or, Why the MOOC hype is giving me hives.
Please note, the following is not a ‘balanced’ assessment of the MOOC phenomenon; I’ve read several of those (here’s a good one), and to my eye, they always miss some of the most important elements of this new movement. I’ve been paying attention to the rise of the MOOC phenomenon for some time, and I wanted to get at what bothers me so much about it.
First up, let me establish some personal background: I worked for several years in the 1990s in online distance education. At BC’s Open Learning Agency, I worked on several iterations of early online course models, developing instructional design methods, writing and developing course material, teaching and moderating online courses, and doing a lot of experimental R&D work. Having spent that time, the first thing I thought about the MOOC phenom was, “What, this again?”
Second, I did my PhD work in a faculty of education (UBC), in a department of curriculum and instruction, with a research focus on the history and theory of digital educational technology. My PhD research came after my distance ed experiences, and I was specifically interested in ways of going deeper – much deeper – pedagogically than the “access” paradigm of most open/distance ed.
So what’s new? Well, for reasons that have yet to be made entirely clear, the business of online courses has had an absolutely stunning resurgence in popularity in the past year and a half. Why? There certainly isn’t anything new here from a pedagogical or even curriculum development perspective. What is new about MOOCs is hidden in the M (which nominally stands for “massive”). What the M actually stands for is a related contemporary trend in online business known as “big data.”
Big data refers to the emerging business model of superstar online businesses like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the companies that wish they were. The simple idea in big data is that if you can manage to insinuate yourself into the middle of zillions of day-to-day transactions (as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and others do), then you are in a position to not only aggregate tiny tiny transactions into billions of dollars of revenue. You are also–much more importantly–in a position to collect and capitalize on information about your millions of customers. Big data aggregation is actually what accounts of the immense wealth and power of companies like Google and Amazon; it’s not what they sell, it’s what they collect.
So, in the MOOC phenomenon, we take an old idea–putting course materials online and letting students work through them at their own pace, on their own motivation–scale that up to a very large number, and it becomes an attractive business proposition in the world of big data. Now, this point seems to be lost on lots of people, not least the University committees that are getting all hot and bothered about joining the MOOC trend. Somehow, the hype around MOOCs has led us to the point where all critical sensibilities about learning, pedagogy, curriculum, student experience, privacy, research, and the role of Universities in democratic society has been thrown out the window, in favour of this fabulous bandwagon.
Could we stop for a moment and ask the old question, who stands to gain? Do universities stand to gain? Apparently they think that joining the MOOC movement helps them look like they’re part of the future instead of just a collection of stuffy old ivy-covered buildings. Do students stand to gain? Potentially, I guess, since in the new mythology, you don’t have to be able to afford university tuition or manage entrance qualifications in order to access these learning opportunities… but then, how is that different than what the public library has always offered, exactly? Do ministries of education and funding bodies stand to gain? Definitely, at least in short-term political rhetoric, because they can appear to be opening up educational opportunities on a vast scale and for almost no investment.
The real advantage, however, goes to the providers and platforms who, as in the big data model, act as the platform for every (trans)action, becoming the obligatory passage point that everyone must encounter in order to do anything. So as with Google, Amazon, Facebook, and their kin, we should look not to the overt revenue-generating model (e.g., so many dollars per student per course) but to the longer-range data aggregation opportunities that becoming a popular platform provides.
It is a perfect neoliberal storm, really. Here we have an apparent ‘free market’ for education unencumbered by interference like entrance exams, tuition costs, and exclusivity. Instead, here is a market where every course is potentially available to every willing student. The environment provides an absolute minimum of coddling or instructional support, leaving the success of the venture entirely up to the individual student’s Ayn-Randian personal initiative. All that knowledge, just there for the taking, right? It must look pretty appealling, especially to administrators, bureaucrats, and anyone who sees the world through the input/output logic of budget spreadsheets.
