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I wrote this in an email exchange with a friend recently, and I thought it might be of interest here at aiqus. The basic argument is that the MOOC revolution is not poised to replace the classroom. Rather it is poised to replace the textbook. Let me know what you think.

Why MOOCs are the new textbook, not the new classroom

The name MOOC, massive open online courses, implies that these new learning resources are full courses. I think that this terminology is deceptive. MOOCs are more similar to textbooks than they are to a course and we might expect them to fill a similar role in education. Not only does this view give us a better understanding of the nature of this revolution in education, I think by describing these tools as textbook replacers we will avoid generating needless resistance from those millions of teachers who might feel that their jobs are under threat.


  • MOOCs enable self motivated learners to master a new subject. So do textbooks.
  • MOOCs allow students to do sample problems and check their work. So do textbooks.
  • MOOCs offer a world class presentation of a discipline because they are taught by leaders of their field. So are textbooks.
  • MOOCs (currently) cannot offer legitimate education credentials. Neither can textbooks.
  • Most students will not work through MOOCs unless compelled by teachers, parents, or some other authority. The same is true for textbooks.
  • It is very difficult to prevent students from posting materials that answer questions posed in MOOCs. The same is true for questions in textbooks.


  • Many MOOCs have lively forum communities. These teach students how to talk about course material. They also offer a 'self healing' property to the class where topics that were poorly covered in lecture are elaborated on by talented students. Mistakes that were made during lecture or on assignments are pointed out and corrected by these same students. It is worth noting that many students do not participate in the forums (according to Gundega an employee at Udactiy). Also, imho, forum participation and the associated Karma points are a good predictor of who is a great student.
  • MOOCs actually grade responses to sample problems, unlike textbooks. This is easier on the student and, more importantly, provides a lot of information to the class administrators on how well students are absorbing the material in lectures.

Given this analysis, I still think that the problem of accreditation and motivation will continue to be solved by tradiational institutions for a time yet. MOOCs will serve as super-powered textbooks that supplement the efforts of teachers.

I do expect some radical shifts to happen soon. One, I think that really amazing talent will be discovered in the forums of many MOOCs. Students who communicate well, understand the materials, and are hyper social are extremely valuable to companies and universities. In my experience forum points closely reflect these qualities and we have already seen top forum members getting recruited to work at MOOCs. Two, I think that the lecture format of MOOCs is more comprehensible to many students than textbooks. This means teachers will have to spend less time preparing lectures that simply put the materials of a textbook into spoken words. Finally, I think that the feedback MOOCs get from forums and student responses will allow them to improve at a rate that textbooks simply cannot. This will result in higher quality pedagogical material independent of MOOCs other advantages.

But many thing will stay the same. The challenge of organizing a curriculum, accrediting students, and providing the carrot and stick of education is still a massive one. I think MOOCs will make some of these things easier, but they will by no means solve this problem . I predict that traditional centers of learning will continue to supply these elements to most students for the foreseeable future (~10 years). After that, who knows?

asked 16 Nov '12, 15:30

Ben%20Haley's gravatar image

Ben Haley

I posted this on my Google+ feed as I think it deserves wider distribution. If you have this posted anywhere else, personal blog or whatever, let me know and I'll go back and add it to my G+ post.
(16 Nov '12, 16:02) robrambusch ♦ robrambusch's gravatar image
thanks @robrambusch. I'm happy for you to repost. Aiqus is serving as my blog for this one.
(16 Nov '12, 16:10) Ben Haley Ben%20Haley's gravatar image
Interesting perspective... My experience with them so far suggests to me that quality of the forums is a huge differentiator. By quality of the forums, I mean the students participating AND the teachers/TA's timely interaction, AND the effectiveness of the forum software/system.
(16 Nov '12, 16:14) egoots egoots's gravatar image

Thanks for the thought provoking post. The thing that fascinates me is that I find your argument persuasive, but at the same time I believe a significant shortcoming of many MOOCs is the lack of an associated textbook. Now I need to try to resolve this cognitive dissonance ;-)

The main things I think textbooks add to MOOCs are: 1. Additional depth and breadth of material. Some MOOCs address this by making optional lectures and readings available, but I find the coherent presentation of a textbook generally superior for this. 2. A relatively error free reference. Books also have errors of course, but my experience is that the typical error rate is lower for books than for lectures/slides (and textbooks often have errata these days). (maybe I am overly sensitive to this, some of the MOOCs I have taken have driven me to distraction with course material errors, especially in quiz answers/grading)

Perhaps another way of addressing this is simply to ask: what role (if any) do you think textbooks should play in a MOOC?


