More on MOOCs and Being Awesome Instead | iterating toward openness

David Wiley nicely wraps up MOOCs, and why they’re important even if much of the hype is just marketing drivel spouted by elite institutions:

For a complex tangle of political reasons, “the people in power” are currently paying a tremendous amount of attention to issues relating to access to education, and the role of the cost of education in regulating that access. MOOCs have popularized and significantly advanced the conversation regarding both universal and free. The general public is beginning to believe that technology may have the near-term potential to provide a genuine solution to the problem of making education both universal and free. We can take advantage of the space MOOCs have created in the public conversation to introduce and advance the idea of truly open educational resources to people who are unfamiliar with it.

The comparison I made above between MOOCs and learning objects was a carefully chosen one. I believe that MOOCs will run – are already running – up against the reusability paradox. I believe people will eventually come to realize the pedagogical restrictions that are inseparably connected with the copyright and Terms of Use restrictions of MOOCs. As with the learning object mania of yesteryear, diehards will stick around but the rest of the world will move on as the experiment fails. If we message correctly before that happens, we can create a general understanding that much of what is frustrating about MOOCs to faculty, students, and others would be solved by the simple application of an open license (the same way an open license can resolve the reusability paradox).

MOOCs have carried the ball a significant way down the field toward universal access to free, high quality education. We should be grateful for the work they’ve done on behalf of that goal. The primary risk we have to guard against now is someone hanging out the “Mission Accomplished” banner. MOOCs are not openly licensed, and consequently will struggle with issues of quality and will never become part of the educational infrastructure that enables truly breakthrough advances. MOOCs get us one step closer to the goal, but we need to continue advocating for true openness in order to create the space in which those advances can happen.

via David Wiley: More on MOOCs and Being Awesome Instead | iterating toward openness.

Exactly. MOOCs themselves aren’t the answer. I’m not even sure what the question is. But, despite mis-steps and corporate branding red herrings, we are now more open than we were before. That’s the important part. MOOCs are just a MacGuffin, a device to keep the plot moving.

As David has been saying for years: iterating toward openness.

on unprecedented institutional response to moocs

Stephen Downes observed that the response from elite institutions to MOOCs has been essentially instantaneous – and unprecedented in both immediacy and scale of the response.

That entire post is great, as is the rest of his coverage of the EDUCAUSE MOOC conference1.

The money shot, on response to MOOCs:

MOOCs were not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities. They were designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete.

Yes there has been a great rebranding and co-option of the concept of the MOOC over the last couple of years. The near-instant response from the elites, almost unprecedented in my experience, is a recognition of the deeply subversive intent and design of the original MOOCs (which they would like very much to erase from history).

So, how does the institutional response to MOOCs compare to other educational technology and/or pedagogical advancements? How many of the following innovations/initiatives have drawn a similarly-scaled response from institutions, warranting millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours devoted to their pursuit?

  • Learning Objects (and Learning Object Repositories)
  • Web 2.0
  • Open Education Resources
  • Individual publishing platforms (blogging etc…)
  • Collaborative publishing platforms (wikis etc…)
  • Badges and open credentials
  • Cable TV in the Classroom
  • etc…

Those things, and many others, never really bubbled above the level of “let’s present something at a conference and wonder why nobody understands how awesome this stuff is!” (admittedly, some of it turned out to be less-than-awesome, but there hasn’t been the level of critique and introspection by institutions pushing MOOCs). Yes, some of those ideas took off on some scale, but none had anywhere near the level of frenzied institutional mouth-foaming enthusiasm – support was largely on the level of small projects or individual instructors, rather than Presidential Committees and Senatorial Task Forces.

Why are MOOCs different?

It’s not the technology – despite elite institutions building custom platforms to enable their vision of MOOCishness, the tools have been here for years.

It’s not the availability or ease of access to content. Open Education Resources, open textbooks, Creative Commons, wikibooks, etc… have been available for years. They’ve been useful and interesting, but haven’t gained anywhere near a sizeable fraction of the attention that MOOCs have attracted.