Of course, it makes just about no sense to anyone who cares about, or who knows anything about education and learning. Most of the MOOC phenomenon, like much of the distance learning that preceded it, is based on a straight instructional model: open up student’s head, pour in information, then test for absorption. It is a model that, as a graduate student in education, I had figured was completely debunked; we know so much more about how people encounter information, how minds work, how learning is social and situated and practical and distributed and constructionist and connectivist. A whole literature—generations of research and scholarship–from cognitive science, phenomenology, linguistics, psychology pointed to an active, socially situated, ongoing model of minds engaged in the world. And a generation of scholarship on educational technology looked to how we might use software and networks and digital media to work into these spaces. The advent of a ubiquitous Internet and social media looked like it might provide opportunities to re-imagine schooling and education in some powerfully new ways.
But the good old instructional model hangs on, just as it has done for a hundred years since John Dewey wrote a couple of books about why it was already obsolete. The reasons for the tenacity of the instructional model are simple: it is economically efficient to deliver education as simple instruction. It scales. You nail down curriculum, formalize it, and then mass-produce it for students. It’s an industrial-age model, and it has been the basis of the school system and most of undergraduate education for hundreds of years. Even though we know better.
So MOOCs play straight into that. From an administrator’s perspective, the opportunity to scale up the delivery of education, and in doing so achieve economies of scale (the basic industrial era formula for success), is irresistible. And then, along comes a private-sector partner that wants to underwrite the whole procedure and make it easy to scale up and buy in, and you have a perfect recipe for a big deal.
Of course, it makes no sense to anyone who cares… David Noble’s 1998 book Digital Diploma Mills provided a straightforward evisceration of the business model of both old-school correspondence learning and a newer, 1990s generation of online distance courses. In Noble’s analysis, the model works like this: you charge students tuition when they enroll in a distance course. They start work on it, find it un-engaging and, save for a small percentage who tough it out (and will complete the course no matter how terrible it is), a majority of students drop out before completing. The genius of the model is that you get paid up front, and then realize decreasing student support costs as the course goes along. Essentially, the worse the course, the more you profit, at least as long as you can keep enrollments up.
So how is the MOOC any different? They’re a lot bigger, that’s how. So now apparently, if you have thousands and thousands of enrollments, you can get away with absurdly low completion rates (often, single digit), and you still wind up with a nice-looking absolute number of completions.
But that’s just on the face of it. What’s less obvious is the ‘big data’ element. The platform people are in a position to collect personal information and longitudinal activity data about everyone who enrolls, and everything they do in the course afterwards. At a scale of a few hundred students, that information isn’t very valuable, but if you can get tens or hundreds of thousands of enrollments – or if you can become the big-dog platform to many universities – you start to have some valuable property on your hands. Remember, course completions aren’t the goal; enrollments are… and the data profiling of all those people. The audience is the product.
Is there nothing good about the MOOC phenomenon? I didn’t say that. I do believe that the idea of opening up access to curriculum materials online and encouraging whole networks of students to work with them (or even create them themselves) is a very interesting idea. Lots of new good things could come of that. But remember that this particular ideal is not what’s selling the MOOC movement right now; what’s selling it is the administrative sweetness of scaling up the delivery of education to larger numbers of students.
You want to see a real MOOC? Look at the Internet itself. What I consider to be the greatest educational achievement of our time is how society has rallied around the open web to create a whole new set of literacies, making learning opportunities for millions of people who are motivated simply to make the network work. Look at free & open source software, a massive, revolutionary movement populated by a huge proportion of self-taught individuals. Look at the vast communities online who have become educated – and politically active – about Internet governance, copyright, and legislative threats to network freedom. Look at YouTube and a whole emergent culture of mashups and DIY production, all accomplished by individuals learning stuff on their own by engaging with free resources and–more importantly–free discussion online. The Internet is curriculum.
What’s the difference between that and the MOOC bandwagon? None of those people needed a Coursera or Udacity to learn. They just needed the Net itself.