answered 16 Nov '12, 17:03

rseiter's gravatar image

rseiter ♦

@rseiter good point. Perhaps, as you suggest, we shouldn't think of MOOCs replacing textbooks, but rather augmenting them with video, interactive question, and a lively forum. It would take a huge set of videos to replace the thoroughness of a textbook. As for error rates, I expect that they will fall dramatically as MOOCs are repeated.
(16 Nov '12, 17:10) Ben Haley Ben%20Haley's gravatar image
@rseiter - I think you are highlighting some of the current chinks in the armor of MOOCS. My comments above on the forums are in part to address some of these -- i.e., how to address errors or ambiguity in the material, how to understand material if the current presentation didn't make sense (i.e. possible offer a different perspective in presenting it which may be understood) and where to go for more depth. Some of of these are addressable by Textbooks The other challenge is they are trying to lower the barrier of accessibility to many and textbook costs (curse you Elsevier and your brethren) are one such barrier. Perhaps there is an opportunity in these MOOC's -- with all these students potentially making notes if there was a way to gather/assimilate/validate them and summarize them to form supplementary text based material (something like a course specific wikipedia). The validation part is always the biggest challenge.
(16 Nov '12, 17:33) egoots egoots's gravatar image

I think quite the opposite, but it's a good discussion. At any rate I do not think MOOCs decrease the need or demand for textbooks, at all.

I think MOOCs as learning material--or rather the learning materials of MOOCs--are quite similar to the learning materials of traditional courses. That's good but a good, well articulated textbook without omissions is invaluable even if you already took a very similar course, as reference material. It also depends on personal taste, in college I used text books much more than most of my fellow students.

I think the main difference between MOOCs and traditional courses is certification, but as we've talked many times over here, it's little more than that, a tradition, along with some initial but solvable problems. Neither is brick and mortar education immune to cheating of course, nor is online education more vulnerable to it. If and when traditional education wants to fight cheating, digital tools are the best ones.


answered 17 Nov '12, 14:15

XavierP's gravatar image


I am a major fan of textbooks (and books in general), but I have to wonder how much this is because of my specific talents/experiences and how much because books are inherently superior in some ways. As an example, I find books superior (to current video technology) for quick random access to information (especially when combined with full text word search which Google and Amazon increasingly make available). I also find books superior for volume of information which can be presented at one time--with the important exception of interactive simulations with visual output in which case computer technologies (not video, the interactiveness is key) are far superior. One of my big questions here is whether my relative preference for books over video (compared to how others feel) is more due to other people getting something out of video that I am not or to me getting something out of books that others are not.
(17 Nov '12, 15:41) rseiter ♦ rseiter's gravatar image
@XavierP, speaking to my own experience, MOOCs actually do decrease the need for textbooks. I've switched almost 100% from textbooks to MOOCs because they are cheaper and provide a better learning to time ratio. Clearly this is not true for you, or everyone. Also, my motivation to work hard in MOOCs is not as strong as my motive to work hard in traditional classes. This is actually a source of frustration for me. I prioritize my irl biochemistry class above my neural network MOOC even though the latter is a better and more important class. I think this issue of motivation is still a big difference between traditional schools and MOOCs, I'm interested to see how good MOOCs can get at motivating students.
(17 Nov '12, 17:34) Ben Haley Ben%20Haley's gravatar image

I'd probably hope for a MOOC with an infinite series of drill-down videos. Perhaps have a text translation of the narration with links to explanation of subsidiary concepts. For example in the AI class when we get to anything involving linear algebra have links referencing Khan Academy on matrix manipulation. Given a complete set of links, the need for a textbook starts to fade.

The textbook or some other printed material may still be necessary for a deeper understanding of the material. It would also be useful if you wanted to go somewhere briefly referenced in but not covered by the course.

It might be nice to reference other courses here as well. Then a quick scan of the other courses referenced would give you an idea of what background knowledge would be helpful.


answered 17 Nov '12, 14:54

robrambusch's gravatar image

robrambusch ♦

edited 17 Nov '12, 14:55

I agree that the completeness of links is important. For me a lot of this just comes down to finding books and video engage me in very different ways. I think video can largely replace the non-interactive component of lectures, but after reflection I don't see it replacing books (and I don't find current e-book technology able to do that either, yet...) and I don't think there is any chance of video completely replacing personal interaction in teaching. MOOCs can offer personal interaction to some degree in forums, but I think until we have strong AI there will be no replacement for personal interaction in the best education. The best MOOCs can do is reduce the level of personalization required IMHO.
(17 Nov '12, 15:49) rseiter ♦ rseiter's gravatar image

Actually MOOCs usually have a better "path through the stuff", for lack of a better word. Textbooks tend to designed as a reference, and it's seldomly clear for a reader what stuff should or can be omitted on a first pass through the book. MOOCS are usually designed to be manageable cover to cover.

Forum participation usually isn't for me. I don't have a lot to say, or ask while staying clear of cheating policies, and I can't usually help anyone because the questions are answered well before I see them.


answered 18 Nov '12, 07:36

BayesianHorse's gravatar image


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