I think Stephen nailed it – MOOCs have gone big because institutions see the subversive power of them, and need to control the genie before it’s fully let out of the bottle. Maybe, through creative and selective cultivation, the genie can be defused, or the bottle recast, to eliminate the threat to the status quo, or at least to allow the elite institutions to maintain their position at the top of the food chain.

While many innovations have had at least the potential to disrupt the practices of education, MOOCs are the first (or at least the biggest) innovation to challenge the business of education. Follow the money.

Update: shortly after I hit “Publish”, I checked my RSS feeds and see this post by that jerkface23 @dkernohan, who lays it out with much more intelligence and depth than I have at my disposal.4

  1. I really wish Stephen was using a more robust blogging platform, so I could link to a category or tag for the posts. they’re linked at the bottom of this post, though []
  2. he’s not really a jerkface. which is why I hate him so much. []
  3. no. I don’t hate him. dude’s got talent. and he’s nice. jerkface. []
  4. I may just shutter this blog and set up a redirect to point to Followers of the Apocalypse, to save everyone some time… maybe some form of round robin redirector, to randomly send people to the awesomeness at Kernohan’s blog, or Downes’ Half an Hour blog, or Abject, or Bavatuesdays, Hack Education, or any of a long list of people who are kicking ass lately… []

moocs vs. innovative learning experiences

I’ve been uncomfortable about the MOOC hype. There are a few reasons, ranging from the neoliberal commodification and privatization of education, to the extension of largely passive didactic pedagogies.

Basically, it’s an emphasis on education-as-content, and an exercise in the controlled dissemination of that content1. Students learn through receiving access to content in the context of a course.

Sounds familiar.

the future of education

wait. we’re innovating. there are better graphics now.


Except the students are now removed from an intimate educational context. Course completion approaches gold farming. Eventually, instructors will be reduced so institutions can take advantage of massively open class sizes. Eventually, students will outsource their participation rather than grinding their own experience points. AI instructors, teaching AI students. But massively.

And that’s all fine. Given the environment we’re building, the success stories will be written by those that can best take advantage of the rules and affordances that make up the system.

But what about real innovation in learning? MOOCs are all about the course. And the instructor. And in granting access by students to the instructor and whatever content has been produced. The course is designed within the context of a program and possibly toward a terminal goal of a degree or credential.

What if the course wasn’t important anymore? (is it important now?) What if the only thing that mattered was people coming together to explore and learn together? What would that even look like?

Well. Where’s the venture capital opportunity in THAT? It’ll never fly.

But that’s the real change that can be enabled by the same tools and affordances that have been built to enhance the status quo as MOOCs.

It’s also not a new idea. Dewey wrote about this a century ago. Postman, over 40 years ago. And some old dude, a couple of millennia ago.

This isn’t a technical or software problem. It’s a cultural shift, to emphasize individual control and co-operative learning. That’s where the interesting stuff is happening. And where it will continue happening.

This is why DS106 and ETMOOC3 and many others are so interesting4. It’s not about the stupid animated gifs, it’s about people coming together to explore and play together, and to provide critical analysis and discourse of each other’s work. Most of the participants aren’t there for credit, don’t actually take the course, and do it because they’re interested in doing something for themselves. That’s interesting.

But. As long as we’re collectively spending our time rebuilding and entrenching traditional institutions and paradigms, we’re avoiding the real innovations in education and learning that are far more interesting than forming a consortium of elite lecture providers.

  1. even if the MOOCs are open, the content is carefully constructed, often custom-built to support an instructor’s or institution’s needs, and access controlled – MOOCs that lock content behind logins with enrolment caps. How do they define open? []
  2. spock in school, from Star Trek 2010 []
  3. it’s called a mooc, but interesting because it is another of the ilk of experiences that are the anti-Coursera/EdX/Udacity/etc… []
  4. the interesting ones avoid the temptation of being Massive. Small open online courses. []

Owning Your Massive Numbers – CogDogBlog

Over 60,000 in one course. This will change everything! Except for the part about needing the same effective class size in order to support the handful of students that actually pass the course… Nice reorganization of the marketing hype published by Coursera.

