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For anything global the fees would have to be minimal,when monthly wages are a few hundred $ and local higher education free,it's not easy to pay even a few thousands $/year.Maybe if each graduate would have to volunteer a number of hours to work (online) for the school,the fees could be kept low but ,in the end,what is needed is to try to innovate.Must online fully mimic what is done in existing schools and what can be done better,cheaper,more efficient.How much can be done by machines instead of people- the more i think about this the more obvious it seems that Google should get into this field, they have tools for collaborative work (students already use Google Docs to work on projects without wasting time meeting),they know how to handle huge amounts of data,they work hard on AI,predictive search, all things that could be very useful here.
For the US a rapid consolidation of colleges and universities would be problematic for research and sports.

Thomas Rekdal

Years of theorizing about to improve education and we are right back to lectures? Just wider audiences, cheaper fees, and bigger stars doing the talking? What a disappointment.

Terry Bennett

I am encouraged by this development, and I think it is right on time. Higher education is generally a very good investment in terms of return, but it is a large investment and it is practically a mandatory investment. Something had to be done, and it is being done, spontaneously in response to demand.

Law students often grouse that you can't take the bar exam and get a state law license without a law degree. The reason for this is that the bar exam, all two days of it, is not comprehensive enough to screen for the minimum needed knowledge - but it could be made so. Suppose you could take a whole four-year bachelor's curriculum on-line, for free, and then optionally fly to Cambridge for a stringent, in-person exam period, maybe 10 days, consisting of a mix of on-line multiple choice and essay tests interspersed with several hours of oral examination. Even if Harvard charges $10-20k for the exam, it's still a huge savings to the student, and the profit to the school would probably be comparable given the dramatic increase in enrollment and lower cost of delivering the service. Some professors would have to find something else to do, but for most the lecturing is just something they have to do in between research projects anyway.

Gertrud Fremling

Note that testing as well as any granting of course credit could easily be separate from the delivery of the course itself. That would be just as with AP-tests currently given at high schools around the US, where everyone face the same national test but have taken slightly different versions of a preparatory AP-course. Various universities then choose what types of AP-courses (with what minimum score) are allowed to be counted towards a degree of theirs. The menu of AP-courses could thus simply be expanded to include more courses, e.g. intermediate microeconomics, econometrics, linear algebra. The student is free to study any MOOCs that correspond to that AP-test.

Another slightly different model to follow are professional exams. An example is the various levels of actuarial exams, which are offered at different times during the year at a fee of a few hundred dollars each at designated test centers. The existing test centers offer extremely high levels of identity check and monitoring to prevent cheating.

So, the American Economics Association (or any other entity) could design its own tests for various courses, including upper-level undergraduate and basic graduate courses. The student could choose freely whether to pick an MOOC from Harvard, MIT or Penn State as a preparation for the AEA test. A student could thus pass a number of exams that would be the equivalent of the requirements for an economics major at a normal university. Or the student could stop at a smaller set of courses for an AEA "certificate" or "minor". The total costs would just be a few thousand dollars - small change compared to current levels of tuition. A great benefit is that the universities with the best lecturers and best brand name would not necessarily need to get involved in the nitty-gritty work of evaluating the students.


Within a few years the studies were conducted electronically, and online cooperative, will be the trend in study groups and research. Now we lose too much time moving, attending meetings, etc.. That time is lost and is worth millions of dollars.


MOOC's? Business and Industry has been using these techniques for years for conferences, meetings, international and intranational engineering and technical design/construction/fabrication/etc. meetings for years. Saves a bundle on travel expenses, and time losses. As for Educational MOOC's, just one question, Accreditation? Currently it's somewaht remeniscent of the old courses offered on the back of a matchbook and functioned in the mail order realm. But what the heck! In those days, tens of thousands of people improved their education and skills set by mail order. Same could be said for the once emerging technology of Radio, Television and now the Cyber world technology...

jim kirby

MOOCs pose a welcome threat to the ivory-tower sinecures of our socialist professorship that depends on certification by the gummint.

A country that goes on demanding certification for everything, including haircutters, is doomed to disaster once the higher education genie is released from the bottle, because for every coddled Amerikan student there will be 10 from around the world who, having skipped the football and beer, will compete for his job.

Folks have to be reminded again and again that the movers and shakers are not the Harvard and Stanford grads. Thomas Edison's classroom was a train car, Henry Ford's a machine shop, and Gates, Dell, Zuckerberg, Jobs and Wozniak dropped out of college. There are many more like them worldwide, whose development would be hobbled by having to sit in a socialist Amerikan classroom.

