MOOCs Regroup

November 27th, 2013

Disk area reassembled as parallelogramLast Thursday and Friday Daphne Koller of Coursera and Anant Agarwal of edX gave keynotes at the 19th Annual Sloan-C Conference on Online Learning. (Sebastian Thrun of Udacity gave the most talked-about keynote at the 18th.) It was a good way to check the progress (or lack thereof) of the major MOOC providers. Most of their moves here lately have been lateral. If you believe Slate’s rather hyperbolic headline “The King of MOOCs Abdicates the Throne” (subtitle: “Sebastian Thrun and Udacity’s ‘pivot’ toward corporate training”), one of the big three has basically left the field. That article in Slate is actually based on another in Fast Company — “Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of Free Online Education, Changes Course” — and it was interesting to see some of the things Thrun is quoted as saying there emerge as subtexts in the keynotes of Koller and Agarwal. (This also gives me a slightly different angle than that taken by Tony Picciano in his already published remarks on the Koller and Agarwal keynotes.)

One important source of news about MOOCs of late has been San Jose State University, where faculty have been pushing back on the administration’s interest in trying out MOOCs and MOOC variants. Some of the experiments went south, with students using Udacity performing less well than those in traditional courses. This gave impetus to faculty senate actions sanctioning the administration and requiring faculty approval for such experiments, and that of course is notable and newsworthy. But so is Thrun’s reaction (in the Fast Company interview) to the poor performance: “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

That’s at odds with much of the MOOC-boosting talk about extending reach and access. At the Sloan Conference, both Koller and Agarwal were careful to show pictures of students from India and Africa, getting access to higher education they would otherwise have to forego. But the pictures were freeze-frame instances: this was recourse to the anecdotal, and the anecdotes were incomplete. Agarwal concluded his presentation with the story of Claude Mukendi of South Africa, whose access to college instruction was blocked by poverty and family tragedy, notably the death of his father. But it was an unfinished story. Claude was now taking college courses thanks to edX, but to what end?

Surely it’s too soon to tell, with MOOCs so new. But the fact is that the presentations of Koller and Agarwal were prepared as a spate of stories appeared, not just of Thrun’s “abdication,” but of the limited reach of MOOCs. There’s mounting evidence that MOOCs are more about extending the educations of the already educated. One example, a story coming out of an international conference on international education, was headlined “International Reach of MOOCs Is Limited by Users’ Preferences,” and cited Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, as saying that the international students he spoke to “understood that they could enroll free in courses from top universities, but they still wanted the college experience on a campus, even if it wasn’t at Harvard or Princeton. ‘People would rather spend $250,000 in U.S. than take a free course from Stanford,’ he said.” And Torbjorn Roe Isaksen, Norway’s minister of education and research, noted the potential of MOOCs to reach globally but noted that it was largely unrealized because “data from companies that provide MOOCs show that most of those who enroll in the courses have already completed degrees and are looking to further their learning.”

That was precisely the point of a study released last week with the headline “MOOCs Are Largely Reaching Privileged Learners, Survey Finds.”  Focusing specifically on Coursera, and coming out the day before Koller’s keynote, the study found that “”more than 80 percent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education.” This was found to be true of international students as well. The conclusion? “The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” according to the study’s six authors.

This is the demographic drift that has sent Thrun after corporate e-learners, apparently, and while Koller and Agarwal never abdicated access as a high mission, they were scrambling to acknowledge uses that brought them closer to the already college-going if not the already college-educated. Both extolled the virtues of blended learning — of using MOOCs and MOOC platforms to supplement conventional college instruction. Koller used the “best of both worlds” line that is now standard for positive descriptions of blended learning. And Agarwal even went so far as to define “improving on-campus learning” as one part of the 3-fold mission of edX (the other two being “extending access” and “facilitating research about learning”). For her part, Koller (who, being the corporate as opposed to the open source MOOC provider, got much snarkier comments on the twitter backchannel) acknowledged that so many college-educated participants argued for the importance of MOOCs to “life-long learning,” and she cited a lecture by Christian Terwiesch of Wharton who said that MOOCs (specifically Coursera) should pursue a “blue ocean” strategy — i.e., should go after untapped education markets rather than compete with traditional higher ed offerings.

The gist, apparently meant to be comforting, is that MOOCs are out to augment rather than replace what is being offered in the higher ed sphere. Examples of the research that would improve learning did not seem hugely impressive:  Agarwal showed a graph of how quickly students stopped attending to video lectures in over 30,000 viewings as “impressive proof” that the ideal video lecture should not exceed 6 minutes; and Koller extolled the virtues of machine grading and peer grading (the former encouraging a video-game-like interest in retesting for a higher score, the latter getting students to apply and so more deeply experience evaluative criteria). But anyone who thinks this reconfiguration of MOOCs as more supplemental and augmenting means their days as disruptors are over should read about MIT’s new strategy for using edX in its campus based courses. According to the article (mostly an interview with Agarwal) in Inside Higher Ed, “An education from MIT may soon involve a freshman year spent completing online courses, two years on campus and a fourth ‘year’ of continuous education.”





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