Some backlash against MOOCs was inevitable. But things seem to be picking up steam. Last week, Amherst, after much wooing (and after saying no to for-profit providers), said no to edX. At about the same time, a post in the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s “Conversation” blog compared MOOCs to the educational radio shows of the Depression era (and not favorably).  Still more recently, a long New York Times piece (the cover story of the Sunday Review section this past weekend) relayed an Esquire editor’s experience of no less than 11 MOOCs (though, like a typical MOOC student, he didn’t complete most of them); turning the tables, he gave the MOOCs grades — e.g., a D for instructor-student interaction. And, noting the tendency of the main MOOC providers to come out of  and partner with top-tier schools, the myriad observations on their putative elitism  — one article, in reference to Coursera specifically, even called it “contractual elitism” — took an interesting turn last week when educators taking a global view of MOOCs, especially whence they come and whom they (best) serve, accused them of “intellectual neo-colonialism.”

But the MOOCs themselves are a-changin’. I had fascinating evidence of that last Thursday (the 18th), while attending a workshop in Atlanta on “MOOCs and the Public Higher Education System.” Sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, it featured university system leaders from a number of states (California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York [both CUNY and SUNY], Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas), as well as an opportunity to interact with three major MOOC providers: edX’s Anant Agarwal, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, and Coursera’s Daphne Koller. Accompanying Alexandra Logue, CUNY’s Executive Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and University Provost, I noted most of the participants belonged more to her pay grade than mine. No more than two attended from each system, and we all fit around one table. So this was serious.

The morning was devoted to discussion. A fair amount of skepticism about MOOCs was voiced, but so was a sense of pressure — that increasing costs, student debt, and calls for reform meant taking a serious look at MOOCs and what they might do — what you could call the “bite the silver bullet” take. We had a presentation from the public system that had been most in the news about partnerships with MOOC providers — the Cal State System, especially San Jose State University. (Activity in that system and state has been highlighted and heating up in the light of legislative initiatives discussed in a previous post.) The presenter, Gerry Hanley (Senior Director, CSU Academic Technology Services), had actually once been a student of Lexa Logue’s, and she got him to admit that reports of success (about which more anon) were very preliminary and even speculative. Simply put, there is as of yet no decent evidence that MOOCs are effective, either pedagogically or economically.

But that wasn’t the real point of Gerry Hanley’s presentation anyway. He focused on a couple of experiments. One, with edX and focusing on an electronics course with high failure rates, showed more passes, and got big play in the press, even the Wall Street Journal. But this “MOOC” was neither massive nor wholly online. Fewer than 90 students participated, and students showed up for class with the professor, but also had access to lectures and other materials online. Another experiment with Udacity, a remedial math pilot, is still in process, and also far from massive (requiring tuition, formal registrations and assessments like the other). It shows higher rates of retention for now, but it includes intensive mentoring — and, not insignificantly, is cast as the students’ one shot: if they fail, they don’t get accepted to SJSU. That might help with retention, a problem for MOOCs when students have no such gun to their head.

These, needless to say, are not your classic MOOCs.

In the afternoon, as the heads of edX, Udacity, and Coursera were beamed to us via ITV, presenting briefly (they all had technical problems, by the way), and then taking questions, the focus of Koller, Argawal, and especially Thrun was on how much MOOCs were changing. Maybe they needed to be less massive and more interactive. (Argawal called the blend of online and face-to-face “the best of both worlds,” while the touted successes were not any more massive than many on-campus courses), and also less open (I even heard the acronym SPOC — Small Private Online Courses — since, for credit, at least, there had to be formal registration, tuition, identity verification, checks on academic integrity, etc.). What struck me most of all was hearing the term MOOC 2.0 repeatedly from Thrun.

I searched that term online, and one piece I turned up was especially interesting, It was an opinion piece by Ron Legon, the executive director of the Quality Matters, a program that benchmarks online course design. He takes a dim view of what he calls MOOC 1.0; there’s little to celebrate or commend “beyond its proven ability to attract large numbers of students, most of whom never complete.” But MOOC 2.0 courses incorporate the lessons of what might be called “established” online instruction: “…some enrollment restrictions, reachable instructors and facilitators, clarity about fees for enhanced services and evaluation, and more tangible guarantees of credit or recognition for those students who successfully complete.”  If that makes MOOC 2.0 sound less MOOC-like, that’s exactly the point — and the rub. Less Massive, less Open, less (wholly) Online, or otherwise not really Courses but more like instructional content (and not real teaching and learning), are such MOOCs any longer MOOCs?

There is no doubt some fluidity to innovations like MOOCs, some expected evolution, But it is interesting that MOOCs seem to be devolving back into more familiar and less striking shapes. Quoth Legon: “As the MOOC concept evolves, it is becoming more difficult to define a MOOC or distinguish among a growing jumble of similar acronyms that emphasize different characteristics.” His conclusion: “The paradox is that the next generation of MOOCs may no longer possess the features that initially attracted the attention of the public and the media.”


  1. MMOOCs — More Modest Open(?) Online(?) Courses(?) | Things I grab, motley collection Says:

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