August 5, 2014


MOOCs may lack a certain human dimension, but there is a sense in which they are brilliantly democratic. The classes offered through edX (which are—and hopefully always will be—free) are designed to bring content from storied institutions like Harvard and MIT to the masses. Unlike Coursera or Udacity, edX is a non-profit that receives most of its money from its university partners, charging only for verified certificates. The university partners, meanwhile, receive promises of future revenue generated from several sources with which edX is experimenting, including charging fees for verified certificates, licensing course content to other institutions, and offering executive education. For the time being, however, companies like edX are simply making elite-level courses available for free to people all over the world.

It’s not clear, though, whether MOOCs can ever really democratize the Ivy League. After all, what makes Harvard Harvard is not what its graduates know; it’s the ultra-strict admissions standards, the gilt-edged brand. An avid MOOC-taker can spend four years taking the most challenging classes that Harvard and MIT have to offer—and can totally excel at them—and still come away with nothing more than a pile of certificates.

Which makes clear what Harvard is really selling.