Furthermore, the MOOC student's loss at not being able to converse with the prof is a canard: I had many profs, including especially the German ones at the U of Chicago, who were too aloof to approach for anything; I had many others, mostly at other universities, whom I could barely respect, much less seek advice from. I would have learned just as well studying alone with Andrew Carnegie in James Anderson's library.

Certification stands in the way of learning.


My awareness of this blog and the works of Gary Becker and Richard Posner are thanks to my attendance in the open course provided by Yale; "Capitalism: Success, Crisis and Reform" taught by Yale SOM professor Douglas W. Rae.

Mr. Posner's book, "A Failure of Capitalism," was required reading for the course and afforded me an introduction to Mr. Posner's significant contributions to economics and law.

My experience with that and other open courses has tremendously enlightened my thinking on my OWN time and without the hassle of stopping my professional life to attend traditional graduate school.

MOOC's are addictive....


In 10 years will employers be more willing to hire an A+ online Harvard "graduate" or a B+ physical Harvard graduate? I think the demand for exceptional online talent will be higher than we think today.

As for cheating in the Age of Google: the fact that people CAN and DO look up factual information routinely via Google and Wikipedia today should not be ignored or overcome within the educational system, but rather accepted and embraced. For too long exams have been based on regurgitating memorized facts, essentially ignoring the reality that anyone with an internet connection can look up anything, anytime. There is now far less need to memorize the academic minutia of years past. In this regard, all university exams should trend towards the open book format for both physical and virtual students, with the emphasis being placed on applied reasoning rather than regurgitation. This, coupled with multiple choice formats and stringent exam time limits, should allow for mass grading - which is currently the key limitation to expansion of accreditation of MOOCs. To further prevent cheating, all students would take exams at the same time regardless of their time zone, or else students in different time zones take different versions of the exam.

Whoever designs software that can accurately correct handwritten exam answers (think math, engineering, biology) will complete the MOOC revolution.


Ganasist, What's the answer? "It's in the book" or "It's in the Library" or "It's on the Internet". Sorry, wrong answer. Memorization is of vital importance to real education. What happens when you don't have the book at hand, the Library is closed, or you've lost power or the Wifi connection is dead? As a former Professor of mine put it, "I don't care if you know where to find the answer. What I want to know is what's inside your skull and I don't mean "Mush""... ;)


Neilehat, you're dead wrong. If you're in law, IT, math, science or engineering, when the power's gone and your wifi's dead you're going home for the day whether you know the answer or not!

I'm at a top 10 law school and everything's open book, open-note-(just no google, haha!) Just because you have all the information available to you doesn't mean you know the answer. In the real world it's not the person who can spit up the information does well, it's the one who can apply it and synthesize it appropriately. That's not to say we haven't learned anything, just that we don't waste our time trying to drill useless little details into our heads. If your job or field is really so simple that having a textbook or two open can really give you all the answers, you're in the wrong field!


Hello Mr. Becker & Mr. Posner,

I have greatly appreciated your informative and useful posts.

I really like your blog content and will be looking forward to reading future posts.

Andy robert

I've always suspected that MOOCs were sort of a beta test for universities to try new methods to improve their programs and lower tuition. Offering the courses for free is a brilliant way to work out the bugs prior to charging an MIT size tuition.

I had completed online courses for credit while earning my BSEE. Since then I started, but not completed, several edX courses. The edX classes were far superior in every way to online courses I took for credit. Perhaps the edX classes will become the model for online courses in the future.

As far as the completion rate is concerned I have a couple of fairly obvious observations. First I'm not paying for the course and two they are not counting towards a degree. If they were not free, fewer people would sign up, and if the certificate actually counted for something that would be widely recognized more of those who did sign up would be motivated to complete. Keeping that in mind puts the 5 percent completion rate (still >42,000 certificates) in perspective.

I don't believe that a free online business model is sustainable, but perhaps neither is the current model of higher education and tuition loan debt. My hunch is that MIT (who started edX alone as MITx) and their counter parts at Coursera can see the writing on the wall, and are doing what they can to get ahead of the curve.

This is in no way to say that as they stand right now these courses are not of value. If you have not checked out edX or Coursera yet I suggest you do. You just may, like myself, feel like a 'kid in a candy store' and sign up for too many. You will still learn a lot.

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