Coursera, Udacity, Udemy and EdX: these were some of the names behind the proliferation of education technology startups that led The New York Times to dub 2012 “The Year of the MOOC” (Massive Open Online Courses). Amidst a flurry of high investment and enrollment rates, these startups were touted as the “new public Ivies” that would “change higher learning forever.” By offering university courses online at little to no cost, these companies were seen as ushering in a revolution in higher education; with such programs no longer would rising tuition costs and academic elitism prevent the average Joe from pursuing a college degree. 

However, as the initial euphoria died down, the realities of revolutionizing higher education beyond just digitalization began to sink in. Innovation has been one answer to such growing pains; MOOC providers have addressed issues like low completion rates and a lack of credibility by incorporating interactive user support, grading, exam proctoring and degrees into their respective online curriculums. Yet, deep-rooted problems plaguing the higher education system have stubbornly resisted the forces of disruption and innovation. College tuition rates have continued to rise along with the student debt load. Despite growing financial aid budgets at elite universities, students from low-income and low-education backgrounds still face significant challenges in accessing higher education. Meanwhile, growing income inequality reinforces the fact that expensive higher-education institutions still remain bastions and gatekeepers of privilege, rather than ladders to social mobility. The question, then, is whether continued innovation by education-tech firms truly holds the power to revolutionize access to higher education, or if the complex structural problems of academic inequality exist beyond the realm of what the Silicon Valley can solve. 

One problem is that MOOCs and elite universities are in the business of offering fundamentally different experiences in terms of higher education. The most valuable products that elite institutions like Duke sell for over $70,000 a year are not high-quality courses but rather the prestige of the Duke brand as well as access to networks of other talented students, professors and elite employers. It is impossible to democratize access to these goods because their value depends on scarcityon low student-to-faculty ratios, on interactions in exclusive clubs and Greek organizations, on single-digit admissions rates. MOOCs can provide world-class information and learning but democratizing education is not the same as democratizing opportunity. 

The second challenge is an incentive problem. Education-tech companies usually provide online courses through partnerships with universities. For instance, in 2012 Duke became one of the initial cohort of twelve universities that partnered with Coursera to offer its courses online. Beyond publishing their course materials, however, elite universities have little incentive to invest resources in providing features that improve the quality and credibility of online courses. Furthermore, elite universities have no incentive to dilute the value of their product by helping to bridge the credibility gap between MOOC degrees and traditional four-year degrees. While the stated mission of MOOC providers is to equalize education, their bottom-line driven partners have no such altruistic motives. 

Education innovators thus must work with academic partners who are willing to invest in bridging the gap in quality, prestige and credibility between four-year institutions and online education without increasing costs for users. These investments will most likely have to come from philanthropic and public-sector actors. Until then, MOOCs, while a boon for democratizing information, still have a long way to go before they actually fulfill their ambitious promise of providing affordable higher education to the digital masses.