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In the dog days of July, I’m usually looking for something frivolous to divert my attention from the heat and other, more serious things in the world. I’ve been reading a fair amount recently about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), higher-education classes that rely on the Internet to make course materials available to students who are dispersed broadly. Most MOOCs are free, although many institutions may seek to charge for them in the future.

There are a number of organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, that are seeking to partner with colleges and universities to develop such courses and make them available to potential students who, for a variety of reasons, might not be candidates for on-campus programs leading to recognized degrees. One of these is edX, sponsored by MIT and Harvard. Udacity has specialized in computer-science courses, with several offered via Stanford University. Coursera has partnered with institutions such as Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, Penn, Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia. The recent affiliation of UVA is noteworthy because accounts of the dismissal of its president, Teresa Sullivan, emphasize the fears of several members of the university’s governing board that UVA was falling behind other schools in its online offerings.

In my own institution, a senior administrator has been needling me about when I am going to offer a MOOC. I don’t think he found my kidding response—”I have a MOOC. It’s called a blog, and it produces exactly the same revenue as the MOOC would”—very satisfying. And my guess is that the issue will resurface sometime in the future. It’s led me to wonder what the responsibilities of the instructor of a MOOC might be. What happens when 847 students ask for letters of recommendation?

Herewith is my fantasy of an instructor’s letter of recommendation for a student in a MOOC.

To Whom It May Concern:

I’m pleased to recommend the person who identifies herself as Amy Clayton in my MOOC of 11,389 students, Education and Society. I have known Ms. Clayton since she began the course on May 16, 2012 at 4:15 a.m. Her avatar visited the class website regularly, and its eyes were wide-open, indicating her close attention to the class. She—or her friends and family—completed 80 percent of the course, including two multiple-choice quizzes and an exam requiring her to cut and paste content from PowerPoint slides into a textbox. She was a fine student, with a class rank of 2,101 in the course, plus or minus 657.

Ms. Clayton’s avatar read 28 percent of the random online student postings originating all over the world between 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. When she commented, 7 percent of the other students read her comments, and 1.3 percent responded to them. Machines grading her essays judged her to be an A student. The depth and complexity of her thinking are indicated by her ability to construct sentences with an average length of 7.8 words. The Assistant to the Executive Associate Teaching Assistant for the Enterprise Division of the course reports that she had several substantive email exchanges with Ms. Clayton during the term.

Our data-mining algorithm predicts that she has a 77 percent chance of successfully completing your two-week, online Ph.D. program.

Sincerely yours,
Aaron Pallas

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Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University, and...

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