Tom Friedman is apparently really excited about online courses. As he wrote in his New York Times column on the weekend:

There is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future, and that is the budding revolution in global online higher education. Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.

Hey, there’s some bright, shiny stuff! Everyone get excited!

The next six months are crucial to the development of MOOCs, right? Friedman argues that MOOCs are so wonderful because, as he puts it, “for relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.”


As a general rule, once Tom Friedman gets excited about a concept, that’s a good sign the concept is overrated.

He likes third parties (but his magical third party looks just like the existing Democratic Party). He believes McDonalds can spread world peace (though the fast food restaurant exists in several war-torn countries). He also believes that globalization is essentially awesome (while ignoring wage inequality and economic disparities as mere details to be worked out politically).

He’s probably right that Egyptians are going to take American online courses, but it’s unclear why this matters much. The country that built the pyramids and invented the plow and the condom already has 26 real universities that are free for all citizens who qualify for admission. Why would an online course administered by Stanford be an improvement?

He’s certainly not the only American excited by online courses, but a more critical, and perhaps more interesting, look at the potential of MOOCs comes from Larry Cuban in today’s Washington Post. As he writes:

Anecdotal evidence on MOOCs thus far points to much student delight, the enjoyment of absorbing new knowledge, and professorial exhilaration. Both professors and students appear engaged in offering and taking these courses. Widespread student participation in course activities and collaboration in completing tasks seem to have increased, according to professors’ reports. But satisfaction, engagement, and networking, while important in of themselves, cannot be assumed to have led to student learning. Such outcomes fall short of answering the basic question: Have students who have completed MOOC — recall that these courses have more than three-quarters of students dropping out – learned and applied the knowledge and skills?

No one knows.

MOOCs, Cuban writes, are starting to look like one of those things for which Americans are displaying irrational exuberance. People are excited about how online courses will “revolutionize” American education. And now Friedman thinks of an online course with in economics or biology with no teachers for which rural Egyptians might receive a certificate that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty.”

Nothing else, seriously? [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer