December 20th, 2012
It’s been a big year for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), indeed the Year of the MOOC. No one has done a better omnium gatherum of what the year has brought in the way of MOOCs than Audrey Watters. Her excursus on “The Year of the MOOC” reminds us just how new a phenomenon the MOOC is, at least as it has come into focus in the public eye. Watters gives a timeline of what happened when: in January, Sebastian Thrun, after his famous success with an AI course enrolling over 150,000, announced Udacity, the first of the entrepreneurial MOOCs; MITx opened enrollment in February; Coursera launched in April; in May, Harvard joined with MIT and MITx became EdX, which Berkeley joined in July, etc.).
At least as usefully, Watters offers (just below that timeline) “The Forgotten History of MOOCs,” a reminder that all these headline-grabbing moves (mostly at/by elites that had heretofore done little with online education) were preceded by other epochal experiences in open online ed. The real ur-MOOC was a 2008 course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” offered by Stephen Downes and George Siemens; practicing what it preached, the course, taken by a score of University of Manitoba students for credit, was also available free and online, and a couple thousand signed on.
As Watters notes, Downes has since distinguished between “cMOOCs” — those holding to the connectivist principles of that first course — and “xMOOCs“; the latter are not just massive but massively resourced, entrepreneurial, and, for better or worse, the focus of the most attention. Pundits like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman have seen them as the disruptors and even saviors of higher ed, but analysis of enrollments suggests that most of the people taking them are not college students but professionals in the field, other adult learners, and especially international lookers-on. Most who offer them don’t offer course credit, and most of those who take MOOCs don’t complete them. (Tony Bates, drawing on Downes’ distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, notes “current xMOOC completion rates of 10% or less.”)
Touted as forces of disruption, they have themselves been disrupted, changed in telling ways. In addition to an impressive list of elites (including Princeton, Duke, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins), Coursera has been gathering unto itself an impressive stash of venture capital, and so has also been the focus of most of speculation (sometimes more than speculation) about the monetizing of MOOCs. Besides having their openness as well as their free-ness questioned (see “How Open Are MOOCs?“), these putatively free and open courses have been harnessed in interesting ways — to institutions using them for credit, to grants and experiments. They are part of a move to “Freelance Professors,” and even a move from “MOOCs to MOCCs” (Mid-Sized Online Closed Courses).
The tide has turned in another way: an increasing number of commentaries and analyses are highly critical of MOOCs. Much of this turns on the appeal the represent to the advantaged, to those that already have learned how to learn (essentially as autodidacts). This is not just the theme of “The False Promise of the Education Revolution,” the lead/cover story of the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but of recent articles in The Atlantic, The Economist, and others. (The lead-in to the article in The Economist –“creating new opportunities for the best and huge problems for the rest” — seems the soundbite least likely to be embraced as a slogan by the xMOOCs.) Some critiques have a distinctively dystopian flavor, like “The End of the University as We Know It,” in the January/February 2013 issue of The American Interest.
All this said, MOOCs remain the most potential-rich instructional resource to come along in a long time, perhaps since the invention of the printing press, and it would be unwise to presume that this year has seen that seam played out or diluted beyond recognition. The potential of MOOCs to offer a newer, richer instructional content in dramatically scalable ways may be the biggest thing to hit higher ed since textbooks, even as it opens new possibilities for new kinds of interactions between student and instructor, student and student, student and content. That potential is no more fully realized than it is exhausted. Expect better (if not bigger) things to come from these Massive Open Online Courses.