So in the end, we have 107 students who got the more personalized attention (doing a project, getting feedback, being part of the Google hangout presentations).

This class had one professor and 3 TA, about a 1 : 27 teacher/student ratio.

That is pretty much the size of a normal section of a class, it is the size of one of our ds106 sections at UMW.

via Owning Your Massive Numbers – CogDogBlog.

on moocs

I don’t usually have to put an explicit disclaimer on posts, but here goes. I’m not writing this in any official capacity, my university hasn’t approved the message. YMMV. IANAL. YHBH. etc…

I was at a presentation by Dr. Krishnaswamy Nandakumar on the impact of technology in education, and it triggered some thoughts on MOOCs1. I’d been avoiding thinking (or writing) about them, because the hype just seemed silly and pointless. But, combined by a recent nudge by Kate Bowles, I think it’s worth writing it now.

Dr. Nandakumar gave a really interesting presentation about how he shares all of the materials for his courses, including recording the lectures and putting them on YouTube for use by his students as well as anyone else who find the topic of chemical engineering interesting. He gets lots of feedback from people who appreciate him sharing his stuff, and he is passionate about the power of technology to extend access to education to anyone who wants it. He spent a fair bit of time talking about content production, but made it clear that the real value he sees is in making it possible to connect people in the context of working through problems while learning.

And he talked about MOOCs quite a bit, including a slide that resembled this: (but with actual numbers and citations etc… – none of which were used in creating my version of the slide from memory…)

IMG 0128

He was talking about how the number of degrees granted, and specifically graduate degrees, is higher in India (and the other BRIC2 ) countries than in the US and Canada. He described the role of MOOCs here, to lower the cost of getting a degree in order to keep North America competitive with BRIC nations who are building hundreds of post-secondary institutions in order to crank out more graduates. The idea is that if we lower the cost of getting a degree, that more people will earn degrees here, keeping us competitive with the BRIC nations that are pumping out significantly more graduates than us.

But. Lowering the cost would apply across the board. It would make it easier for a higher percentage of BRIC citizens to earn degrees as well. If anything, the delta between Indian (and BRIC) and North American degree granting would increase. So it’s not about a competitive advantage, or even about keeping up with other nations. The mathematics of populations and demographics make that a losing battle, and one that can’t really be fought anyway. BRIC nations have significantly more people than North America, so after a certain point, there is physically no way for us to produce as many graduates as they can.

OK. So MOOCs aren’t about maintaining a competitive advantage in number of graduates. Maybe they’re used as marketing tools? This seems to be the explicit purpose of many initiatives – raise the profile of an institution and get buzz in the Media because of MOOC offerings. Get articles in the Media describing 100,000 students in a single course. And since it’s a marketing investment, that’s all they need in order to succeed.

But, I would suggest there’s something else going on. Maybe explicitly, maybe implicitly. Maybe subliminally. Given that we will never be able to catch up to the sheer numbers of graduates, and that marketing may be of limited value once buzzword saturation has been achieved, what else is driving the MOOC initiative? I propose that it’s fear.

First World Big Fancy Schools are afraid of losing control of the market. If an institution in India can draw significantly more students, graduating significantly more PhDs, and eventually draw significantly more funding than a Harvard or Stanford or MIT can, how do the Big Fancy Schools stay relevant?

By controlling the curriculum and putting themselves at the top of the educational food chain. By creating resources to extend their reach and values into other institutions. By letting other institutions build programs based on the resources of the Big Fancy Schools, and by declaring themselves to be subservient to them in the process. The value proposition becomes “You’d rather go to a Big Fancy School, but since you can’t afford that, you can get some of that by coming to Provincial Institute of Technology3 and getting credit for the same courses you’d get at a real Big Fancy School.”

The BFSs maintain their position as the alpha dogs, controlling other institutions through their influence, and shaping the values of educational systems around the world.

