The Year of Un-MOOC-ing

December 16th, 2013

The shrinking stature of Grover Cleveland in the eyes of New York voters, as depicted By Bernhard Gillam (1856-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsAfter a year of ever-heightening hype, this was the year of stepping back from MOOCs, and sometimes running away. It began with expressions of faculty resistance, but the tide really turned with data about results. Now there’s a trend to pile-on, to declare the whole MOOC phenomenon a mistake, a failure –and that’s likely to be at least as premature as the early hype.

The tipping point seems to have been an interview in Fast Company that had Sebastian Thrun, head of Udacity (one of the three major MOOC providers), saying things like this: “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product. It was a painful moment.”

The chief provocation for this seems to have been poor performance in highly publicized and scrutinized courses at San Jose State. And though Thrun, like the other major MOOC providers, was willing (as the just cited comment shows) to engage in a little self-criticism, there was also a sense that college students, at least those involved in the test of Udactiy at SJSU, were not the right demographic. The Fast Company interview holds that, “for Thrun, who had been wrestling over who Udacity’s ideal students should be, results were not a failure; they were clarifying. ‘We were initially torn between collaborating with universities and working outside the world of college…. 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.'”

So the target audience of Udacity is now that of corporate e-learning.  Coursera and edX are less drastic in their repositioning, but Daphne Koller of Coursera recently stressed the importance of MOOCs to “life-long learning,” saying Coursera should pursue a “blue ocean” strategy: go after untapped education markets rather than compete with traditional higher ed offerings. Anant Agarwal of edX is more focused on having an impact on traditional offerings, but by supplementing rather than supplanting them, surrounding on-campus instruction with online resources: “As we blend the courses, universities will take the next step,” Agarwal said in a recent interview. “We would be woven into the fabric of universities. And as long as we’re adding value, we have no qualms about that.”

A summative sort of milestone article on all this was published last week in the New York Times: “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought” (a headline that, too typically, confounds MOOCs with online courses generally). This was a milestone for a couple of reasons. First, it was New York Times pundits who were the most prominent heralds in 2012, the Year of the MOOC (another New York Times headline), of a sea change caused by MOOCs — David Brooks promising a “tsunami” and Tom Friedman a “revolution.” Now we have the NY Times‘ admission that “what was widely viewed as a revolution in higher education” (especially within the NY Times) is “disappointing,” and on a number of fronts: 1) the completion rates (about 4%) are appallingly low; 2) the overwhelming majority of completers are already college educated, though “much of the hope — and hype — surrounding MOOCs has focused on the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education”; 3) and the courses at San Jose State that  had been given so much attention in the press (not least of all the Times) were flatly “a flop.”

But what really makes the article a milestone is that, despite the breathtakingly broad brushstrokes with which the New York Times has treated the MOOC phenomenon, it does not declare the revolution over. That it does not draw that line, and even says why, should caution others who might want to. It notes a number of blended and bridging experiments, after acknowledging that the experiment at San Jose State has been suspended:

Whatever happens at San Jose, even the loudest critics of MOOCs do not expect them to fade away. More likely, they will morph into many different shapes: Already, San Jose State is getting good results using videos from edX, a nonprofit MOOC venture, to supplement some classroom sessions, and edX is producing videos to use in some high school Advanced Placement classes. And Coursera, the largest MOOC company, is experimenting with using its courses, along with a facilitator, in small discussion classes at some United States consulates.

Stranger still — for an outlet that, like so many, allowed these high-profile and multi-million-dollar ventures to eclipse the quieter but no less interesting MOOCs that predated them — the article acknowledges the connectivist MOOCs of people like George Siemens and Stephen Downes: “Some MOOC pioneers are working with a different model, so-called connectivist MOOCs, which are more about the connections and communication among students than about the content delivered by a professor.”

Talk about the morphing and multiplicity of MOOCs is not new — as long ago as April of this year Ron Legon was talking about looking beyond the monocultural “MOOC 1.0”  to a more nuanced and polymorphous MOOC 2.0.  Now that we have some public recognition of the need to look that way, it will be interesting to see what will be tried — and supported — next. We know connection and communication and content can scale. TV taught us that. Now what might we learn about real teaching and learning?

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