HTML. Web Analytics. Algorithms. While these words might not conjure up visions of publishing the way the words character, setting, and narrative do, they are becoming equally important as the publishing industry continues to try to find its way in an increasingly digital environment. Unfortunately for most publishers, university English degrees typically don’t include courses in computer programming, and technical skills in many publishing houses are lacking. What’s a technophobe to do?
Sign up for a MOOC.
If you haven’t a clue what a MOOC is, never fear. This paper examines the brief history of MOOCs, discusses what type of MOOC is right for you, and argues that publishers should make technology-based MOOCs a priority for their staff’s professional development.
THE MICRO-HISTORY OF MOOCs, 2008 – 2012:
If you’re not sure what a MOOC is, you’re not alone. Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, exploded onto the educational scene during the last few years, offering free, openly accessible professional courses on a variety of topics to anyone with an Internet connection. Where in a regular university a large class size might cap out at three or four hundred students, thousands to hundreds of thousands of people participate in an average MOOC.
Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island, and Senior Research Fellow Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education coined the term “MOOC” in 2008. In his 2010 YouTube video “What is a MOOC?”, Cormier describes a MOOC as an online course that is open to all, is participatory, and is focused on distributing information and facilitating life-long learning based on the principles of connectivist learning. Connectivist learning refers to the theory that knowledge spreads by connecting various nodes of information and that “connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.” In 2012 Cormier received flak from a user who posted a comment disagreeing with Cormier’s description of a MOOC, asserting rather that MOOCs aren’t always participatory or connective in any way.
What caused the kafuffle? Within four years MOOCs went from Cormier’s model of socially interactive learning reliant on participation from lifelong learners who worked together to increase knowledge on a given subject (though usually one focused on technology), to models developed by companies eager to move MOOCs into higher education. Building on the buzz around MOOCs and the success of projects like the Khan Academy and iTunes U, which feature taped lectures from a variety of universities, companies like Coursera, edX, and most recently, Udacity, sprang up, aligning themselves with a variety of universities around the world.
A common feature of these MOOC companies is their partnerships with top-tier universities. Coursera currently offers courses from thirty-three universities, including such prestigious schools as Brown, Columbia, Duke, Princeton, and Stanford. Though their affiliated universities are mostly from the U.S. they also have partnered with universities in Canada, the U.K., Hong Kong, and Australia. edX is governed by MIT and Harvard and features courses from those universities as well as the University of California – Berkeley. Udacity is the start up from Sebastian Thrun, David Stavans, and Mike Sokolsky, who all have ties to Stanford. These companies tout MOOCs as an answer to overpriced university tuition, and offer courses based on current university curriculum.
Unlike Cormier’s model, these MOOCs rely less on group participation and discovery, and more on learning by being guided through a curriculum set up by a few instructors. George Siemens, one of the creators of the first official MOOC (a course called “Connectivism and Connectivist Knowledge,” hosted by the University of Manitoba), suggests using the terms cMOOC to indicate a connectivist course, and xMOOC to indicate a MOOC hosted as an extension of a university course.
WHAT TYPE OF MOOC IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
While recently there’s been plenty of press focused on whether MOOCs can really replace the university experience and personal contact with professors, for professionals who are already in a career and are looking to develop a new skill rather than earn a university degree, MOOCs offer a great solution. Simply knowing what MOOC model is right for you will help you get the most out of your MOOC.
For those in the publishing industry looking to expand their knowledge of technology, the type of MOOC they should look for depends on their proficiency. Publishers with intermediate skills in HTML and a working understanding of website design might benefit more from a cMOOC where they can collaborate with other professionals and build projects together based on their companies’ wants and needs. cMOOCs tend to be fairly demanding and time-consuming and “require a high level of self-direction by the learner.” cMOOCs are also described as “More like an online event. [They] invite open online participation around a topic of interest and a schedule or agenda, facilitated by people with a reputation or expertise in the topic of discussion, relying on successful formations of learning networks to assist people studying the topics.” For a cMOOC participant, some level of passion about either the group project or using the knowledge learned to further their own project agenda is vital to keep active and engaged in the course. An added benefit of a cMOOC is the ability to network and develop professional relationships with other cMOOC students who may have more expertise to offer.
