12/12/2013 01:40 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

MOOCs and Lifelong Learners

In many of the backlash stories I wrote about recently, a certain argument seems to be repeated that asks why schools and investors should be sinking millions into creating educational resources (i.e., MOOCs) that we all know just benefit older, educated, professional (and by implication well-off, middle-class) lifelong learners who already have so much, vs. using those same resources to advance the education of the neediest.

I'll admit there is a certain emotional resonance to such an argument. (Who, after all, doesn't want to do the most they can help the poor and struggling?) But over time I've become increasingly impatient with this charge and have only just started to figure out why.

For starters, let's take as a given that the upwards of 75-80 percent of people who currently take MOOC classes already have a degree (sometimes more than one) and could probably find other ways to learn some of the things they've been studying even if MOOCs didn't exist. At the very least, this means that one-fifth to one-quarter of students enrolled in a MOOC do not fit this demographic. Now as a fraction, that's pretty small. But if you apply it to the number of people taking a massive online course, that means we're talking about thousands and thousands of young students who are taking advantage of the educational opportunities they might not otherwise have access to.

No doubt many of those younger students also fall into the well-off/middle-class category, and here the implication is that any self-education performed by people fitting into this demographic represents little more than self-indulgent recreational learning. But does that include the hundreds or thousands of teachers learning how to educate students more effectively by taking MOOC classes as part of their professional development programs? Or professionals around the world learning how to improve public health by taking courses such as HarvardX's Health and Society?

I guess one could make the case that studying philosophy is the supreme example of self-indulgent learning. But even this philosophy student was able to give something back through a free course I created last year (which got built using tools I learned about through online learning, BTW).

Then there is the fallacy of assuming whatever MOOCs are today (including their class makeup) is what they must always be. But just because today's student body is mostly older and better educated than the people the MOOC makers thought they would originally be serving, that doesn't mean more younger people (including younger people who don't have access to any other affordable type of education) won't gravitate to them over time.

In the meantime, who is better to serve as a guinea pig (I mean beta tester) for these programs, a student using them as the only means they will ever have to learn a subject, or some already-educated professional who can both provide insight into how MOOCs can be improved, and live with the consequences of them not yet being as polished as they will eventually become?

Finally, a lot of hay has been made over the fact that experiments to see if MOOCs could used to teach math to traditional college students at San Jose State University was a failure.

Putting aside the fact that this experiment was primarily about seeing how MOOC teaching could be supplemented by various forms of 1:1 or group learning (i.e., an understanding that MOOCs on their own are primarily good only for self-motivated learners was already assumed before the project began), all this experiment showed was that MOOCs failed to make up for all the previous failed programs and institutions that allowed students to get into college without knowing their math well enough. And, as far as I know, none of the proponents of those programs are being asked to participate in the kind of public self-flagellation rituals being demanded of the MOOC makers who at least had the good sense to tack away from a teaching method that didn't seem to be working, rather than double or triple down on a strategy that wasn't delivering results.

As a final thought, I'm also not convinced that the number of self-directed learners who can benefit from MOOCs and other forms of free learning is finite or static. In fact, if the MOOC experiment yields nothing more than a better understanding of what kind of people succeed in these independent learning environments, perhaps that insight can be boiled down into a set of resources and tools that could improve educational outcomes across all grade and income levels. Might that be worth pursuing before declaring that the best colleges in the world providing their best courses to anyone who wants them for free are doing nothing more than creating new playthings for the bourgeoisie?