MOOC Mania

August 1st, 2012

Summer 2012 will surely be recollected as the Season of the MOOCs. This is not to say that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have peaked, but they do seem to have crested what Gartner calls the hype curve. A lot has to do with the attention given elite universities, particularly those that have long held back from online ed, when they issue press releases saying that they are offering or developing MOOCs, particularly through EdX (a triumvirate of MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley) or the larger Coursera consortium (with 16 members, including Stanford, Duke, and Princeton).

Perhaps because MOOCs are, by definition, huge (and usually free), they seem a big way of doing something positive, especially when so many other things about higher ed get negative press (like the cost of tuition, the devastation caused by student loans, the hit public as well as private ed as taken in the recession, and so on). UC Berkeley got better press for announcing the offering of two (count ’em — two!) courses on EdX than anything in the economically hobbled UC system has seen in a long time. (The buzz is that California either gets a tax hike or that system sees tuition go up 2o%.) And the announcement that the University of Virginia was joining Coursera got almost as much press as the recent firing (if subsequent rehiring) of the UVa president for supposedly not innovating fast enough.

One reason I think the hype around MOOCs has crested is that the tide of giddy celebratory press pieces — and press releases — has given way to sobering critiques. Typical of this was a late July piece by Audrey Watters in Inside Higher Ed, which begins, “I’m starting to get more than a little grumpy about MOOCs, what with all the hype about the revolutionary disruptions and game-changing tsunamis.” After noting that huge enrollments are matched by huge attrition and wondering if we can be sure learning goes on in MOOCs, she says that “I’m not sure what we’re building with MOOCs even rises to the level of… a ‘useful extra.’ I’m not sure we can even know that it’s useful at all.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia (the importance of his affiliation should be clear and will become clearer) has done a couple of blog entries on MOOCs for the Chronicle of Higher Ed in July. “What’s the Matter with MOOCs?” (the first) gives one answer to the title question by quoting Dan Cohen of George Mason University: “We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Partly in response to comments from readers, Vaidhyanathan offered a slightly more positive evaluation of MOOCs later last month. When his university’s fired-then-rehired president (again, UVa Board members forced her out for not pushing for innovation hard enough) announced that the University of Virginia will be offering MOOCs through Coursera because it will “enhance our brand,” he even endorsed that  (though another UVa prof, Mark Edmundson, provoked by the same move, wrote  “The Trouble with Online Education,” an angry op-ed piece for the New York Times that didn’t or couldn’t distinguish between MOOCs and online ed generally).

“Enhancing the brand” — aye, there’s the rub (or at least one rub).  What’s in it for the institutions that offer these huge, free courses? Feasibility isn’t the issue; most of these institutions offering massive courses for free have massive endowments to draw on. But there’s still the question of what people on the business side call ROI (or Return on Investment). Just what might that be? Some possible answers emerged in a July 19th Chron article: in the case of Coursera specifically, a freedom of information request revealed the terms of the contract it had with institutions like the University of Virginia (and Stanford and Duke et al.). There are no fewer than eight options for monetizing MOOCs, qualifying the generosity with which such free courses are offered (even if, given the elite institutions involved, that munificence looks more like noblesse oblige).

In a blog entry  titled “Good MOOC’s, Bad MOOC’s,” Marc Bousquet, another blogger for the Chron (and a CUNY alum), usefully reminded those who might have forgotten that MOOCs began with pioneering work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes, radicals in best sense who posit learning as connection and activity, not absorption and regurgitation, and used their ur-MOOC as a way of cranking up the activity and connectedness.  (Stephen Downes’ description of their MOOC — Bousquet links to it as it appeared in the Huffington Post — is a revelation.) There have been other clearly “good” MOOCs, like DS106 — the digital storytelling MOOC started by “Reverend” Jim Groom  (another CUNY alum). When learning about digital storytelling, the chance to see how (many) others tackle it has to be a boon, though that may be less true about solving algebraic equations or doing computer programming.

So it’s wrong to tar MOOCs with a broad brush, and maybe tarring them at all may be more premature and pre-emptive than helpful (rather like David Brooks claim that they are a “Campus Tsunami“) . The buzz around MOOCs is not that of killer bees, but some skepticism is warranted, as is some sustained thought about the different (as in various, multiple) possibilities and purposes they might present.

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