After the Gold Rush: MOOCs, money, and the education of Richard McKenzie
By Steve Kolowich, June 5, 2016
On February 21, 2013, Richard McKenzie stood in a California yacht club and prepared to address a modest audience. He was there to talk to members of a local Rotary Club about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, a technological wonder that would soon shake the windows and rattle the walls of college campuses the world over.
A few dozen people had shown up. Mr. McKenzie, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine’s business school, was there to warn them: Don’t buy the hype.
This was not the message Mr. McKenzie had planned to deliver when he pitched the talk two months earlier. Back then he had been convinced that the free, online courses were about to change higher education, and also his own life.
He had spent the fall and winter watching the registration count for his course "Microeconomics for Managers" the way most economists watch a stock ticker. It climbed by hundreds per day: to 10,000, then 20,000, then 30,000 — more students than he had taught in 45 years in the classroom, and more than were enrolled on the Irvine campus.
It had stoked his ambition. Nobody knew what kind of fame or fortune might lie in store for those who staked out territory on the right side of the revolution, but as far as anyone could tell, the potential was huge.
"There is the bragging rights that go with the new course (‘I can now teach tens of thousands of students a quarter’)," the professor wrote that winter in an email to a colleague, as well as "potential financial benefits" from the sale of textbooks and other course materials.That was before everything fell apart. Before he became overwhelmed by the unwieldiness of a massive online classroom. Before the chief executive of his university’s corporate partner badmouthed him. Before his bosses took her side. Before he lost his intellectual property, then his dignity. Before he decided to sue...