Joel Klein’s latest pitch, featuring Charlie Rose!


This time, he’s peddling MOOCs: We always let the analysts shower after they watch Joel Klein.

The former head of New York City’s schools now works for Rupert Murdoch. Last week, he appeared with Charlie Rose, selling on-line education.

We’re not opposed to on-line education—to on-line college classes, for instance. We are opposed to people who make grandiose claims like this:
KLEIN (4/25/13): I mean, you can get the greatest, take the ten best professors in the world— You know, take what Michael Sandel does on justice. If you have sat in on his class, it is a life-changing experience. Every kid in the world can now have access to Michael Sandel teaching justice. It is so powerful.
We always let the analysts check their pockets after Klein stops his pitch.

Is Michael Sandel’s course on justice really a life-changing experience? Is it really “so powerful?”

We will guess that Sandel’s course is not a life-changing experience. As a check, we looked through parts of his book of the same name, Justice, after hearing what Klein said.

We'll be candid. The book didn’t seem life-changing to us; very few books really are. If we’re allowed to be truthful here, its first chapter seemed rather pedestrian.

(We checked it out on-line!)

Having said that, let us ask a serious question about on-line college courses. Let’s say you let people around the world watch Sandel deliver his lectures on justice. Let’s say there were ten lectures in the MOOC—in the on-line course.

How is that different from letting those people read the ten chapters in his book? Why would watching his lectures be more life-changing than simply reading his book, which people can already do?

Presumably, some people are dynamic lecturers. Presumably, there are forms of feedback in on-line courses which don’t exist if you just read a book. But seriously: People have always been able to read the books of famous scholars. Why are we suddenly in a new realm if we can watch lectures instead?

(We used to ask ourselves such questions during our first year in college. We would sit in a room with 500 freshmen, all of whom were scribbling notes as Name Withheld lectured on a distant stage. Why don’t they just type up the lecture and hand it out, we would incomparably wonder. Why are we all sitting here?)

We’re not saying they shouldn’t put these lectures on-line. When it comes to Chancellor Klein’s latest pitch, we’re pretty much just saying!

Adding insult to injury: Thomas L. Friedman was also part of Rose’s mind-blown pro-MOOC coven. As always, he was mega-enthused about the way the world was about to change:
FRIEDMAN: In a MOOCs world, they could rent a room in Asyut, you know, in Upper Egypt, put in 50 computer terminals, rent—we will pay for a high-speed satellite Internet up link, hire an English Arabic speaking teacher to be a coach and an aide to students, and invite anyone who wants to come to take the best courses at Penn or at MIT.

And suddenly, for pennies on the dollar, we would be able to leverage, give these young people what so many young people around the world who have been either in revolution in the Middle East or not in their countries really want—the potential, the ability to realize their full potential.

ROSE: Exactly right. You can unlock the future.

FRIEDMAN: Yes. It can unlock the future. So I am, for that reason, I am very excited about it.
We’re not saying that’s a bad idea. But when it comes to unlocking the future, in what way are those MOOC lectures massively better than books?


  1. I have taught both on-line and face-to-face. I have taught at the college level for over 33 years. Everytime someone tells me they have a magic bullet for education I want to run and hide or at the very least hold on to my wallet. From the advent of radio to television to computers and now social media and phones, almost everyone believes technology will enable a great change in education. It almost never happens. You have to want to help students and students have to want to help themselves. If you do not have both components all the technology in the world will not help either of you.

  2. If on-line is better than just reading the book because of more interaction, then by definition a class, even one of 500 because of a live visual of the professor and ready interaction topically with other students in the class, is better than online even with video.

    Then it gets even better with a class of 20 or fewer students as in the liberal arts colleges, where each class member interacts directly and frequently with the professor and there is an obligation to the entire class to keep up with the work and be ready to participate. I would give that kind of class about 10X credit over on-line.

  3. These online courses have very high drop out rates and are especially bad for students who have difficulty with the material -- the same students who might have trouble learning a subject just by reading the book. My understanding is that 5-10% of students who start a MOOC actually complete it. Aside from answering questions, I think the main function of a professor is to motivate students and hold students accountable for doing the work necessary to learn.

  4. I think Friedman has a point. College has many good things, but one key one is that a college degree is required for many jobs. If a student can learn enough from the internet courses to pass exams, and if colleges set up a structure to certify the students' learning, then it may be possible to get a BA for a fraction of the $200,000 that it would cost at many brick and mortar colleges.

  5. Relevant news article:

    Duke University faculty members, frustrated with their administration and skeptical of the degrees to be awarded, have forced the institution to back out of a deal with nine other universities and 2U to create a pool of for-credit online classes for undergraduates.

    Read more:
    Inside Higher Ed

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