This is cultural imperialism, and it’s not a new concept. Leigh Blackall has been writing about this for years.

I’m not saying MOOCs are bad, or that the intentions of MOOCing institutions are evil. They mean well. They likely aren’t intending to explicitly assert dominance over lesser institutions. They’re probably doing the MOOC and OER things for All of the Right Reasons – to share, and to make things better for everyone. But there’s another side to that coin. Those who have the resources to share their things are able to shape things in ways that are more difficult for the recipients to do.

It’s a risky gamble for the recipients – for an institution to base their programs on MOOC courses, they essentially defer to another institution. They lose full control and autonomy over their curriculum. They become, on one level, agents for the First World Big Fancy Schools. All it would take would be for the First World Big Fancy Schools to come up with a way to charge MOOC participants a small amount directly and grant them accreditation themselves, and the recipient institutions become redundant.

I’ll be very interested to see MOOC programs coming out of BRIC nations, or Africa, or South America, rather than seeing the flow going from The First World and into Lesser Countries That Need to be Saved.


End of rant. Hopefully the last thing I write about MOOCs…

  1. Massively Open Online Courses, like Coursera and EdX and a growing list of Big Fancy Institutions that seem to forget that the concept was first developed by individual instructors up in Canada a few years ago… []
  2. Brazil, Russia, India, China []
  3. an imaginary school []

on MOOCs as the most important Education Technology in the last 200 years.

Bull. Shit.

Giving people access to didactic lectures by a handful of elite professors at a handful of elite institutions is not the most important educational technology in the last 200 years. Not even close. Sure, it’s good. It’s fantastic that I can have access to the lectures and resources of some of the biggest and most famous institutions. Awesome.

But the most important ed tech in two centuries? Bull. Shit.

turn the crank!

Villemard, 1910 À l’ École

I’d say the personal computer is the biggest ed tech innovation. Followed by the internet. Followed by software and tools that let students create. And explore. And collaborate. And share. Waaaaaay down the list… MOOCs1.

Parrotting the “MOOCs are the most awesome education innovation since, like, EVER!” line is harmful. It implies that nothing important has changed in centuries. It glosses over the last 40 years or so of truly radical and transformative innovation (although I’ll be the first to say that ed tech isn’t always – or even often – implemented in a radical way). And ignores some pretty significant chapters in the history of education.

So. Yeah. Hurray for MOOCs. But also hurray for all of the other incredible advances that have been developed over the last several decades in order to enable MOOCs and other initiatives doomed to be co-opted by corporate branding efforts and their need to rewrite history to make them THE MOST IMPORTANT INNOVATIONS SINCE, LIKE, EVER!

  1. Massively Open Online Courses. Started out with folks like Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Dave Cormier etc… before getting sucked into the hype factory and becoming Buzzword of the Year for 2012 as EdX, Coursera, etc… hop on the bandwagon []

George Siemens’ open letter to Canadian universities

From George’s great open letter:

I propose that the top 10 Canadian universities convene a meeting to plan a MOOC response that helps us to build our competence in this space. We already have universities devoted to online learning such as Athabasca University (disclaimer: that’s where I hang out) and Thompson Rivers. Partner with those systems as design and delivery partners as they have developed the technical infrastructure and pedagogical expertise for online learning. Even a small allocation of $5-10 million by assembled universities would produce a significant impact and increase the profile of Canadian higher education.

We’ve been laggards for too long, acquiescing international students to more visionary countries (such as Australia). Now is a great time to plant the Canadian flag in the emerging education landscape. All we need is a bit of vision and a willingness to experiment.

George Siemens – Open Letter to Canadian Universities

I agree. This stuff is important, and we must work together on this. The technology is going to be, by far, the easiest part of it. The institutional cultures need to be adjusted, to allow and encourage collaboration at this level. It’s not a technology project (where collaboration often occurs already), it’s a curriculum and teaching project. That’s where collaboration gets sticky. Perhaps if it’s crafted as a partial response to the Access Copyright protection racket fiasco…