For publishers with minimal experience working with the web, an xMOOC that is more akin to an introductory-level university course will be a more comfortable environment. Rita Kop notes in her paper “The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks: Learning Experiences during a Massive Open Online Course” that “if confidence levels are low, it is not likely that a person will take up connectivist learning,” likely because they are unsure of what they can contribute to the project. In an xMOOC, students are presented information and are expected to absorb it, discuss it, and (in the case of an HTML class) possibly even reproduce it, but there is less emphasis on producing something new as a result. A New York Times article describes lecture-style xMOOC model voice-overs as being “as nonthreatening as a grade school teacher,” which is important for students who may need to listen to lectures multiple times before understanding the material. These types of students frequently fall into the category of “lurkers,” students who read discussion threads and follow links, but don’t offer additional information in return. Kop notes in her study that while only 40-60 out of 1,616 students actively participated in PLENK (the MOOC she observed), it appeared that the lurkers “did their sharing in a different setting, away from PLENK, for instance in their workplace.” For publishers, the workplace is exactly where they want technological skills to be shared.
Whether you want to lead discussions or lurk, in both cMOOCs and xMOOCs students must be familiar with basic social networking software in order to get the most out of each course. MOOCs frequently rely on Learning Management Systems to organize course content and facilitate interaction between students. Blackboard and Moodle are common LMS. Their features include discussion forums, instant messaging, quizzes and assignment submission, course calendars, and grading. gRSShopper, a personal web environment that uses RSS feeds to combine resource aggregation, a personal dataspace, and personal publishing is frequently used for courses more focused on students curating content and developing the curriculum organically.  And, on top of the LMS that come with the course, many students turn to Twitter and Facebook to further organize local meet-ups or post related content. Without at least some engagement in social networks, the full impact of the course won’t be achieved.
MOOC YOURSELF TO THE TOP:
In a business like publishing where every expense has to appear somewhere on a P&L, it’s hard to argue with professional development that comes without a price tag. Especially for small publishers that can’t afford to hire consultants to help them adjust to the demands of all things digital, MOOCs could be the answer. In a 2011 survey conducted by Publishing Trends, when respondents were asked what they would like to learn (or improve) to prepare themselves for future job advancement/security, the respondents listed online marketing, website or app development, and social networking as their top three skills needed. Since MOOCs tend to shy away from subjective humanities courses and instead draw topics from objective courses such as computer science, technology, and mathematics, there are a plethora of courses to choose from that teach the skills needed for effective digital publishing and managing companies’ online presence.
Coursera makes evaluating suitable MOOCs easy by listing both the suggested pre-requisite knowledge that is needed for each course as well as the expected time commitment (they call it “workload”) each week. Some of their current digital publishing offerings include “Creative Programming for Digital Media & Apps” and “E-learning and Digital Cultures.” For those who want an in depth understanding of just how their books get to the top of Amazon’s search results, Coursera offers “Algorithms, Part I”. Companies wondering why they only have twelve “likes” on Facebook will benefit from courses like “Social Network Analysis” and “Networks: Friends, Money, & Bytes”. edX offers multiple courses on introductory computer science for those who need to know the basics. Udacity offers “Web Development”, a course that teaches how to build your own blog. For more advanced techies, Udacity offers an HTML5 game development course which likely has some crossover applications to interactive e-books.
Publishers know they need to turn into techies, and fast. MOOCs offer a risk-free and relatively quick way to gain new skills. Even if you don’t feel like an expert after finishing a MOOC and end up having to hire a consultant anyway, having had exposure to new terms and theories will make communicating with that consultant easier and make training sessions more productive. Now, go MOOC yourself.