, say, or the non-lab components of college chemistry—or even first year Greek”.

Whether one can regard as still relevant the early fears of academics that they would be made redundant by a series of MOOCs which did their teaching job once and for all, change is likely to come to the world of the university. Costs have gone up alarmingly, and some sort of change is surely inevitable. Maybe some sort of MOOC-like solution will evolve. Assessment might be more manageable on a university by university basis — after all they do it now. Hays may be right that the MOOCs could be used for the more basic skills, with testing and assessment hived off into other live classes in a course.